Jonathan Kemp: 'Never lose sight of those thrilling moments you've had as a reader'. Photo: Ruth Bayer

Jonathan Kemp: ‘Never lose sight of those thrilling moments you’ve had as a reader’. Photo: Ruth Bayer

Jonathan Kemp grew up in Cheshire and moved to London in 1989, where he teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck in Bloomsbury. He writes both fiction and non-fiction – as well as the odd excursion DJing – and his debut novel, London Triptych, won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His third, Ghosting, came out last year.

You were 42 when you published your first novel. Why did it take so long?
Writing has been a constant in my life; I’ve got drawers of unpublished novels. But for some years in the 90s, before I went into teaching, I ran a theatre company from where we lived in King’s Cross.

What was the area like then?
Edgy, with prostitutes working outside the red-brick building where we lived. At the time the Scala was a members’ cinema showing John Waters films, amongst others, and it would often hold discos while the films were playing. The Big Chill House was a gay bar called The Bell.

When did you turn to fiction?
In the mid-nineties our troupe had a hit play called Muscle Mary, which we performed downstairs at Central Station (as well as at the ICA), but we couldn’t sustain it long-term so, after it disbanded, I did a PHD in comparative literature. I then started writing London Triptych in 1998, a contemporary work, but historical by the time it was published in 2010.

So, the age-old question: can creative writing be taught?
If I had a pound for everybody who asked me that…but I agree it has to be asked. You might as well ask, can literature be taught, can fine art be taught, can music be taught? Of course it can’t be taught as a plumber can learn how to fix a sink, but there are strategies, techniques. I always say to my students that everything you need to know about writing is in the books you read. Never lose sight of those thrilling moments you’ve had as a reader: books emerge from other books.

Lots of writers are critical of it being taught at all.
On one level I agree, because it’s an Americanisation of British academy, if you like; they’ve been running courses there for the last forty years, if not longer. And it’s fairly recent here. It’s brilliant as it gives loads of writers a salary, but if you look at all your favourite authors they didn’t study creative writing anywhere – they just wrote or read. And it’s astonishing how many students want to be writers but “don’t like” reading.

Really it’s about how it’s taught: I’m giving people permission and confidence to develop their own voice, rather than saying “this is how you write”. To explore how to build a scene for example, you’re encouraging them to slow down, to dig deeper and find the story or the character that is visiting them. Without sounding wanky I do believe characters visit us, and we just have to sit and listen to them and follow them. You wouldn’t want to learn to drive a car from somebody who can’t drive a car. So people learn from professionals.

What do you do at Birkbeck?
I started teaching in 1999, and became involved in setting up a two-year programme in creative writing. I’ve seen changes in how the subject is delivered, and now students are getting publishing deals with big houses. We encourage students to connect and make friends and share work outside class, giving them an understanding of their own limitations.

'The students writing and sharing work together form a real bond.' Photo: BIrkbeck

‘The students writing and sharing work together form a real bond.’ Photo: Birkbeck

So there’s a sense of community?
Yes. The group of students writing and sharing work together form a real bond, and I encourage that. I’m a writer, they are – but there isn’t a great secret I can impart. It’s about the hard slog, making the right decisions, going in certain directions.

Do students think they’ll wind up famous?
There’s a lot of starry eyed-ness around creative writing; and yet what always drove me to it was the opposite. Jean Genet said, “the only two things a poet needs are anonymity and poverty”: there’s that sense in which the true spirit of literature is being compromised by capitalism, and the need to be rich and famous is driving the desire to write a book, rather than the need to express the human soul or psyche.

What do you teach about publication?
We keep the “p” word on hold at first and get them to focus on writing, before being introduced to agents and the industry. Very few will become full-time writers; yet it doesn’t mean just because you’ve done a degree or MA you’re going to skip off into a book deal. But it doesn’t devalue what you’ve done either – these are transferable skills.

'London Triptych was very much a novel written at night.' Artwork: Myriad Editions

‘London Triptych was very much a novel written at night.’ Photo: Myriad Editions

Are some times of day are better than others to write?
London Triptych was very much a novel written at night; it comes through in the language. But I believe in industry, whether it’s getting up at six and writing for two hours before the day job, or staying up all night and writing: the muse rewards those she sees making an effort, as Flaubert said. You don’t wait for inspiration to come, it’ll come when you sit and start banging something out. The theory that after 10,000 hours of diligent industry you can achieve is true to an extent. I see my early unpublished novels as an apprenticeship.

How does teaching work for you as an author?
During the summer, without classes I feel like a real writer; the irony with teaching is that often you can’t do what you want to do as much as you’d like. But the teaching feeds into it: I learn so much about the craft of writing just by teaching people about it. You can have those eureka moments yourself in the class room, but there’s no denying something happens when you’re immersed at the expense of everything else.

