Karen Stevens is a Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, in West Sussex. She has a special interest in the novel and short fiction. Her short stories have been published in The Big Issue, Pulp Net, Panurge New Fiction, Mouth Ogres, Dreaming Beasts, Fish Publishing, Riptide, Salt Publishing. Her edited collection of essays, Writing a First Novel, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
Writing a First Novel is an inspiring collection of essays by a range of award-winning, established and newly published novelists. Writers generously offer their insight and advice on the joys and challenges that new authors of fiction will inevitably encounter along the way. A literary agent and a publisher add their own professional perspectives.
JT. You've edited a rather wonderful book of essays, Writing a First Novel, by many different writers. What first gave you the idea to do this? What were your aims in putting together the book, both for yourself and for readers?
KS. I’m so glad you think it’s wonderful, Jonathan. Two central aims initially prompted the idea for the book. Firstly, as a teacher of creative writing, I spend a fair amount of time searching for illuminating words from writers on writing and was searching for some encouragement on writing a first novel. I came across much on writing fiction, but very little on the specific task of writing a first novel, which made me aware of the need for a book dedicated to this subject for both writers and teachers. Secondly, I do find that some (not all) ‘how to’ books can simplify the process of writing into a linear ‘step-by-step’ form, and I wanted aspiring writers to understand that writing – good writing – isn’t about ticking off a check list. Creation isn’t a blue print, and the writers in the collection – new, established and award winning – testify to this when they talk of the thrilling, chaotic, sometimes mystical, and often mysterious process on which they embarked. In Hanif Kureishi’s wonderful chapter, he asserts, ‘There is a sense – there has to be a sense – in which most writers do not understand what they are doing.’ Writing a novel is the longest and loneliest journey a writer can embark upon, and I wanted the aspiring novelist to rest easy with uncertainty, to understand that this is just part of the creative process and to not lose faith, to simply keep going.
JT. What did you yourself learn from putting together Writing a First Novel?
KS. I learned so much in so many ways. I learned how hard it is to put together a collection of this type with a very limited budget. The writers were very gracious and generous, giving up their precious time (for little payment) to demystify a process that is largely inexplicable. I learned that editing is an exacting and tough job, and I have great admiration for editors at publishing houses that spend their weeks working closely on manuscripts. As I say in my introduction to the collection, ‘Bravery’, ‘belief’, ‘confidence’ and ‘faith’ are fundamental words that run through the chapters, and I do find myself visiting the book whenever I’m riddled with self-doubt about writing. I don’t come from a literary background. I was the first person in my family to undertake a degree. My background, I’m sure, is the root of self-consciousness, and the book has taught me that cultivating a sense of entitlement is a crucial step in writing. Jane Feaver, a contributor, says, ‘We must develop some counter-confidence that will temporarily overcome or pull the rug from whatever it is that tells you, you have no right to be there.’ Great advice.
JT. You also write your own prose fiction, which has been widely published. How do you see the relationship between the role of editor and that of writer? What are the points of connection and differences?
KS. Having worked as writer and editor, I’ve experienced both sides of this relationship and see it as a diplomatic process in which both parties care hugely about the writing. Ideally, editing should be an organic and collaborative process. Editing is about being a good reader and understanding the writer’s vision and helping them to achieve it. The editor needs to be a diplomat, offering suggestions to editorial problems, and in doing so the writer will often come up with the right solution. For this approach to be successful, however, the writer needs to be open to having their work critiqued, and willing to engage in a dialogue about their work. In my role of editor, I’ve asked writers questions about their story and they’ve often been surprised that the information in their head wasn’t transferred to the page. As a writer, I’ve also experienced this same surprise. When writing, we’re immersed in an imaginative process that isn’t necessarily keeping tabs on the story at the macro level of such things as plot and structure. Consequently, I’m always grateful when an editor or my workshop group pulls me back from the murky depths of creativity to help me see what’s working and what isn’t.
JT. When did you first decide to be a writer? What were the major staging posts in your development as a writer? Why write at all?
