Dr Ian McGuire is an English writer and the first international writer interviewed on The Garret.
Ian grew up near Hull, England, and studied at the University of Manchester. His then received his Ph.D in 19th Century American Literature from the University of Virginia. He is the co-founder and co-director of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing and lectured in American Literature and Creative Writing. He is now an Honorary Senior Lecturer.
His followed his first novel, Incredible Bodies (2006), with the non-fiction Richard Ford and the Ends of Realism (2015). In 2016 he published The North Water (2016), which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and listed on The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016. His stories have been published in Chicago Review, The Paris Review and elsewhere.
- Ian cites a number of influences on his work, including Ernst Hemingway, George Orwell and John Cheever, as well as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Ian recognises Shakespeare’s King Lear and Colm Tóibín’s The Master as specific influences on in The North Water.
- Ian’s first publication was a short story in Chicago Review in the United States.
- When asked which authors he would recommended to aspiring novelists, Ian chose Alice Munroe (for her technical yet interesting style), Don DeLillo (for more experimental writing) and also John Cheever and Anton Chekov.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to Season 3 of The Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today, and this episode features English writer and academic Ian McGuire. Ian McGuire’s The North Water was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It also made The New York Times ‘10 best of 2016’, and for good reason. From the opening page it pulls the reader into a world of violent, toxic characters for whom no type of depravity is off limits. Largely set on a whaling ship in the mid nineteenth century, it’s clearly the work of a writer with extraordinary skill and a frightening mind. Ian also co-founded The Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Today he is our guest, and I started by asking him about his literary influences as a young man.
Ian McGuire: Gosh, when I was ten, I read, you know, boys adventure books really…
Nic: Boys adventure books…
Ian: … And a lot of comic books. I mean, trashy kids’ books, I think, which haven’t survived the test of time.
Nic: There were a lot of them around those days, those boy’s adventures, which were… You grew up in England – as I did, for the first ten years of my life – and I remember, they were very gung ho British Empire type of things still, weren’t they?
Ian: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, I remember some of the comic books, there was a lot of stuff about the Second World War still.
Nic: Wasn’t there! I remember.
Ian: Biggles. I suppose probably my generation is the last generation which was still fed that kind of heroic version of the Second World War. But… I’d forgotten about Biggles for many years, I used to read that stuff.
Nic: So as you were going through the teens then, and started, I imagine, broadening your reading a little bit, what sort of books or writers stand out in your mind as being influences or that you just enjoyed?
Ian: I suppose when you get into your teens, a lot of it was stuff that I read at school really. I mean, I think I stopped reading for a while. You know, I read when I was sort of up to maybe 10 or 11, and then when I got to teenager’s stuff, other stuff gets in the way. So I think its work that I read in high school which sort of turned me back and made me sort of realise I wanted to study English, and then that I wanted to be a writer.
I mean Shakespeare was… We did a lot of Shakespeare in high school. And although, you know, I thought it was difficult, I mean, for me being a writer started with a sense of language, really. That’s where my idea that I wanted to write came from. Less from… Although I think story telling is important, it was really about language and the feel of a sentence and the feel of a line. So it was poetry and Shakespeare.
Nic: Well there is no better teacher than Shakespeare in that regard is there?
Ian: That’s right.
Nic: The thing about Shakespeare, of course, is that it is 90 per cent the language. I mean, the stories are just retellings.
Ian: That’s right.
Nic: And the beauty of Shakespeare is you go and see it knowing what the story is, but just soaking up the language.
Ian: Yeah, I mean, the power of that rhetoric. I remember we did Romeo and Juliet, which is definitely not my favourite play, but even that, there were certain lines which had an impact on me when I was, I guess 16 or 15 or something like that. And then we studied King Lear later on, and I think that stayed with me. I think there’s a fair amount of King Lear in The North Water, probably. And the tragedies, and definitely the great tragedies, have kind of always stuck with me.
And then other things, I think we read Heart of Darkness fairly early on. And that had a big impact on me. And also I read The Catcher in the Rye, which is a great… I think every teenager every teenage boy should be given The Catcher in the Rye at some point.