Being a ‘gay writer’: discuss.
It’s important to have queer stuff out there. It baulks to be called a gay writer, not to have it qualified, but what you do sexually does have an impact. I write about what I write about because I’m gay. And to be candid about the body is a political gesture, inspired by the likes of Edmund White and Genet. These things inform you and what you want to say: if what you say then finds a readership, that’s great.

JONATHAN KEMP ON…

'Rejection for the writer is like snow for the eskimo.' Photo: JK

‘Rejection for the writer is like snow for the eskimo.’ Photo: Dom Agius

Plot

If you get the first twenty pages right and draw the reader in then you’ve got them. They even do workshops on it now, that opening chapter. But plot is difficult. I used to want to write beautiful sentences and thought plot was for lesser minds, but now I realise you don’t have to compromise plot for decent prose or vice versa. Don’t just read blockbuster novels, read drama, plays – after all, they’re in the present tense.

It’s important not to value plot over other things: the big fascination with ‘box set’ TV viewing is great to learn from, but readers of novels aren’t always looking for that. The idea that the novel should just be a page turner I baulk at, as reading is a meditative pursuit, a way of slowing time down, rather than being about “what’s next, what’s next”.

I’m completely converted to plot documents and always ask students for a summary. You get a sense of what’s happening, and then you can explore those things on a microscopically slow level, tell the story according to that, using it as a blueprint. You race through the first draft to get to the finishing line, and that’s what you’ve got to work with: going back to add water, expand something, take scenes out – you have to be prepare to lose stuff.

The thing most of us like about reading is wanting to carry on, even though it’s two in the morning: if you can do that as a writer it’s a great skill, so then it becomes about the telling as well. You’ve told yourself the story in that first draft.

It’s not necessary for the flow of info to be in that order, or that explicit, but once it’s in place it can be much more exciting to get the reader to do the guesswork, make connections, hold things back until the end. Think about unveiling of bits of information: you might say something on page 1 which should be held until p244.

Ghosting, Kemp's third novel, came out last year.

Ghosting, Kemp’s third novel, came out last year.

Narrative

There’s a great phrase from Deborah Levy: “Narrative is a design tool”. It’s always put alongside plot as if they’re synonymous and they’re not – you couldn’t say plot is a design tool.
Russian formalists separated it into the actual material of the story, and the way it’s told: an example could be Sarah Waters’ Night Watch or Pinter’s Betrayal, where the story in each is told backwards. It’s important to hold on to how a book is read when you write: you’re so immersed in the story, and worried people won’t get it, there’s a danger to bang the drum. How the reader perceives the book is important – and that’s about narrative.

Structure

As Virginia Woolf said, writing is just getting the right words in the right order. When London Triptych first got picked up by Myriad, they suggested I restructure so, rather than three narrators, each section (set in the 1890s, 1950s and 1990s) would be separate. I was umming and ahhing but my agent stepped in and said that it wasn’t the book we were selling; it needed the triple narrative. If you’re structuring a story in three narratives, how do you keep the reader interested in all three equally? And balance the flow of information so one isn’t overloading the other two?

'You have to discover the writer you are.' Photo: Birkbeck

‘You have to discover the writer you are.’ Photo: Birkbeck

Self-publishing

It’s a lot less looked down upon that it was ten years ago. I still prefer to let someone else promote the book. And you’ll need an editor to work with: the significance of the editor has always been there, from Ezra Pound to Lord of Flies. Proust self-published – so there’s nothing wrong with it.

Confidence

One of the things that pushes us into language is to explore our own interiorities, or those of others. But the thing that pushes us to do that is often a lack of confidence, the idea of the loner immersed in books. When it comes to switching modes, going from sensitive artist to shameless self-promoter, it’s tough; so it’s important to see them as two separate strategies. You have to discover the writer you are: you might want to be Kathy Acker but actually you’re Jane Austen.

Rejection

I was ready to give up in the late noughties. I’d tried so many times and then a random email led to being published. But “rejection for the writer is like snow for the eskimo”, an environment you need to get used to. You have to be more resilient than allow it to make you stop. You want the agent to come back gushing with praise, but rejection can be galvanising. What is going to make this work? Sometimes it’s a subtle rearrangement of what’s there: rejection can make you reflect on what you’ve done. For Triptych I had the most praising rejections ever, but luckily Myriad, a small press in Brighton, said yes – and the book went on to get good reviews in the Guardian, FT, and plenty of readers, as it sold steadily too.

Find out more about Jonathan Kemp on his website on or for Creative Writing course info at Birkbeck click here

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