Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: David Savill

This post was contributed by Melanie Jones of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. This month the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Melanie Jones speaks with alumnus David Savill, about his novel, They Are Trying to Break Your Heart (Bloomsbury, April 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

They Are Trying to Break Your Heart

They Are Trying to Break Your Heart

MJ: They Are Trying To Break Your Heart comes out this month, congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about the novel?

DS: I’ve been telling people it’s about the connections between the Bosnian conflict of the 1990’s, and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami – of which there were none until I made them up. It sounds bleak, but the story is focused around people putting each other back together again after catastrophe. In writing the novel I was interested in the tangential connections between people, and the power of the slightest encounters. But there’s a compelling mystery in there too – the story of a human rights researcher who discovers a war criminal believed dead may be alive and living a second life in Thailand. If you want a straight thriller or war story, you’ll probably be disappointed – I hope what the reader gets instead is a really novel drama about displacement, loss and love.

The novel tackles the political landscape of the early 21st What was it about this time period that inspired you to write?

In one sense, I’ve done what so many debut novelists do, and drawn upon formative experiences. I was 19 when I spent two summers volunteering in Bosnia, and the lessons the war taught me needed to be worked through. But as the writing moved from therapy to story, and as I began to inhabit a Bosnian protagonist, I began to realise a whole generation was growing up with no knowledge of the conflict, or what it meant for the politics of human rights and interventionism in Europe, (let alone the basic history!) This became a purpose for the book. I’m also really interested in the challenge of writing about very recent history, where the historical narrative isn’t settled, and a novel has a chance to work something out about how we came to be where we are.

There are very different voices in the novel. How did you approach this and did you enjoy writing any character more than the others?

Stepping into the head of a Bosnian protagonist was a big moment in my development as a writer. Until then, I’d been far too compelled by autobiography. I began to test this voice out in Birkbeck workshops, and the reactions gave me confidence. I work on the principle that all humans across all cultures, whatever gender, share the same basic drives and ambitions, and face the same struggles in life. There are differences, of course, but the more time I spend inhabiting different protagonists, the less important those differences seem to be. I liked writing Anya the most. Although the drama joins her in a moment of uncharacteristic doubt, she’s the kind of committed, focused and ambitious woman who fascinates me. One of the main springs of my inspiration is people I admire.

David Savill

David Savill

You left a career in journalism to become a writer and teacher, can you tell us what made you decide to switch to writing fiction?

I was working in Sri Lanka on the tsunami aftermath when I came very close to a fatal car accident. A bus in front of us hit a truck head-on. The bus driver died, and one of the passengers was thrown into the backseat of our car so that we could take her to hospital. It’s terrible to say, but with the shock I had a feeling of elation. I’d spent so much time around the grieving, and seen a lot of death in those months. On top of the natural disaster, this random accident seemed absurd, and for a moment, it helped me shed the fear of death. And in that moment I thought, ‘so I could die tomorrow, what really makes me happy?’ The act of writing, actually sitting down and doing it, was all I could think of. I loved a lot about journalism and documentary film-making, but it didn’t allow me to tell the kind of stories I felt improved life on the deepest level – the stories found in literature. It’s about form of course, and what it’s fit for. I needed to be working in a different form. Another answer is, I wasn’t the world’s best journalist.

How did completing a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck affect your writing process?

In many ways. But the key thing it gave me was the belief I had a story to tell. Not that I was a writer – I knew I was a writer, because I think writing is a personality type. The tragedy is some people never discover the thing they’re best at doing. But before Birkbeck, I wasn’t sure I had anything interesting enough to relate to people. Being good with prose is a job – a matter of hard, stubborn work for me. But what if you have nothing to say? Julia Bell uses this word ‘territory’, and I began to see I had a territory to explore, and I needed to mine it for something of value to the reader.

Do you have any advice for new writers, perhaps those just starting a creative writing course?

Listen. Be receptive. Throw your ego out of the window and experiment with new things. Don’t expect your drafts to be complete, or for people to like them. Why should they? You can only hope your cohort and tutors spot the potential and help you develop it. Authors are asking readers to invest the most precious thing they have — time, and a creative writing course is probably the only place people will give it freely, even when your writing doesn’t deserve it. Be persistent, practice a lot, and your prose will improve. Then you need to focus on what it is you have to say that is worth a few hours and £16.99 of someone’s hard earned money. I’m convinced we all have something worth writing about, but finding it is hard. Dig deep. After doing the hard work, whether you publish or not is pretty much down to luck. I’m enormously grateful I had a little.