Nic: Sure. It’s all very well to think ‘this this is what I want to do’, but a lot of people think that. Actually becoming a writer is a little bit more difficult, and doesn’t happen to everyone. So just talk me through your progression, though university and your early attempts.
Ian: Like a lot of people I think, I wrote poetry when I was a teenager. Terrible poetry, which I hope has been destroyed. It may still be in my bedroom somewhere at home. But I think writing poetry is a great way to start for anyone. Again, it takes you back to language and imagery and so on. So I wrote bad poetry, but I think I definitely knew I wanted to study English. I was fortunate; I didn’t have any kind of doubts about what I wanted to do.
And I remember when I first went to the University of Manchester, I knew I wanted to write books but I wasn’t sure what kind of books. But that was kind of the limit of my ambition. I didn’t know any writers or anything like that, so I didn’t come from a particular bookish family. But I sort of sensed that books are these great things, and I want to write some of them.
I mean I really enjoyed studying English. The University of Manchester was this fairly traditional kind of program, so it was very chronological. You start with Beowulf and you end with the 20th century. But it was a good grounding. I also…
But even then I realised it was actually hard to make a living as a writer. So I thought that maybe I could teach at the same time. I thought I could teach literature and write fiction at the same time. So I was always… From being an undergraduate, I thought I can teach literature and write fiction at the same time. I was always doing literary criticism as well as writing fiction.
I went, after I graduated from Manchester, I went and lived in Egypt for three years, just teaching English. And I continued again to write sporadically, write bits of poetry, write bits of fiction, which didn’t add up too much, but looking back I think, it was just the beginning, you are just practicing.
So it was only when I was doing my PhD in America I began publishing. So I went to the University of Virginia and did a PhD. So I was writing, I started writing short stories at the same time as working on my PhD. I think one of the big turning points for me in terms of developing as a writer was something that happened to me while I was at graduate school. I went on holiday to Costa Rica with a girlfriend, and my appendix burst. I was in Costa Rica…
Nic and Ian: [Laughter]
Ian: This was a while ago, so the medical facilities were not so great. I ended up in a hospital and they took it out and pumped me full of antibiotics, but I was not feeling very well. And my girlfriend, she went off to look for a book that we could read because, of course, there was no TV and there was no Internet or anything like that. And she came back with a copy of John Cheever’s Collected Short Stories. I had never read any Cheever before, but we read through it, it’s a big, great collection. And for me, that was the first time I found a writer that I wanted to write like. And not only want to write, I want to write like this person, I want to kind of produce these kind of stories. So for me that was a really important moment.
And I say that to students when I’m teaching them that I think it’s really good to identify the writers, not only who you admire, but who you want to emulate. And don’t be too worried about being derivative.
Nic: Absolutely, absolutely. Every great writer is walking in the footsteps of those that came before them, and those that they recognise as the ones that they want to be like.
Ian: I mean there are people I admire but I think there was something just flicked in my…. I mean, I suppose he was probably still alive, or just still alive, but he felt like a contemporary writer. And I think that’s… I often get that with students because you know when you study English you study the old stuff, whichof course important but I think you can’t really, even if you love Dickens, you can’t be a 21st century writer and try and write like Dickens. You have to find a kind of contemporary writer, a contemporary voice that you can try and emulate in that sense.
Nic: So the subject of your PhD was what?
Ian: It was mainly 19th century American fiction.
Nic: So what was it, as a young man from Manchester, or Hull was it?
Ian: Yeah it was Hull.
Nic: Who became engrossed in 19th century American literature? What was it about?
Ian: Something about America – and I suppose the popular culture of America – that is where I started off. I was kind of interested and absorbed by American popular culture, TV, film, comic books, and things like that. So I think that attracted me to America. And then…
Nic: It’s a long way from Gilligan’s Island to Melville though, isn’t it?
Ian: But I started reading Salinger, as I said. I read Hemingway; I forgot to mention Hemingway when we were talking about influences. There was a period when I read a lot of Hemingway at the same time as reading a lot of George Orwell. So there was that kind of slightly, you know, realistic paired down style. So I was a big Hemingway fan. And I think that popular culture led me to the more, slightly more, accessible literature. And then that 20th century literature led me back to the 19th century.
