The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here
Hello! Welcome to the Birkbeck Inspires, conversations with alumni podcast series.
We will hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the College’s free online events, activities and resources programme; which has been designed to inspire learning, promote thought and entertain and excite curious minds.
Today’s episode features novelist and cultural historian Dr. Mark Blacklock and the interviewer is Charlotte Belson, from the Development and Alumni Team.
My name is Charlotte and I work here in the Development and Alumni team at Birkbeck, I’m delighted today to be joined by Dr. Mark Blacklock. So, Mark is a novelist and cultural historian, who is not only an alumnus here at Birkbeck, having studied his MA and PhD with us, but also now teaches on the MA Creative and Critical Writing course. So, Mark’s successful 2015 debut novel I’m Jack focuses on John Humble, or the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer and his most recent novel, Hinton, which was published in April to strong critical reception focuses on another real-life figure, this time mathematician, Charles Howard.
Thank you for doing this podcast with us.
No, not at all, thank you for having me. Always nice to talk about Birkbeck, but also to be able to talk about my stuff as well. That’s a real treat.
Oh, great. On that note, before we move onto another, I wanted to hear more about your experience here at Birkbeck and your time here, if that’s ok.
Yeah, of course. I guess I’m still unusual in that I have come all the way through as a student. In 2005 my wife and I had our first daughter, and my wife was going to go back to work after her maternity leave. I was doing the childcare and because I thought that I was not going to have intellectual stimulation that I had from work (I’d been working as a freelance journalist), I thought I would go back to studying.
I had done an undergraduate degree in Japanese, which I finished in 1996, and I was not a very good undergraduate student, that has to be said; I got a third-class degree. There was an itch that I wanted to scratch, to prove myself that I could actually study, and I started to looking around. As I said, I was a journalist, I was writing professionally but I was also writing my own fiction and getting more interested in that. Obviously reading a lot, I started looking around at somewhere to study. The MA Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck caught my eye, just because of the way it was structured: thematically and periodically, and it looked really rigorous. I toyed with the idea of doing a creative writing course but then it felt slightly safer to be doing something with a syllabus to work through. I thought that it would probably be as useful for my writing and indeed that has proved to be the case.
It must have been hard work to have a daughter and studying at the same time.
Yes, well it was very rewarding. When you got real little ones, it’s pretty full on, but it’s very much a physical job looking after little kids, physical and emotional. Being able to go out at the end of the day, on a Wednesday, on a Thursday, and sit in a classroom with a Birkbeck cohort was brilliant, it was a perfect balance. There was a bit on negotiation as there always is to clear time to do essays. I think that that now gives me an insight, an understanding what it’s like for Birkbeck students. I particularly remember the first Christmas, Christmas is always hard, I always warn MA students about that, Christmas is hard, particularly if you’re full-time.
Tell me a bit, I hope that the fact you did your PhD with us meant that you enjoyed your MA, but tell me a bit about both, going onto your PhD and how you found your studies all the way through.
It was fantastic. I studied Japanese, and I was very interested in literature- there had been a literature component to the Japanese degree but I was no great shakes. In the first term I remember my first essay, I got a merit, I got 67, I remember being pretty disappointed because I worked so hard, I really thought I had read absolutely everything, and I really wanted to do well. And the two things that I got were some incredible, very useful and detailed feedback from the marker. And then I asked a friend, Henderson, to show me his essay, he got a quite high distinction, and it really opened my eyes, that there was this other way of approaching. He had a critical argument that he wanted to make, and he was doing research to support that. I just read everything from the reading list, and it was faithful, but it wasn’t stepping out and reaching for originality, which is what we are always trying to get from students doing MA level. I saw in his work how to do that, and it was very liberating, really exciting. It kicked off from there really. I never planned to do a PhD, but on my second optional essay I discovered this guy, Charles Howard Hinton, who I ended up working on a lot. And the idea of higher-dimensional space, as it was constructed and moved around in the late Victorian period, and thought there might be something interesting to do there. At the same time, I was attending all the graduate lectures that they were having in the English Department at Birkbeck. I particularly remember Steve Connor and getting very sort of excited by the possibilities of theoretical approaches to the exchange between science and literature. And realised that there was maybe a theoretical model for looking at this material as well. So it just kind of grew as the MA went on. I loved it, it was great, it was fantastic to be able to propose a project within the department.