Can you tell us about your current writing? What’s next?

I am so happy not to be writing They Are Trying To Break Your Heart! My next book is provisionally titled, Disinformation: Finding Grace Bailey-Payne. It’s the biography of a brilliant, but little known journalist who disappeared in Georgia in 1999. I hope it’s also about how Russia became the place it is today, and the power games played between Europe and Russia in the beautiful Caucasus mountains.

Find out more

David Savill worked as a freelance journalist in the Caucasus and then with BBC Current Affairs television before founding the St Mary’s University MA in Creative Writing. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is his first novel. It was published by Bloomsbury in April, 2016.

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones graduated from the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA in 2015. She is the Managing Editor of MIROnline and a member of the MIRLive Team. She was a member of the editorial team for The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 12.

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Sarah Alexander

This post was contributed by Melanie Jones, of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. This month the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we will be profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Melanie Jones speaks with alumna Sarah Alexander, about her novel, ‘The Art of Not Breathing’. (HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

TAONBMJ: First of all I want to say congratulations on the upcoming release of The Art of Not Breathing. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea for this story first came from?

SA: Thank you! Hmm, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, and I still haven’t nailed the answer. It’s hard to describe where the idea came from because the process was so organic. Some of the original ideas are no longer part of the story, and others have grown into something I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning.

The novel is a patchwork of many ideas and themes that I’ve previously tried to put into novels, but the actual story idea came from my main character, Elsie. She popped into my head one day. I knew she and her family had been through tough times and that they didn’t talk much about the past. I wanted to write about a family who’d had a complete communication breakdown, and whether they could recover.

What was it that drew you to Young Adult Fiction? Did you always know that this was the genre that you wanted to write in?

Books were my security blanket when I was at school but somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, I lost my zest for reading. As a grown-up who wanted to write but didn’t know what to read, I thought back to the books I read as a child and teenager, the ones that inspired me to write in the first place, and I chose the Young Adult module on the MA as a way of reconnecting with my teenage love of literature. As soon as I started writing from a teen perspective it all clicked into place.

There are lots of different approaches to the process of writing. Do you have a particular routine?

I don’t really have a routine; I do whatever I can around my day job, so it varies. It helps to mix it up a bit – sometimes I’ll write every day in 45-minute sprints before I start work and other times I’ll do marathon weekend sessions. The only constant is that I always write on a computer. I do make notes on my phone and Post-it notes but when it comes to putting it all together I need a keyboard because my handwriting is atrocious. I’m sure I’ve let go of ingenious ideas because my notes are illegible.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

You completed your MA at Birkbeck in 2013, do you have any advice for other students of Creative Writing?

With any course, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. I don’t just mean working hard on assignments, I mean immersing yourself in everything related to the course – go to spoken word nights, socialise with other writers (this is probably the most important one!), challenge yourself and your writing – do something out of your comfort zone, go to author talks and events, ask for book recommendations from people who have different reading interests, have fun.

Some writers work with writing groups and have groups of first readers, others prefer to put the work together before sharing it. How have other writers played a part in your writing life?

I started writing The Art of Not Breathing during my MA so I workshopped the first few thousand words with other writers on the course and this was hugely valuable. I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to finish it without the constructive feedback I got from those workshops. Plus, I learned a lot from reading other writers’ work. Once the course had finished, though, I retreated into my personal writing bubble, afraid of what people would think of my story, never quite ready to share. With Book 2, it’s different. I want people to read it – even the early raw drafts, because readers are the reason books get written.

What has been the most exciting part of the journey to publication?

Getting to know the publishing and book community. Once I’d got my book deal, I emerged from my solitary writing bubble and discovered a whole online (and real life) community of writing folks who just wanted to talk about books and writing. I wasn’t a big a big social media user before, so I had missed out on all of this – I really wish I’d embraced it earlier. It’s great to have such a supportive network of other writers and book people. Bad for my bank balance, though – so many brilliant recommendations.

Your bio tells us that you’ve worked as a “tomato picker, travel consultant, mental-health support worker and suitcase administrator”. Do you think it’s important for writers to have a varied history to draw upon?

I was about to say that I don’t think tomato picking has helped much with my writing but then I remembered I wrote a short story about it – it was pretty dark. I might share it one day. It’s important to understand people, places and things outside your day-to-day environment but perhaps the way you draw from your experiences is more important than the actual experience.