I mean, I’ve always been pretty interested in the Victorian period, both in the US and the UK. I think because it feels to me that that’s sort of where we come from. That the modern era, you can find its roots in the Victorian era and identify interesting things that are going on there, which then create where we are now.
Nic: What was the first thing you had published, was it an article, a short story?
Ian: A short story. A short story published in Chicago Review in the US.
Ian: After I got back from Costa Rica, from the hospital, I wrote a story based on that experience. Which was kind of Cheeveresque. Although I can’t quite imagine… I sent it to them and they sent me one of those nice rejections which is, ‘Send us your next one.’ And then the next one they took. So that was a nice start.
Nic: It must have made you feel fantastic. The first one is always…
Ian: Yeah, it’s a great feeling. And of course, you imagine everything is going to fall into place after.
Nic: That’s exactly right. You sit on your bum for six months waiting for the phone to ring and it never does. Then you go ‘Oh jeez, I better get off my bum and do something’.
Ian: Yeah, I have experienced that a couple of times. Where you think everything is going to be easy, it’s all going to be downhill from here.
Nic: Well on that topic of whether writing is easy or hard, I know your first novel, Incredible Bodies, was published in 2006, The North Water in 2016. Do you consider yourself a slow writer? That’s a decade in between, although I can see why. Is it a slow process for you?
Ian: It is slow, but not that slow. I think the reason why it was ten years is that there were a number of other projects that I started and abandoned at various stages. So I think… I suppose I am certainly not a quick writer. This took me about two and a half years, which I think is not too bad.
Nic: No, no, absolutely. Well I’m just interested there, you start some, decide not to progress with them. What makes you decide that this one is not worth going somewhere but this one is? What is it that turns an idea into a book and another idea into a dead end?
Ian: I think for me the projects that I began but couldn’t finish, or didn’t bring to a conclusion, I just hit a kind of road block I think. It just became harder and harder. And I think for me there is always a really fine line between… because writing is a lot about overcoming problems, whether it’s a sentence or a paragraph or plot. So you are always having problems that you have to overcome. But then there is the kind of problem which… some problems I think are signals that you are doing something wrong. Maybe you know, the scene you are trying to write, if you keep on trying to write it and you can’t write it, maybe that’s the wrong scene. Maybe the characters aren’t doing the right thing, and you need to go back and rethink and start again, or go back a step and go in a different direction. So I think with projects I just hit a very large version of that. You know, it wasn’t just that ‘I couldn’t get this chapter’, I couldn’t seem to get any chapter that would make it like I wanted it to be.
Nic: Did it ever in any point come back to the fact that your passion for the idea at the beginning wasn’t as strong as it could be? I know that I often, when I am teaching students, I often tell them that you have to be passionate about your project from the outset, if it’s a novel or long form nonfiction, because there is a time where it will just be so hard and if you don’t have that passion that’s where you stop. Was it some of those ideas, perhaps, that you recognise you didn’t have the passion or did you have equal passion for them as you did for The North Water?
Ian: I’m not sure. I think certainly the passion wanes if it’s not going well. So it’s hard to know whether you are not passionate enough. But I think also, in hindsight they weren’t the right projects. And now I think, again as you were talking about, talking to students, it’s worth thinking really hard about what the project is before you start on it. Because I think novels, like anything else, you learn from your mistakes but the thing about a novel is that it takes you so long to make the mistake! I always envy poets, because you know, ‘Oh that was a bad poem but it only took me an afternoon so I can throw it away’. Whereas if it’s a bad novel that’s two or three years of your life.
Ian: So I think it’s worth, I’d give this advice to students because I’ve taken it myself, it’s worth really thinking about the idea before you start it. Maybe I think with those projects, maybe I didn’t think them through enough. I just thought, ‘Oh that’s a good idea, I’ll plunge right into it and see where it takes me’. Whereas now I’m a bit more cautious and a bit more willing to allow an idea to percolate for a little bit before I commit myself to it.
