UEA Interview

Questions by Andrew Cowan, Course Director, MA in Creative Writing, UEA
Richard, what was your background – what were you doing before you came to UEA?

Writing.  Working.  Too much working (games teacher, barman, exhibition attendant, manservant) not enough writing.  I’d been out of college for six years, had finished four novels, the third of which enticed a nibble from a couple of agents.  One of them sent it to three or four publishers but it came straight back.

What prompted you to apply for the MA?

I wanted to write another novel, but not in the same way, or as a very wise man once said: if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always get.  So I wanted to do the same thing, write a novel, but make it better and get it published.  A friend of mine was on the Contemporary Literature MA at East Anglia, studying with Lorna Sage, and he we was very persuasive about Norwich and the MA courses on offer – he said they were stimulating places to be.

You did the course in 1994/95.  Can you describe how it was structured then, and who taught you and what sort of things you were writing?

1994/5 was Malcolm Bradbury’s last year in charge.  I think it’s fair to say that after a quarter of a century tolerating the delusions of bright young writers he was fairly tired.  He was also the founder and figurehead of a programme that had earned international recognition, and the structure of the MA was determined by a strong sense that however Malcolm wanted to do it was the way it should be done.

What Malcolm did was to convene a weekly workshop. There were twelve of us in the class, and for three hours every Wednesday afternoon three students would offer up 5000 words to the others.  These novel extracts and stories were read in advance and discussed for a carefully timed one hour each.  Malcolm was scrupulous about the timing, and in an eight-week term everyone was guaranteed to have their writing worked over at least twice. I had an extra workshop on BBC 2 as part of a tribute to Malcolm on The Late Review.  To fit in with the camera angles we made a tight circle for the ‘fake’ workshop, which was then edited to make us look like conspirators intent on world literary domination.  The UEA mafia, as seen on TV.

Malcolm’s ideal workshop was unsullied by any kind of formal tuition.  He did once give us a handout he’d written called ‘Starting a Novel’.  I still have it.  It makes a lot of sense.  He also, once, drew a graph on the whiteboard to represent the narrative graph of comedy (down then up) and the graph of tragedy (up then down).  It looked like a kite.

After Christmas, in the second term, we had Russel Celyn Jones, now Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck.  Russell was loyal to Professor Bradbury’s model, except without the handout or the whiteboard diagram.  He did once ride my motorbike, though, and he knew what he was doing – I didn’t have to check he had a license.

How would you describe the experience of being on the course?

More adversarial than I’d expected.  I’d been asked in the interview, by Rose Tremain, how I’d feel about eleven strangers publicly criticizing my work.  Didn’t sound so bad to me.  What she forgot to mention was that none of those critics would remain strangers for long.  Within a month my writing was in a cross-fire between seven friends, two idiots and a couple of people whose motives I never entirely trusted.  These proportions could change, of course, depending on the comments the others made in any particular week, and whether I agreed with them.

As a group we weren’t always very successful at separating the work from the person.  Having said that, from the point of view of publication it was a tremendously successful year, possibly the most successful ever.  John Boyne, Bo Fowler, Sue Hubbard, Janette Jenkins and Toby Litt are all published novelists,.

How soon after the course before you started publishing?  What happened next for you?

I signed a contract while I was still at UEA, in February 2005, based on the first four chapters of the novel workshopped under Malcolm’s supervision.  There was therefore a direct connection, to my mind, between the course and getting published. I continued living in Norwich until the book was finished, and it was published the following November by the now defunct HarperCollins imprint Flamingo.  Not unusually, as a young first-time published novelist, I expected life and writing to be a breeze from there on in.  Bring on the dancing girls.

Do you think you might have gone on to publish regardless of having done an MA in Creative Writing?

I hope so.  I was already moving in the right direction, and had worked out the importance of being productive, of sitting down and sitting still and writing.  The MA then accelerated the process by providing a mixture of validation and reputation.  Getting on the course in the first place made me feel I must be doing something right.

Then there was the famous agents-and-students-party.  I remember this as a variation on Pimps and Strippers, everyone dressed to type, and I hope a version of this magnificently tense occasion still exists.  I met an agent among the black polo-necks and glasses of white wine, and for a professionally timid soul like me this manufactured interaction was invaluable.  I was never going to crash London literary parties wearing a green carnation – much easier to move to Norwich to write and learn among committed fellow students and have London come to us.

Your novels tend to be written to specific constraints, which require you to find inventive solutions.  For instance, all the nouns in your second novel Damascus are taken from one day’s edition of The Times.  Can you say a little about this method, what lies behind it and how you feel it determines the work?

My method in the early novels was strongly influenced by the ideas of the OuLiPo, a group of writers whose most famous members are Georges Perec and Italo Calvino (the terms of the OuLiPo explicitly state that death is not an obstacle to membership).

Damascus is a good example of how constraints can generate text.  Every noun in the novel comes from the Times newspaper of 1 November 1993.  There are many excellent reasons for this.  Among them, and true to lived experience, the main characters have to take life as they find it, meaning in this case the restricted possibilities offered by the limited nouns in one specific newspaper.  All they can do (all any of us can do) is to construct a life by re-arranging the arbitrary ingredients of every day as we encounter it.

I liked this constraint because it seemed democratic.  Anyone can take the same idea, even the same newspaper, and come up with a completely different story.

Finally, it’s worth saying that true to the vision of the OuLiPo the originating constraints should, as far as possible, remain concealed.  My first book X 20, A Novel of (not) Smoking, has a fiendish number-generated structure, but is essentially an old-fashioned story about desire, risk, repression and denial (the story of cigarettes).  Damascus is a love story with a happy ending.