So nice to hear that you enjoyed it so much. Well, tell us about your PhD, and what you went on to focus on and how you found this experience.
Having heard Steve Connor, I think Roger Luckhurst suggested to me that Steve would be a good person to supervise this project. When I took it in its initial formation, it wasn’t really a very well-defined idea: I want to write about the fourth dimension, and I think, I remember having a meeting with him, lasted about an hour, he kind of persuaded himself that it might be interesting over the course of the hour and I don’t think I did anything particularly interesting to persuade him, but it was really good fortune that he decided to take it on. Because, with that sort of experience PhD supervision I was constantly challenged to think about how to make the project something that could be interesting to a broader audience, he really encouraged me to think about it as a conversation into the field. But it was part of a conversation about knowledge, that was very useful, and again, the whole idea of it grew. It became about how ideas are a kind of history of an idea as it moves between mathematics, science, different kind of social groupings and then into how expanse was reimagined in cultural contexts. I was part-time, so I spent five years doing it, and it was great that it fitted around looking after the kids, by then there was another one, and another one on the way, so I could make it fit around everything.
It sounds absolutely amazing. Did you find your experience as a journalist helped, especially at PhD level, did it help with your research and PhD writing?
Yes very much. The thing about being a journalist is that you can’t be precious about your words, you just have to produce and that really is helpful in that professional discipline of just putting pen to paper regularly. That continues to inform my approach to writing. You don’t last very long as a journalist if you don’t take editing well, so it kind of fits quite well with the supervisory process. It’s ok if somebody says this isn’t working, this needs to change in this way, you’re used to getting stuff sent back and having to think again how to approach it.
It makes you open to criticism. Then you became teacher at Birkbeck, then the road changed again, tell me about that transition, and how it came about.
Yeah, so, in the English Department, when you are PhD student, I’m not sure if it is exactly the same now, I think Covid may have changed things, we had the opportunity to get experience teaching on the first year BA programme as graduate teaching assistants; which is really useful experience, I didn’t do it in my first two years, I think I did it in my years three and four over the PhD, which is probably best to get a bit of good chunk of research under my belt before starting to do it. And I had some teaching experience, some language teaching experience, so I knew how to make a lesson plan and how to approach teaching and prepare for teaching. But of course, a Birkbeck cohort is very different to standard cohort, in my first group I had people who had already published books, you have to be quite flexible in the room. But again, I really enjoyed that, because it was, I think possibly because it is a Birkbeck cohort, and we can speak more about what that is later, it is something that is unique to the college. And then, I did a brief post doc with Roger Luckhurst in the department and then a job came up, a three-year post, and I was one of two people who got straight into the deep end, managing an MA programme, teaching across the whole thing, you learn quickly and then also, take a professional qualification, which the college supports you to develop your practice, and one learns quickly. I think I’m a much better teacher than I was to begin with because now I’m more able to allow the kind of session to be co-produced in the room, it takes a while, I think in those early days, to sort of ensure that you are comfortable, you over-prepare and you try to make sure you are all over vast swathes of material and actually what works best in the room is to allow a group to work together towards an aim for each session, and I hope I’m better on doing that now.
Did you find that actually helped the whole process the fact that you had just come yourself from doing MA and then the PhD. Did you sort of find it easier to understand, as you said, what is a quite unique cohortat Birkbeck. Do you think that helped the whole process?