Nic: Where did the idea for The North Water come from? Obviously it’s got your love of that 19th century era.
Nic: And it’s obviously got elements of American 19th century fiction. But you know at what point did you go, I know what I want to write now? And where did that come from?
Ian: Well, it actually came directly from one of the failed projects.
Ian: The previous project I started was a biographical novel about Melville. I don’t know if you, do you know Colm Tóibín’s novel, The Master? I really love that novel. So I always thought, ‘I have an academic background so maybe I could do something a bit like that’. So I thought that, well Melville was pretty interesting.
Nic: Rare for a writer
Ian: Yeah, that’s right. He did other things apart from just writing his books. And also, it was really interesting to me that his life ended as a kind of failure. And then it was only posthumously that he was rediscovered as this sort of great American writer. So I started on that, and I got to the whaling section but I was… I think the reason I struggled with that, I can see in hindsight but I didn’t know at the time, was because I was necessarily so wedded to the biographical facts. I found it very hard to create a kind of satisfying narrative arc. I mean, that’s something I really admire with writers who can take actual historical events and find a way to make them satisfying as a story. But that’s what I was really struggling with that. I mean, I could do individual scenes and make those work but in terms of creating an arc which would stretch from beginning to end, that was difficult.
But while I was researching the whaling bit of Melville’s life, I read a diary kept by Arthur Conan Doyle when he was a surgeon on a whaling ship. When he was 19 years old he was an Edinburgh medical student. And I guess one thing they would do to earn some extra money, they would ship on a Greenland whaler in the summer. So he did that and he kept a diary. And the diary was, the diary itself was not, it’s somewhat interesting, not particularly unusual. But that gave me the seed of the idea. So I just thought ‘If someone was that way inclined, they could write a murder mystery set on a whaling ship’. Then I went back to the Melville novel and sort of banged my head against that for another few months. Then, as I did that the other idea, The North Water idea, seemed more and more attractive. And I realised I didn’t need to do it in a kind of Sherlock Holmesy way, I didn’t need to make a whodunit, just the idea of a murder on a whaling ship would be interesting enough.
Nic: How did you work getting that real sense of what it was like, of what it would be like to be on a whaling ship at that time? I mean, I am assuming you don’t have a background in whaling.
Ian: Well actually… Japanese whaling…
Nic: I mean your descriptions; the senses are just extraordinary. That must take, I’m hoping that takes, an enormous amount of work and that you just don’t go, well that’s it.
Ian: No, no, it’s difficult. There is the research, which is the kind of the foundation of that. So I suppose you need to know what the space is. I mean, one thing I would really wished they had which they never have – I think there is one in America – there is no existing whaling ship in the UK.
Nic: I was going to ask you if found one and walked along it.
Ian: I would desperately wished there was one, many times. I mean, they were all different, that’s an interesting thing. They didn’t sort of manufacture according to a certain plan, so they were all slightly different. But I did spend a long time trying to figure out what would this ship actually be like. Where would the cabins be, how big would it be and so on. Because I think the accuracy… For me the accuracy is important for me, as a writer, because I can feel like I am not just making things up completely. There is kind of a ground of fact. And then once you have established that, then it’s an imagination I suppose, really, it’s trying to put yourself in those spaces and imagine what they would feel like and what they would smell like. And photographs were really important. I mean I read a lot but also there are a number of sequences of photographs taken more or less in the 1880s, so a little bit later, but amazing photographs on whaling ships of just people cutting up these big, enormous beasts and what that kind of working environment was like. So I think for me, having some kind of visual stimulation, some visual sense of what it was like was really important as well.
Nic: The opening paragraph of The North Water, or at least the paragraph after the opening sentence is, it drew me into your story probably more than any other novel I have ever read. I was absolutely hooked in it. I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading that paragraph to us.
Behold the man.
He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air – turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning piss-stink of just emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane, he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil-seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main and mizzen masts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. His shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough-cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising inside him, a new requirement aching to be met. His ship leaves at first light, but before then there is something that must be done. He peers around and for a moment wonders what it is. He notices the pink smell of blood from the pork butcher’s, the grimy sway of a woman’s skirts. He thinks of flesh, animal, human, then thinks again – it is not that kind of ache, he decides, not yet, it is the milder one, the one less pressing.
