Tell me about you, as a writer
It sounds depressing but, to date, the main focus of my writing (both fiction and drama) has been a fascination with what contains or entraps us – social norms, rules, religious laws and strictures. This is reflected in the settings I’ve chosen for my stories, whether a remote fictional fundamentalist community, the enclosed order of a convent or other places that act as a kind of crucible for claustrophobic proximity. I’m interested in what happens when someone else comes in, or if someone wants to leave; what happens when ideologies clash. I believe strongly that the narratives we accept or choose for ourselves direct our experience. So in a sense, the flip side of entrapment is freedom and connection, which is also something I’m exploring in my current novel in progress.
Commonword published your novel, Sisterwives, back in 2011 and a lot has happened since then. What has been the highlight of your writing journey thus far?
I’m lucky enough to be doing what I love and have had some very positive experiences on my writing journey to date. But being in the studio while my radio drama, The Cloistered Soul was being recorded for Radio 4 was, I think, one of them. The actors did a rehearsed reading beforehand and I remember thinking: ‘those are my words! Wow.’ They totally did the script justice and made the story come to life.
You’re an established writer of fiction and plays for both stage and radio, have you ever considered delving into poetry?
I really haven’t! My prose tends towards the poetic anyway – it’s quite spare, quite lyrical. But I’ve never been tempted to write it because I don’t read poetry. It’s not that I don’t like it, just that I don’t. You need to be immersed extensively in the form you’re writing, I really believe that, and so as well as reading, I’m always listening to radio plays too. Writing fiction and drama satisfies my contradictory introvert/extrovert Gemini self. The isolation of writing fiction gives me the solitude I need, while writing drama – whether for stage or radio – involves collaboration right from the get-go. It feeds my social and extrovert side.
You’re currently a senior lecturer in creative writing at Leeds Beckett, what advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in creative writing and academia?
Two things, really. The first is that you have to be fascinated by process, by the mechanisms of what goes on in the pre-writing and the act of writing and be prepared to think and write about that and how your work fits into a wider context. I’ve always been really interested in those things, so academia feels like a natural home for me. Some people are cynical about creative writing being situated in a higher education context, how it is exploited in research audits and metrics exercises and so on. A good dose of cynicism is always healthy. But, for me, thinking about my writing within a research framework – considering the ways it might contribute to knowledge, how we might think about its originality, how it is doing things differently – helps bring it into sharper focus. It’s like having another lens through which to view the creative project.
The second thing is that you have to be committed to nurturing your students’ creative processes. Again, there are cynics who maintain that you’ll only ever be reading substandard work and that might affect your own writing. I don’t see it like that at all. Watching students connect with their creative processes, enact that struggle on the page and develop resilience is humbling and awe-inspiring. Personally, I’m not looking to churn out writers who will go on to massive literary or commercial success (though that would be nice for them if it happened!). It’s about enabling students to hone skills of creativity, imagination and self-reflexivity will hopefully allow for a more open and fulfilling future, whatever they go on to do.
You’ve recently edited and introduced ‘Being Us’ – a First Story anthology. How did you get involved with First Story? What did you enjoy most about this project?
I used to work for Arvon, so I was always aware of First Story because several of the tutors were writers in residence for the charity which, at that point, was based down south. At a point when First Story was developing in the north, a friend put me in touch with the regional manager, we met and it went from there. I’ve worked with the same school for two years and it has been such a privilege to see kids grow in confidence, skill and self-esteem. I think I connect with the work First Story does because stories (reading and writing them) were an escape route for me, right from being a child. They allowed me to be aspirational, to glimpse who I might want to be.
Many of the students I work with are from poor socio-economic backgrounds; their world view is limited because they’ve never been given the chance to access other places. It’s so satisfying to have the chance to take them out on trips – to museums or art galleries, to universities, which they’ve never had chance to visit – and watch how it impacts on their energy. More importantly, though, is the transformation that happens when they are given the message that their experience is valid, their identity is worth writing about, that they are unique and their imaginations are limitless. Seriously, the difference between the start of project and the end of the project is off the scale. They never cease to amaze me and they almost always make me cry with pride.
What is your ultimate goal as a writer?
To carry on doing what I’m doing. To explore what I’m curious about and have the freedom to write about it. To have friends, colleagues and peers I can work with and bounce ideas off. I can’t think of anything better.
Where can we find your work?
You can visit my website for links to my work.
Sum up your experience thus far in one word
Really? Only one? Ok, then: transformational.