Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Nadim Safdar

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer 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, Valeria speaks with alumnus Nadim Safdar, about his debut novel, Akram’s War (Atlantic, May 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Firstly, congratulations on your debut novel Akram’s War which has just been published by Atlantic and thanks for taking part in this interview. We are keen to learn about your career so far. If you had to pick the most significant learning experience from your entire MA, what would it be?

NS: I feel fortunate that I come from a scientific background in which what we were taught was empirical and fact. It is not so different in the Creative Arts – the idea of form, structure, characterization and whether or not a situation or scene or phrase has been earned – these things I had to be taught. I listened carefully and writing the book, I built a shed in the rear of the garden and having sacrificed the day-job, I thought of little else for over four years. My day would begin around 10 at night when (my now wife) would go to bed and I’d work through.

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Debut novels are famously thought to be, at least in parts, autobiographical. How much inspiration have you drawn from firsthand experience and how much is down to research or fiction?

It is surprising how you live within the character and indeed, how much of your character(s) live in you. There are two main characters in the book, Akram and Grace and during the four years of writing them, I often found myself (in real life) at a point of decision-making and wondered – what would Akram or Grace have done?

It won’t come as a surprise to me that readers’ might ask what I have in common with Akram (a Pakistani male). We men think we know how to fight but there are some battles we are not equipped for.

I therefore had to find the character Grace – and through her express the story of someone at the mercy of a system she is not equipped to deal with. I had to make the story of losing one’s child (or even the ever-present day-to-day threat of that loss) acceptable to the reader and for that to be believable it could only be expressed through the eyes of a woman.

We all have lived experience: have loved, fought, wounded others and scarred ourselves. You might want to but you can’t just blurt it out – writing is about finding a form in which to put it.

Your book has a strong message about the radicalisation of British Muslims. Over the last couple of years the topic has become ever more pressing, with the rise of ISIS etc. Could you see it coming?

Although no one could see it coming, I don’t think anyone could say, in retrospect, that the unfolding events weren’t inevitable.

The first Muslim has been sworn in as London’s new Mayor. Do you think he might be a role model for young British Muslims and could this event mark a turning point for radicalisation? Or what do you think it all means?

I think it means that the majority of Londoner’s are relatively poor and prefer the socialist candidate.

There is a whole genre of novels based on politically and socially urgent topics. I am sure you are familiar with the work of Lionel Shriver and so on. There is often talk about writers having an obligation to make social comments. How important is it for a writer to pick a relevant subject that features in the media or do you think that topics pick their writers and it’s about following one’s hunch whatever the subject matter?

Lionel Shriver talks about writing about people who ‘are hard to love,’ and with a protagonist who is something of a loner and an outsider there is much more to explore and say. To me, such people are far more interesting. In terms of social commentary, why would a writer like myself want to be between two intractably opposed sides murdering each other with any means at their disposal. The book is a complete work of fiction and has to exist all by itself.

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

How do you know when you are onto something big? Moreover, when do you know the novel you are writing is finished?

I wrote down one single phrase, printed it out large and posted it to the wall. After that, I had to invent the character and somehow, through 80,000 or so words, make him earn that phrase. It might sound arrogant but knew I had it in that first phrase.

The end point was more prosaic, the character Akram had simply run his course and had nothing more meaningful to say.

Was there much more work that needed to be done on the novel after finding an agent?

I was fortunate in finding an excellent agent and publisher who really seemed to understand what I was getting at, but also and importantly, they represented the reader. Through their direction the published book is far better than the one I originally submitted. For me, from first submission to an acceptable draft took about a year.

The opening sentence of chapter one is an absolute classic and has the sharp directness that instantly engages a reader. Given that your book has such a serious content how did you find the right form for it?

The opening phrase that I posted on my wall was set in the present. To earn it I had to take my protagonist right back to childhood and, through twenty or so years of his life, work back up to it. Although the past was told in a sort of flashback narrative, those scenes originally started as a series of short story’s linked through inter-connected characters. Once I had those, I had to find a form or framework and so I set the entire novel over one night and discovered Grace, someone my protagonist could tell his story to.

Getting a book deal is any MA student’s ultimate dream. Do you now write on a full-time basis?

You don’t get paid enough to write on a full-time basis – or at least I don’t! Indeed, writing on a full-time basis almost drove me mad. A writer needs something else, whether it’s travel or family or teaching or a part time job. You need also to be out in the world.

Rumours have it that you are already working on your next novel The Journeyman which is about a boxer. Could you tell us a bit more about it?  

A journeyman is a boxer who’s prone to losing and fights weekly for a living wage. A journeyman can’t afford to getting knocked out or injured as he then has to lay off for a month or more. So a journeyman is a master in defense and evasion and if he is that good, what does it take for him to win?

