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Writing has been a constant in my life; I’ve got drawers of unpublished novels.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.
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; 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.