KS. Two things made a deep impression on me as a child in the 70s, and sowed the seeds of my desire to write. The first thing happened in class at primary school, when a very clever girl read out a description she’d written of an old man. I still recall, with absolute clarity, a line she read: ‘One arm was extended.’ Wow. We were only six or seven years old at the time, and I was blown away by her sophisticated use of language and her ability to bring a person to life through only words. I can still see the old man today in his brown dishevelled rain mac and his tweed cap, his arm reaching out. A few years after this event, I secretly watched a controversial adult drama series called ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ on a tiny black and white portable in my bedroom. I was captivated and shocked by the story of infidelity, violence and incest, and how it devastates a family. I felt completely lost once the series had finished, and in the playground I relived (in inappropriately graphic detail) the torrid fallout from the father’s incestuous infatuation with his daughter, only to receive confused or blank looks from my playmates. As an adult, I now see that I wanted to relive this drama because I’d discovered emotions outside of my own childish experience. This was the point when I first understood (albeit unconsciously) the power of fiction.
Though I didn’t start writing until my late twenties on my English degree, I suppose I’ve behaved like a writer since childhood. I was always watching, listening, spying, prying, storing things in my head that I could draw on in secret stories I’d write on sheets of toilet paper. Money was very tight in my childhood (and still is). I didn’t have access to writing paper, and I suppose this is why I don’t use notebooks now for my writing. I tend to hear or see something that makes an impression on me and I store it. If it stays with me, I know it will turn into a story, or form part of a story at some point. Once I started writing on my degree, I soon realised I was writing out many things – directly and indirectly – that I’d stored since childhood. This is why I write. This is why all writers write, I think. We need to make sense of experience. We need to express our individual take on life.
JT. I've always loved your stories, and find them highly original, individual. How would you describe your individual style or voice in your short stories?
KS. Thank you for the compliment; it’s always nice to know that people have enjoyed the stories I’ve written, re-written, agonised over, re-written ... How would I describe my writing style and voice? I don’t really know; it’s difficult to say because it’s just what I do. I tend to write about characters that thirst for some sort of connection but are also aware of the fleeting nature of things, the impermanence of it all. At the end of the day, my central aim in writing is only to be as true to my characters and their situations as I can possibly be.
JT. How do you conceive the relationship between short fiction and other genres (given that you've edited a book on novel writing as well, for example)?
KS. All writing explores what it is to be human and alive. Like the novel, the short story wants to give us something big but wants to do this with brevity. Frank O’Connor feels that the novel requires far more logic, and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas the short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has. The novel, it can be said, has an internal logic that builds, but the short story doesn’t always follow a rational pattern or allow for a moral explanation. Graham Mort argues that the reader both experiences the story as it unfolds and completes it. Not in a systematic way, in which a novel is completed, but in a speculative way that fleshes out the bones of a narrative. This is what attracts us to the short story genre, I think; its very brevity enrols our imagination.
JT. Do you find that teaching Creative Writing helps or hinders your writing, and in what ways?
KS. Teaching Creative Writing is both a help and a hindrance. I enjoy teaching; it’s a creative act, in itself – to inspire and to stimulate creativity in others. When I see a writer finding his/her voice or getting their work published, it’s very exciting and spurs me on to keep writing too. In teaching, though, I use up a lot of creative and emotional energy because I want my students’ experience and creative work to be as good it can be. Usually, at the end of each semester, I’m exhausted and feel as if I’m stuffed full of other people’s words, and it takes a while to get back to my own words again. Reading just for pleasure helps: Richard Ford, Katherine Mansfield, Tessa Hadley and John Banville are just a few examples of writers who inspire and kick-start me back into writing.
JT. What are your medium and long-term aims for your writing?
KS. My main aim – medium and long-term – is to simply keep on writing and meet my monthly workshop deadlines. I’m writing a collection of short stories and have some chapters of a children’s novel under my belt, and the monthly workshops help to ensure that writing remains a priority, even though I’m busy with work and children. For anyone struggling to keep a writing routine going, I’d suggest starting or joining a workshop group. Deadlines are brilliant, and it’s great to be involved with other writers who value writing.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, critic and editor. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.