Nic: You just know when you get to the end of that that your trouble is not too far ahead.
Nic: I remember when I read it, I think what I loved most was your use of snuff, snort and sniff. All within three sentences, the three words are the same, so similar and yet so different. I just love that. I am just wondering, did you start writing at the beginning with that, or at what point does that paragraph take shape?
Ian: I did actually, which is slightly unusual I think. I usually think the thing you write first won’t be the first page, but I am pretty sure with The North Water it was, which is unusual for me, but maybe because I had been trying to write so many things before which hadn’t worked out that once I had gotten into this world it seemed to kind of flow. I knew I wanted to start with the murderer, and I suppose… It starts in Hull where I grew up and that made it slightly easier in some way, even though its 19th century Hull it’s not very different from what it was. It made me feel more comfortable about writing about this place, about imaging this place that I already kind of owned it, in some sense.
Nic: Did you physically go back and walk that path today?
Ian: Yes, I did. Yeah, I did. It’s totally different, there is very little that remains in the way of that industry. There is a pub called the Whale Bone Inn, which is stuck in the kind of middle of this industrial estate and I don’t think anyone thinks about whaling. But that’s the only living remnant of the whaling trade. But I did walk it and I had maps, I use maps quite a lot when I’m doing historical stuff about cities. I love maps anyway, but looking at maps and making sure the route that he takes or the route they take through a city could be done and also, I mean the names, the street names, the names of the places. I mean, I love the sound of the names and combining them in some ways is really nice.
Nic: How important do you think it is to physically stand in a place you are describing or to walk a path of a character? I mean is that something you do whenever you can?
Ian: Yeah, well in this book it is a real mixture.
Nic: Of course.
Ian: Because Hull is a city I knew very well and I was able to go back and my mother still lives there, so I was able to go back. But then the middle part, which happens in Greenland in and around Baffin Bay, I didn’t go there. I mean it’s very difficult to get there and also because of climate change the landscape is very different. So for various reasons I didn’t go there. So that was very much a work of, an act of imagination.
Nic: I want to go back to Incredible bodies, which is a very different novel.
Ian: Yeah well that’s set in a kind of imagined version of Manchester. I think, ideally, I definitely would go to the places I was writing about. I wonder what, if I had gone to Greenland, if I had gone to Baffin Bay, I don’t think the novel would be substantially different, but I’m sure there would be a sentence or two that would be added.
Nic: Sure, even some smells or sounds.
Ian: Yeah that’s right, just details that you would notice. I mean, I’ve talked to other novelists, Rupert Thomson an English novelist, he’s wrote a novel in which a character goes to Siberia and he said he wrote it all, then he did the thing that she did. And he said he didn’t have to change much, but it just gave him more details that he would have otherwise of had.
Nic: How much do you know about where you are heading in a book, when you start writing the story?
Ian: I think that is a really interesting question. I mean novelists seem to vary hugely.
Nic: Absolutely, everybody’s different.
Ian: I think there is one end of the spectrum, which is, it’s planned out on note cards or a white board or something, and they follow that exactly. And the other end, which may be slightly more common, is just kind of plunging in.
I’m sort of half way between. I like to have a plan, I will have a kind of… I like the idea of a narrative arc, so I like to have a sense of where roughly I am going. Then I like to have a more detailed plan of the next four or five chapters. But then I never stick to the plan.
Nic and Ian: [Laughter]
Ian: So my process is making plans and then abandoning them, and making new plans and then abandoning them. I think for me, not to have a plan, I’d feel kind of panicky about it.
Nic: And the changes that take place then, the unplanned stuff, is that because you get to know your characters better and realise that they wouldn’t go where you had thought they would go, is that what happens?