In your third novel The Cartoonist the constraints are both self-imposed and legally imposed.  What happened there?

Some people enjoyed arguing that the constraints used to generate X 20 and Damascus were essentially arbitrary, and the books therefore suspect if not downright irrelevant.  I was looking for an elegant way to challenge this rather dim assumption, and settled on the constraints of real-life copyright and libel law.

The Cartoonist is set in EuroDisney © ™, and follows the adventures of an aspiring cartoonist and his firebrand social-activist teenage cousin, who is full of inventive ideas for sabotage.  The original story I wanted to tell takes place in the true-to-life theme-park which is visited by five million Europeans every year.

Before publication I then had re-write the novel, adhering strictly to copyright and libel laws, genuine down-to-earth, real-life, uninvented, unarbitrary constraints.  I discovered that it is not legally possible to set a novel (a made-up and fanciful story) in EuroDisney, even though that gated space outside Paris with its copyrighted characters is a location very much relevant to the world we live in now and the way we write about it.

There are therefore two versions of The Cartoonist.  The original, unpublishable novel.  And then the second, published version, as generated by the legal limitations I was constrained to observe.

In 2003 you moved into non-fiction with Muddied Oafs, a book about rugby and you and the professionalisation of the game.  You followed this with another book about sport, Manly Pursuits: Beating the Australians.  Did this move feel like a radical departure, or do you find continuities with your fiction writing?

While I was at UEA I played full-back for Norwich.  Later, when I was playing for Geneva, I frequently turned down opportunities to promote my novels because an important match was always coming up.  My exasperated agent eventually suggested, if the game was so important to me, that I write about my nomadic rugby life.  Good idea, I thought, and so did everyone else: nonfiction is the new fiction.  It didn’t take long to realise that what I was writing slotted very firmly into the category known as creative nonfiction.

I wasn’t writing a textbook, nor was I making stuff up, but my experience as a novelist meant I couldn’t help shaping the material to create an engaging narrative.  In that sense, the technical skills of novel-writing – in particular structure and character – are put to creative use in my nonfiction books.

Besides publishing seven books, you’ve also done a fair bit of teaching.  Are your methods very different from those employed when you were on the MA?

I have great respect for Malcolm’s ideal of the liberal, constructive, nurturing  workshop, and can’t think of many better ways to get the instant hit of coherent critical reaction to a piece of written prose.  I also think the workshop is a good place for writers to learn to defend and justify their creative choices, and so to fortify feelings of ownership over their own work.  However, the value of the workshop can vary depending on the stage any piece of writing has reached.  Discuss a story too soon and you’ll hear what you already know – it needs more work.  Workshop it too late, when you’ve already moved onto another project, and you won’t care enough to live and learn.

In my own teaching I’ve found that students often want more help in the I-know-it’s-not-ready-stage.  I’ve therefore developed a series of presentations and writing assignments that are designed to suggest, at the very least, what might be added or taken away, what can be re-ordered or re-thought.  In that sense, my teaching is more directive than the method I encountered at UEA..  It also has its weaknesses.

You taught for several years at the University of Tokyo.  You’ve also lived and worked in Hong Kong, Paris, Geneva, Strasbourg.  Can you describe how this might influence your writing – your outlook or sensibility, perhaps, your take on the world?

It can make me flighty.  I worry that this rootlessness means I never give myself the chance to observe deeply, or deeply enough over time, a single unique environment.  But then to paraphrase another wise man: trees have roots, people have legs.

On a good day, when the sun’s shining, I can convince myself I’m seeing more and doing more and generally taking care of the living half of the writer’s dilemma about how much to live and how much to write.  Travelling itself doesn’t count as living, I know that, but wherever I am I try to get involved.  In the end I don’t know how or how much it influences me and my writing, but if I could have been a better writer by staying put in Old Town, Swindon, then it’s too late.  I’ll never know.

Can you say a little about your latest book, Becoming Drusilla: One Life, Two Friends, Three Genders, what it’s about, how it came about?

Becoming Drusilla is a biography, a travelogue and a portrait of a friendship.  I used to go camping at least once a year with my friend Drew Marland, until she announced she was having a sex change.  We knew each other well enough to share a tent in January, so it wasn’t easy to accept that in a very important way I hadn’t known her at all.  My first reaction was to read the literature, but the technical transgender stuff was as impenetrable as literary theory, and the first-person testimonies usually followed a limiting and familiar pattern, ending with a jolly Hollywood resolution of self-acceptance and the sunset.

This didn’t reflect how it was for Dru, either how it had started or how it would end up.  There were also no books written from a friend’s point of view, so I decided to write what I couldn’t find to read.  After Dru’s operation we dusted off the tent and went walking again.  Our rainy and eventful trek around Wales is the frame for the story of what happened to Dru, and what it means for our friendship.

What’s next for you – what are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel, but then I’m always working on a novel.  Fellini used to complain that he could always get funding for his last film.  He meant that his backers were happy to fork out if the next film looked just the same as his most recent success, whereas Fellini wanted every next film to be different.  I always want to write something new, and this creates difficulties.  The first is that agents and publishers despair.  The second is that for every book I write I have to learn a new box of tricks, because all the solutions I learnt for the earlier books apply only to the problems those books created.

I’ve recently surprised myself by starting to write stories, which is something I’ve never properly done before.  I seem to have collected a stack of ideas that suit a short story of about seven to eight thousand words.  As any agent will tell you, this is a suicidal length at which to aim – there are hardly any UK magazines that can publish a story of this length.  Maybe that’s exactly why I find the idea liberating.  I don’t know, but when I arrived at UEA I thought all writing could be explained in terms of ambition and architecture.  These days I’m beginning to see it may be more mysterious than that.