Yeah, Definitely. Familiarity with the specifics of the Birkbeck experience, that you’ve got people coming from jobs, families, work, life is going to figure large…it is a real advantage in the room as well, because you get some differing experiences, so yes, it’s grown-up, right? Regardless of the ages of the people participating, it’s a very grown-up learning experience.
As a student and as a teacher in Birkbeck, what’s been your best bits?
So, lots. On many occasions, when you experience, particularly MA students, out-stripping your knowledge and the expertise by some distance, that happens quite a lot at MA level, that’s really exciting. It’s weird, this is quite a Birkbeck thing, I was thinking about something the other day; I was teaching a student on the MA Cultural and Critical studies, and she was working part-time at Housman’s bookshop, and she emailed in the middle of the day to say that they just taken receipt of the offcuts of Professor Stuart Hall’s library. She knew that I was interested in Stuart Hall, the guy who developed of cultural studies in Britain and when he died, his widow Catherine Hall had gone through his library and sorted what would go for archive and what wasn’t need for archive. I got this email, my colleague Frank Joe Brooker was also interested, we ran over Housman’s, and raided this whole library and we got armfuls of books as much as we could afford and carry back, got them into the offices and went through all these books which were signed by Stuart Hall and annotated in the margins, which had arguments with Milton Friedman. This sort of thing could only happen at Birkbeck…we got there first, we got the tip off…those are the kind of students we have…I remember that as a very exciting day. But something that happens all the time is going to the pub after, particularly with MA students, after a session, the fact that you finish teaching at 9pm, you can go for a drink and talk about what you have just done in the session is great, and I always loved that.
An amazing example as well, I loved the books story. It shows, as you said, the diversity of people that we have here, more as peer on peer, sort of network sometimes.
Going on more to your writing, which of course is the sort of the dual side of the things I suppose. I would like to hear more about Hinton, what inspired you to write the story, and you already mention Hinton himself, it would be good to hear what was so intriguing about him.
So when I was right at the start of the PhD, I kind of disappeared down a side alley, that Steve Connor drew me out of, so that I should start thinking again, more about the history of the idea rather than this individual and the life, but I ended up spending about a week in the archives of UCL, the archives of the men’s and women’s club, this sort of a discussion group in the 1880’s and 1890’s, discussing the relations between the sexes. I knew that some of them knew about this guy Hinton, and I wanted to find out what had happened, and I discovered this cache of letters that were gossiping about the fact he been convicted of bigamy. And it was this amazing archival moment, I think that people who research in archives often experience this, when suddenly you find that thing, the grouping of exchanges of information, which is exactly what you are looking for. As soon as I found it, I thought I want to do something with this narratively, it could be the heart of a kind of telling of this life, and I wanted to use the life. The theme that unites my both books, which I’m interested in, in fiction, and I think probably in my research as well, is the kind of approaches to the real, very broadly conceived, how we represent the real difference of modes of approach to it, and particularly how you then deal with all that sort of messy, real stuff, in representative media such as narrative fiction. And, so using documents is something I’ve done in I’m Jack and struck me as something I could then locate the heart of the story about this guy’s life and construct it as it were a really elaborate frame around the real, elaborate fictional framework. At one point, I though about doing it just as a book in a box, that kind of BS Johnson unfortunate style thing; where the reader would come across the documents, as if they were found and recreate the experience of finding them in an archive, as is often the way with fine-minded ideas, the reality is that the box ended up being almost constructed out of words instead.
You mentioned I’m Jack as well and I see John Humble seems like quite a controversial figure. What inspired that story as well?