Ian: Yeah, that is definitely one thing that happens. You sort of realise, when you are thinking in the abstract, ‘Oh I want them to do this’ or ‘I want them to do that’, and then it comes to actually writing that and it doesn’t feel right. You are turning them into someone they are not. Or you think of an idea that is better and you would rather have them do that other thing. So yeah, that is probably the biggest thing. Or just it does make sense, when you try and write it and you realise that wouldn’t happen or couldn’t happen or there’s some other complications. Although I think for a writer, for me, sitting with a pad and paper and trying to think things in advance is actually very helpful, but when you actually try and do it sentence by sentence, it is always slightly different.
Nic: And do you have instances where you might be a fair way into the story and you write something and you realise for that to happen I have to go back and change what I did right there?
Ian: Yes. I think the fear that makes me plan in advance. I mean, I know writers, friends, who do very much the plunging in and just going where ever it takes them. But my fear of that is that you would take a wrong turn and end up five or ten chapters later over here on the left, when you should be way over on the right. So, that’s why I plan out, to try and minimalise that. I think it’s trying to be a bit more efficient and not go off chasing red herrings.
Nic: It’s always the case, I think, where the more planning you do, the more thought you put into it, the less likely you’re going to have to completely rewrite things later on. And if you don’t plan it, it is almost inevitable that you are going to spend a lot of time at the other end. So there is no way of getting out of it, whether you do it at the beginning or do it at the end.
Ian: Yeah that’s right. I mean, the writers I know… I worked with Geoff Ryan, the science fiction writer. He is very much a kind of, burn through the first draft and then revise, revise, revise. So I think that is premised on the idea that the first draft happens very quickly, you know you don’t spend too much time on the details. You kind of just push through it and get the basic plot right. Then you go back and do revisions and revisions. Whereas my method means that by the time you reach the end of the first draft it is a bit more polished. So you don’t have to do quite as much revising as the other people who follow a different strategy.
Nic: How have you gotten better as a writer over the years, maybe between your novels, from one to two?
Ian: I think more efficient, slightly more efficient. I think one piece of advice that I overheard, it wasn’t given directly to me, but I worked with Martin Amis for a while. And he was talking and I was over hearing him talking to students and he said, ‘It’s good to remember that reading and thinking are work too’. And I think that is really useful advice in a lot of different ways.
Nic: He knows a thing or two about writing.
Ian: (Laughing) He does yeah. He has written a lot of good novels. And I think it is good to realise that. Because when I first started writing I thought, if I am not writing and not making progress something is wrong. And that used to make me quite anxious sometimes, when I couldn’t figure it out, I couldn’t make progress.
So I am a bit more relaxed about that. And I realise that when you write your first novel there is this question, can I even do it? Can I even get to the end of this thing? I suppose that once you have done that you feel a bit more confident. So I know that whatever I’ve started, if I want to finish it then I probably can. So I am a bit more relaxed. And I will say, more able to step back and allow problems to be resolved themselves rather than banging my head against the wall again and again.
Nic: Are there things, are there mistakes that you still make that you know you shouldn’t be doing? Are there habits you have where you go, ‘this is hindering me somewhat but I can’t help doing it’?
Ian: I think it’s maybe trying to write when you can’t or you shouldn’t. I think time management and realising if circumstances aren’t right then maybe it’s not good to bang your head against the wall. That kind of advice is so much based on personalities though. I mean my personality is that I sort of push too hard sometimes, whereas I know when I talk to some students that’s not their problem. They have the opposite problem. So I am always weary of giving general bits of advice. But for people with my sort of particular personality disorders it is good to be able to step back sometimes.
Nic: When you have an impending deadline, are you an early morning or a late night person?
Ian: Oh I’m an early morning person. Yeah. After 5 or 6 o’clock it’s finished. I can read after 5 or 6 o’clock but I am not going to produce anything worth anything of value at all.
Nic: No, it’s amazing, that first couple of hours in the morning, what you can get done.
Ian: Yeah, I mean, clear head. I know some writers that jump out of bed and before they have even had breakfast they have started. I’m not quite like that, I like to have a cup of coffee and something like a slice of toast. But, for me, your head is so much clearer before all the stuff, all that stuff starts impinging. And it’s very hard for me to write in the afternoon if I’ve been doing something else in the morning as well.