A wise professor once said to me, ‘Whatever you write, it has to be interesting.’ This is, of course, subjective, but it got me thinking about how narrow my personal interests were. New experiences help to broaden my knowledge and provide different perspectives on the world. Other people’s books are also an excellent source of interesting things!

Can you tell us about your current writing? What’s next?

I’m working on another standalone YA novel. I can’t say too much, but I am very excited about it. I’m also sketching out two other novels so watch this space! I’m desperately trying to find time to write more short stories too – I miss this part of the MA.

Find out more

Sarah Alexander grew up in London with dreams of exploring the world and writing stories. After spending several years wandering the globe and getting into all sorts of scrapes, she returned to London to complete a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in 2013. She works in publishing and lives with her husband and two chickens. THE ART OF NOT BREATHING is her first novel. You can find her on her website www.sarahalexanderwrites.com or on Twitter @SarahRAlexander.

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones graduated from the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA in 2015. She is the Managing Editor of MIROnline and a member of the MIRLive Team. She was a member of the editorial team for The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 12.

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Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Professor Anthony Bale of the Department of English and Humanities writes about his current research activity.

Prof Anthony Bale

Prof Anthony Bale

What is your current topic of research?

Holy mountains and emotions in the medieval Holy Land.

What inspired you to research this?

I realised that, in their accounts of their travels in the Holy Land, medieval pilgrims often described feeling strong emotions on top of mountains. This led me to think about the relationship between emotions and landscape. This helps me retrieve a sense of how people felt during their pilgrimages, rather than focussing simply on what they did. It also helps me revise the dominant – and incorrect – modern understanding that people in the Middle Ages had no or little appreciation of the landscape.

What excited you about this area of investgation?

I’m very excited about this topic – it is completely unexplored in previous scholarship, and it allows me to revise lots of misunderstandings about the Middle Ages. Essentially, I am able to show how several things which are thought of as quintessentially ‘modern’ – such as the vista, the appreciation of the landscape, the cultivation of specific emotions – were features of the medieval journey to Jerusalem.

What’s challenging about this topic?

The research is challenging on several levels. The historian of emotions is working with partial sources that describe feelings in terms very different from today’s. It’s important not to read our own emotional vocabulary back into the medieval sources: for instance, many sources say that pilgrims felt “joy” at the top of a mountain, but this is not the same as “happiness” or “the sublime”. Rather, medieval “joy” has a complex and clear theological and philosophical set of associations. This work is also beset with difficulties due to the partial nature of the sources I’m working with and the present-day politics of the sites I’m working on.

Nabi Samwil (Palestine), known in the Middle Ages as 'Mount Joy', a hill from which pilgrims took their first view of Jerusalem (Pic courtesy of Prof Bale)

Nabi Samwil (Palestine), known in the Middle Ages as ‘Mount Joy’, a hill from which pilgrims took their first view of Jerusalem (Pic courtesy of Prof Bale)

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

My work is part of an attempt to write a richer and deeper history of the western engagement with the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. This engagement has a very long afterlife, and has coloured not only the ways in which Christians continue to engage with holy space, but also the present-day terrain of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

What are your main goals in work?

My main goals in my work are to continue to challenge myself, extending my work in new directions, and to continue to uncover new and interesting aspects of medieval culture. Even though I’ve been studying my sources for many years, the Middle Ages definitely continue to surprise me and to engage my intellectual curiosity.

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

Birkbeck is a great research environment for several reasons. Researchers are able to follow the topics and sources that interest them, it’s a very accommodating and open-minded research environment. Because there is such a lively research student community too, there is always an atmosphere of exciting research being undertaken.

For a medievalist, Birkbeck has a fantastic community of people working in the premodern period, and of course we are very close to some of the best resources in the world for medieval studies: the British Library, the British Museum, the National Archives, and so on.

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Researching reading: Behind Dickens Day 2015

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Birkbeck is a world-renowned centre for Dickens studies and, over the past 40 years, it has nurtured, trained and housed some of the most luminary Dickensian scholars.

In 1986, the preeminent Dickens scholar Michael Slater, now Emeritus Professor, established Dickens Day, a one-day event at Birkbeck to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836). Birkbeck contained no less than four distinguished Dickensians scholars at the time – Steven Connor, Barbara Hardy, Andrew Sanders and Michael Slater – so a day to celebrate and discuss all things Dickensian was a natural proposition.