I’m interested in approaches to the real and he was a notorious hoaxer. I think I first encountered him reading David Peace, in the Red Riding Quarter. I think it is the second one that is focused on that period and interested in the fact that there was someone who sent three letters and then a recorded tape to police claiming responsibility for murders that were later discovered to have been committed by Peter Sutcliffe. And because the voice on the tape was distinctively Sunderland in dialect George Oldfield and the investigating officers shifted all of their attention to Sunderland for the best part of two years. And I grew up in Sunderland, I was really familiar with the dialect and really kind of interested in that, what’s going on with language there, they were really obsessing over small odd phrases and intonations, that struck me as a mediation of the real that’s going on there. Forensic attention to the materiality of language struck me as very parallel to what we do as literary critics and it struck me that he was quite like a producer of fiction himself. So, it seemed like a story, it had all the elements that I wanted for a vehicle for what I was interested in.
It sounds absolutely fascinating. With both books, how did you find the process of being published, was it really satisfying experience?
It’s interesting, you know, a lot of good fortune was involved; I was putting stuff up on a blog, and I got spotted by a young editor. This young editor is now the famous novelist Max Porter, but he read something on my blog and he said, do you want to meet? I realised it was a pitch meeting, so I pitched hard; and he saw something in the idea so, you know, it was good fortune, I think…, what I take away from it is that it is always worth putting stuff out into the wild, you know, I think the blogging process is probably particular to that moment, that people were seeing things on blogs back then in 2013. But, there are similar fora available now. And yeah, in terms of actually getting published, it’s quite a fraught experience. It’s hugely exciting to get a book into the world and all the stuff that goes around it is pretty odd. I get thrown back onto the old post-structuralist idea that it’s no longer yours once it’s out there in the world.They are no longer your ideas, not your words anymore, it belongs to readers. It doesn’t quite work like that, because it becomes a product and you are expected to promote the product, and you want it to do well. This second time around, I think I enjoyed it probably more. I felt more anxious in the run up to it coming out, but now it’s out, that feels good.
Before we spoke, I was reading about Hinton and there are some fantastic reviews and critical responses to it, it must be really satisfying to have your work out there and to have such good feedback for it.
Well, it is really heartening that it gets noticed, to be honest, because that is the biggest fear literally for it not to be reviewed. It’s an exceedingly difficult environment at the moment; so many books are coming out and it is really heartening when people engage with it on its own terms and read it. That’s nice, you know. I don’t think anyone who publishes is ever entirely satisfied. I feel reasonably content at the moment.
Good, good. You’ve sort of mentioned a bit about the publishing experience, but you know, for your students and for anyone listening who wants to write their own novel and begin that process, do you have any advice or tips that would you give them?
Yes probably the key tips are the most-self-evident. I mean, it comes back a bit to that journalistic discipline, you know, just write. To get a book-length thing, you have to write a book-length number of words. So you just have to write it, you can’t put it off. I believe in sort of putting stuff out there. I was involved in various sort of DIY things when I was doing the MA, I was part of a writing group and self-publishing group and used to perform our stuff and that was great, you know, that was the closest I’ve ever got to being in a band and was really good. I kept finding ways to get work out -it is important to socialise it a bit.
I mean, especially at the moment during lock down, it is obviously so much harder to meet with people to have a discussion, do you have any sort of techniques that you use yourself, or that you would recommend to people who are struggling just to get that process going, especially when you are often on your own and locked in a room and there is not much interaction.
Yes, I do a session on this on the MA Creative and Critical course, on how to get pen to paper, you know, on those occasions when it doesn’t feel like it’s happening, what to do; brainstorm ideas and share them in the room. There are many different ways of prompting writing as there are writers. I think from some sort of obvious stuff like go for a walk or run, or do something different, have a cup of coffee. But the things that for me are absolutely key are reading and reading across registers, across, not just reading the type of stuff that you are going to write, but read different sort of forms of writings: documents, archival stuff, theory, non-fiction…fiction…. Just reading everything just kind of chewing it up and you know, similarly kind of taking in all kinds of cultural stuff as prompts and cues. You can respond to anything that comes in and offers an opportunity for response and can stimulate some kind of idea. And then, obviously, discussion, with whoever is available, these days, my children….as much as anybody else. I think that that’s it. Sometimes I’ve recommended using Brian Eno’s oblique strategies as well. These cards are prompts to creativity in the broad sense and they are literally oblique strategies like rip it up and start again, or whatever. Change a dial on something.