Nic: So you co-foundered The Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. What was the impetus behind it and what was the philosophy of it?
Ian: I mean the impetus was, well I think creative writing, the study of creative writing in the UK is behind the US in terms of its development. I mean we founded it about ten years ago now, creative writing was certainly on the rise and we had a small program which had been going for a couple of years. But we wanted to develop it and build it into something else. So along with the Irish poet John McAuliffe, I started the Centre. We ended up having a Master’s program in fiction and poetry, and then a PhD program again, in fiction or poetry. And that is when we managed to bring Martin Amis on board to be a Professor of Creative Writing as well.
The kind of logic behind it… It was also a centre for the study of contemporary literature. Our kind of motto, our informal motto, was ‘good writing and good reading go together.’ So we were very much, from the beginning, emphasizing, I mean we are in a university setting, and I think it is important within a university setting that students are studying literature and thinking about literature, and reading a lot as well as just thinking about their own work. Other programs have a similar focus I imagine, but we were very much focused on, in order to become a good writer, you need to read deeply and voraciously.
Nic: Sure. So you do some teaching still and in America. So the old chestnut, ‘how do you teach people to write and can you teach people to write?’ How do you go about the process of teaching?
Ian: Yeah, I think you can teach people to write. And certainly in the sense you can make them better writers than they already are. In that sense I think teaching writing is like teaching other forms of art, like dance or even teaching a kind of sport I suppose. So you know, most people who have any aptitude for playing the piano or for playing tennis or something, if they get coaching they will become a lot better than they already are. But that doesn’t mean they will become a concert pianist or win Wimbledon. So I think, in order to achieve that height, they have to have something special within them already.
Nic: So I guess one of your aims is just to get each student up to the absolute top level they are capable of reaching, isn’t it?
Ian: I think that’s right. You know, to push their own boundaries and to see what they are capable of. And my sense of, if we have done our job, is that different students come with different expectations and different backgrounds, but if they can look back on the two years or however long they spent and feel it was time well spent, then I think we have done our job. Different students get different things out of the program. Some of them might become or will become published writers, others will go into related fields, others may go into completely different directions but if they can look back on that time and think ‘I got something for that, it helped me in some way’, then I feel we have done something valuable.
Nic: What are some of the common mistakes you see in emerging writers?
Ian: Well one of the interesting things, the biggest creative writing cliché is ‘show don’t tell’. Which I think is interesting to talk about because it seems to me you could almost reverse that and it would just be as valuable. Especially when you get to a postgraduate level, where people have already been through some undergraduate program workshop, sometimes ‘show don’t tell‘ can be a real handycap. I think one of the things that students are not so good at is exposition, just telling us stuff. Telling us what’s happened, telling us the backstory of these characters. So I think that is often what I end up talking to students about is either, ‘why aren’t you doing this more?’ or ‘if you are doing it, how to do it better or more efficiently?’ So I think that sometimes students have a fear of telling the reader things, they want to leave it more up to the reader to make up their own mind and I’m not sure if that is always a good thing.
Nic: Do you find that the students who were voracious readers as young people have an advantage over those that come to it much later?
Ian: I think they probably do, although it’s not black and white. I think someone who hasn’t read that much, if they discover the reading bug and want to become writers they can. I’ve definitely seen students who seem like they don’t know very much and then in a year or two have completely transformed. But I think the thing is, if you have read a lot of books you just… It sort of seeps into your unconscious. You get a sense of, ‘Oh this is how a story works’, or ‘This is how a character can be developed’. And you, when you get to the point of a story of ‘What do I do next’, I think if you have read a lot you have this kind of tool bag of possibilities because you have read so many novels or short stories. So you go ‘Oh, maybe I could do that or I could do that or I could do that’. So it just opens up the options, and I think sometimes if students haven’t read very much they just don’t know what writers can do, or what short stories can do, or what novels can do, because they haven’t lived with that genre enough.
These days I think sometimes what they do to replace that is to draw on TV or film, because TV and film narratives are very popular and are kind of like novels or like short stories in a way. But at the same time they are quite different. And I think often that’s one thing I sort of encounter, students who are trying to write novels or trying to write short stories as if they were TV episodes.