The enduring format of the Day – scholars and aficionados speaking to a general and academic audience, rounded off with dramatised readings – was established from the outset and, following the first Day’s success, an Oliver Twist day followed in 1987 with proceeding events considering each of Dickens’s novels in chronological order. After we reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’s last, semi-completed novel), the format shifted to a thematic one and we have since considered themes as diverse as history, popular culture, conviviality, feeling, science and adaptations of Dickens’s work.

Now in its 29th year, Dickens Day continues to attract a uniquely mixed audience of high-profile academics, researchers, students at all levels of study, members of the Dickens Fellowship, and enthusiasts and fans. The Day, which is now jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Cardiff and the Dickens Fellowship, is well known for its convivial, welcoming atmosphere; postgraduate students and early career academics, in particular, are warmly invited to submit paper proposals.

Dickens Day 2015 — Reading

This year’s event will look at reading and readers in Dickens’s work, a fruitful subject considering how often the act of reading, and its associated objects – books, newspapers, diaries, and all manner of printed material, from wills to adverts, playbills to tailors’ bills – occur in Dickens’s novels.

Reading is a powerful, transformative experience in Dickens – for good and bad. We might consider, for example, David Copperfield’s lonely devouring of the eighteenth-century epistolary and picaresque novels of Fielding, Smollett and Stern. David says of his childhood that ‘reading was my only and my constant comfort’, a source of emotional succour and nurturing in an emotional stultifying household, run with domineering cruelty by David’s loathsome stepfather Mr Murdstone.

For Oliver Twist, though, reading the Newgate Calendar, with its gothic, melodramatic and fantastically bloodthirsty tales of criminal violence, has disturbing physiological effects, with the pages turning red with gore and its words ringing in his ears.

There are more touching, tutelary scenes of reading, though, in Great Expectations, when Pip patiently teaches illiterate, gentle-hearted Joe to read. Other novels, such as Bleak House, are absolutely stuffed with paper and the paraphernalia of reading: think of the hoarder Krook, almost buried alive by the piles of scrap paper he obsessively collects (he isn’t killed by his tottering piles of paper, but instead spontaneously combusts); or the law-stationery shop of Mr Snagsby; or the endless bundles of papers relating to the interminable case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. More humorously, we might consider Mr Pickwick’s innocent request to his landlady, Mrs Bardell, for ‘Chops and Tomata sauce’ for dinner, which is deliberately misread as risqué and salacious during his trial for breach of promise to marry her.

Our Mutual Friend — Reading project

BookReading Dickens also had a profound effect on his readers and the theme for this year’s Dickens Day was chosen because it dovetails with a reading experiment at Birkbeck, which has been following Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) in its original monthly parts from April 2014 to November 2015.

Our Mutual Friend also contains fascinating scenes of reading: we might think of the bitter, mercenary Silas Wegg, posing as a man of letters and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall aloud to the kind-hearted, illiterate Noddy Boffin, who wishes to improve himself after coming into fortunate possession of the lucrative dust heaps at the heart of the novel’s symbolic economy; or Bella Wilfer, newly married, perplexedly pouring over manuals of domestic management and cookery.

Each month, we read a digital scan of the original monthly part, while an accompanying WordPress blog features a guest post and acts as a virtual reading group for any readers to contribute to. All of Dickens’s novels were serialised and his readers encountered his work in a variety of formats. Our Mutual Friend was published in nineteen monthly parts of thirty-two pages, each costing one shilling, and featuring two illustrations by Marcus Stone and, astonishingly, over seventy pages of advertisements.

Multimedia Dickens

Dickens continued to innovate and experiment in what we might call multimedia publishing, issuing his novels within the pages of journals, in weekly and monthly parts, and in single volume form. As Dickens’s novels are increasing made available online in their original formats, digitalisation constitutes another multimedia mode of disseminating Dickens to a mass audience, to accompany the Victorian formats and the cinematic, televisual, and radio adaptations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Dickens’s readers have always consumed his work in a variety of media formats, with new technologies of reproduction, circulation and broadcasting disseminating Dickens’s stories to new readers.

We also know that Dickens enjoyed, and worked hard to deepen and cultivate, a special, intense, and transformative relationship with his readers. Consider, for example, his famous public readings, which he partly undertook for financial reasons, but also to strengthen the close bond he felt with his readers.

For Dickens, fiction enacted the radical potential of imaginative work to create sympathy and build and strengthen the emotional and social bonds that bind together disparate peoples. Events such as Dickens Day, and projects such as the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment, testify to the continued ability of Dickens’s novels to bring people together and forge communities.

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