You mentioned reading, have you got authors that influenced your work? And do you have those key people who helped you?
Yes, I’m definitely quite obsessive and completist on certain things. In Sinclair, I’ve kind of gone to Sinclair for blurbs for both my books and I don’t think they would exist without his work. I read his first novel, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, and they both in different ways spun out of that. My wife brought Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly into our marriage and that was a really wonderful present. I’ve been obsessed with Gray for 20 years now. Just a wonderful creative force. I don’t know if he is so well known in England as he is in Scotland, where they quite justly have him on school syllabuses. I’d recommend anyone to check out Alasdair Gray if they are not familiar with him. And then there are people who I admire and I think how do they do that? Even as a critic. Deborah Levy is a bit like that for me. I know our colleague Julia interviewed Deborah Levy during Arts week and I think I was an early adopter on Swimming Home. I subscribed to And Other Stories when it came out and was pushing that on anyone to read it. Actually, it’s amazing, the very subtle gentle use of almost psychoanalytic archetypes in it is really brilliant, but not necessarily so inspirational, more in the sense that’s something I’d like to work out how that’s done, but wouldn’t necessarily try to do it. And then Ballard, I’m hoping to do an edited collection of JG Ballard nonfiction. if it gets it the go ahead, so I go back to Ballard’s stuff quite a lot for that sort of thing, for prompt, for inspiration. It’s a real clear-eyed vista of culture and history that it is exceedingly eye-opening.
I have to admit I haven’t come across them. I love Deborah Levy as well. I’ll have to look up Alasdair Gray. I have never come across him, so that’s a good tip. You mentioned the JG Ballard work that you are doing but have you got anything else on the horizon? Are you working on your next novel and what are your plans?
Yes I am. I’m working on the next novel. I’ve just thrown away ten thousand words that are not going to work and I’m going to try again on them. It’s prompted by a document rather than incorporating them this time, but it’s a contemporary, I suppose it’s perhaps a bit like a thriller. It’s this literary approach to that idea of an espionage story. I’ve been dreaming up John le Carre and something a little bit along those lines.
Exciting. Okay. Last question. I won’t keep you much longer, but just to sort of finish off the interview I would just love to hear a little bit for our alumni and anyone who is perhaps looking to come to Birkbeck. I’d love just to hear what you think makes Birkbeck special, what’s made you stay so involved with us?
It’s a completely unique environment, I think, I mentioned that cohort, I don’t think you will find a room of students like you find at Birkbeck at any other institution in the country. Because you come into that room, and there are all ages, all ethnicities, all religions, the range of nationalities, and it’s constantly surprising and wrong footing and up-lifting when hear what people have to say, you learn as much from the people in the room as people at the front of it. We are kind of inclusive in our bones, because it’s just, you know, we just have to be like that as working people. And what has kept me there was a certain type of intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t encountered during my undergraduate degree; that idea that it’s not so much what you are looking at and I think we see this with our postgraduates, especially with the diversity of projects is insane. People are looking at all kinds of different cultural phenomenon, but it’s about, how do you think about it? It’s about that, that intellectually curious analytical and theoretically and historically informed approach. It’s a curiosity, I think, what drives it. That’s the real sort of radicalism at the heart of our approach.
That’s a great answer. And I think a great place to finish up our conversations. It was really interesting and thank you so much Mark and we look forward to seeing the next books coming out as well.
Oh great, well, I hope it does come out.
Sure it will.
Birkbeck Inspires Outro
Well, that’s the end of today’s podcast. We hope you enjoyed listening. Make sure you check out what else has Birkbeck Inspires has in store by visiting our website at bbk.ac.uk/Birkbeck-inspires