Nic: Does teaching help you as a writer, and if so in what ways?
Ian: Yeah, I’ve actually come to really enjoy teaching. Helps in different ways, helps mental health, in a sense. Being a writer you are stuck in your own little room in front of your computer, inside of your own head. For my mental health, it is really good to step out of that and talk to people who have different sets of obsessions, and realise there is a normal world out there and apart from the blood and guts of a whaling ship. And also, especially teaching in a university, you get to mingle with great colleagues. Some of my best friends are people I’ve taught with, and that’s been great.
The other side of it, the other thing that I like, I teach creative writing but I’ve taught literature as well. And sometimes the creative writing classes I teach are very much reading based. So I think that is a massive privilege really, to be paid to read great books and talk about them. And I think for a writer that’s your kind of basic raw material in some sense. There are times where teaching and working in a university kind of impinges on your writing time, but by and large I think it’s a great combination.
Nic: If you were restricted to recommending to your students just three writers to read, that they haven’t read, who would they be?
Ian: I will answer the question, but I think I would want to know what kind of writer they were and what kind of stuff they were trying to write. Because I think that, I mean I do this with students, that it is an important thing to say, ‘OK this seems to be the kind of thing you want to write, so maybe you should read A,B and C because they are trying to do something similar’.
But having said that, I think someone like Alice Munroe crops up as one example, as a kind of astonishingly good short story writer, technically interesting but also very clear and rooted in a realist tradition. So I think you can’t go wrong with someone like Alice Munroe.
If you want someone who is being a bit more experimental, I love Don DeLillo. But again I would be maybe slightly wary. Whereas Alice Munroe is someone that a student can, although she’s brilliant, a student can realistically aspire to write like that, DeLillo is so quirky and individual that it might throw you into a depression.
Nic and Ian: [Laughter]
I think maybe someone like Don Cheever, or Chekov. I suppose the safest examples and the richest would be writers in that sort of solid realist tradition. I do teach a course which is about formal qualities in fiction, and we start with Flaubert and Madame Bovary, and that’s a pretty good place to start. A lot of stuff starts with Flaubert so you can’t go far wrong with that.
Nic: And finally, I will ask you, which classic do you wish you had written?
Ian: Oh gosh, all of them. Maybe, Heart of Darkness crops up. I mean that’s such a timeless… Very terrifying and beautifully written, beautifully crafted. That voyage, just the voyage down the river… Oh gosh.
Nic: It’s all in the language again, isn’t it?
Ian: Yeah, it’s all in the language but it’s also, to think of that idea, you can’t copy that. I guess Francis Ford Coppola did it in Apocalypse Now.
Nic: In an amazing way.
Ian: But also the way in the beautiful framing of that story where it begins, on the Thames with him telling the story, Kurtz, this kind of iconic, horrifying but very modern figure.
Nic: It is an example of what I have always said, great art is something that is so complex but looks so simple.
Ian: Yeah. I think that’s, when I first read it and we studied it, that was what struck me. That on the surface it is a straightforward story, but then you dig into it a little bit deeper and you see all these layers and meanings and all the implications. It’s an amazing work.
Nic: This podcast is called The Garret, with connotations of impoverished writers. Have you ever had a ‘garret moment’, where the seat has been coming out of your ass, you’ve got no money. What has been the lowest point of your writers’ career? Your Garret moment?
Ian: Oh well, I guess it’s always rejection, isn’t it? Rejections, I think there were definite periods between publishing the first story and publishing the first novel. I think you have to just manage your expectations and think, yeah, you think there is this sense that it is all going to go your way and you realise that it is not going to go your way. I think that writing things and getting them sent back and realising that it is a much longer, harder path than you thought.
Nic: I’m sure it won’t happen again to you Ian. I would like to thank you very much for the time you have given us on The Garret, and all the best with both this latest novel and the ones to come. I eagerly look forward to them.
Ian: Thanks, it has been great talking to you Nic.
Nic: Thanks Ian.