Barely a quarter through the new book, I already feel like I’m sitting at the bar at the Hailstone in Rowley Regis with my characters and for that feeling, a sort of writers-magic that signals I’m on to something, I’m very grateful.

Akram’s War by Nadim Safdar (Atlantic) is available now for £ 12.99

Nadim Safdar was born to Pakistani parents and grew up in the Black Country. He is married with three young children and lives in London. His first novel, AKRAM’S WAR, was published by Atlantic in May 2016.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , , ,

Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Elizabeth Fremantle

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer 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, Valeria speaks with alumnus Elizabeth Fremantle, about her novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower (Penguin, June 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Congratulations on your latest novel The Girl In The Glass Towerwhich is due out in June and thanks very much for taking the time to answer a few questions. All your novels are set in the Tudor era and focus on remarkable women who actually lived at that time. What made you write about these heroines in the first place?

TheGirlInGlassTowerEF: I became interested in early modern women when I was studying for my BA in English at Birkbeck. A course that explored women’s writing from the renaissance period opened my eyes to some of the first English women to publish their own original work. This helped me to understand the ways in which women were able to find their voices in a wholly misogynistic culture that expected female silence and obedience.

Katherine Parr, the protagonist of my first Tudor novel, was one of these women and I wanted to bust the notion of her as the dull nursemaid of popular Protestant myth and show her as the intelligent, courageous and dynamic woman she really was. All the women I write about lived remarkable lives that have been altered, or overlooked by a history that privileges male narratives and it has been my aim to, at least in some small way, redress that balance by reimagining their stories.

You must be a very prolific writer as this is your fourth published novel within just over two years. How did this extraordinary magnum opus come about? Did you approach an agent with all four novels ready to go or did you have one novel and wrote the other three as part of a publishing deal?

It’s misleading really, as it makes it seem as if I write two books a year. This is not actually the case. Queen’s Gambit was already finished when I signed my first three-book deal with Michael Joseph/Penguin in 2012 and by the time that was published a year later I had finished work on the next. My pattern is to write a book a year and The Girl in the Glass Tower is the first of a new four-book deal with the same publishers.

I already had an agent when I decided to work on the historical novels and had been, unsuccessfully, writing contemporary fiction. The change of focus helped me finally find my voice and I benefitted from a good deal of support and encouragement from my agent.

There is a huge demand on novels about the great and the good of the Tudor era, from the works of Sansom to Gregory and of course Mantel. Why do you think readers seem so keen to engross themselves into the lives of a well known elite from so long ago, or to put it differently, do you ever feel the pressure of having to fulfil readers’ expectations?

Why the Tudors continue to fascinate is a question people ask all the time and there is no single answer. The period marked the beginning of our modern world; it was a time of great upheaval, the Reformation forced people to reconsider beliefs that had gone unquestioned for hundreds of years and it marked a fundamental societal change. It was a time of great cultural flourishing in poetry and drama, which still resonates to this day, and also saw the first explorations to the New World.

As someone who is preoccupied with women’s stories I have found great inspiration from being able to listen in to authentic women’s voices from the first writings by women I mentioned above. For a writer it is a world in which the stakes are stratospherically high which creates a constant tension in any narrative.

There are of course the constraints of accuracy as the narrative arch is fixed by history itself. How do you manage to reclaim these characters and make them your own?

Elizabeth Fremantle

Elizabeth Fremantle

I don’t really think about that when I set out to write. I do a great deal of research and then set it all aside so I can build my characters from the inside out. Character is, after all, formed from inaccessible inner worlds. I may know some of the actions of the real life counterparts of my characters and the way they responded to others’ actions, or I may have read a line in a letter that sparks something in my mind, which in turn transforms into a trait that can be built on. But these people derive as much from my imagination as the historical record. I aim for accuracy in the overarching narrative but for me the historical facts are a framework on which to hang my characters.

How do you get so much writing done? Do you set yourself a daily word target or is it about having an ideal working environment? What’s your secret?

My secret is a very dull one: it’s nothing more mysterious than discipline. I work all the time and rarely take time off. There is nothing I’d rather be doing. I do find that a daily word count helps with my tight writing schedule. My absolute minimum is 1,000 words but if I haven’t written 1,500 in a day I’m not happy. I edit as I go along, reviewing the previous days’ work on the following morning and absolutely must be at my own desk, surrounded by all my reference books.

In which way do you think the MA has prepared you for your career as a writer?

I think one of the key things I derived from the MA was an understanding of the difficulty of the path I had chosen but also to take myself seriously as a writer. The truth is though, that it was only the beginning. The only way to develop ones craft is to practice it ceaselessly and that I did, for some time before I finally found my voice.

What has been the most challenging step on your way towards publication?

The decade of perpetual rejection, when I was writing but couldn’t find a home for my work. In hindsight I realize this period was an important part of my development as a writer but I could have done with it being less prolonged.

Your list of forthcoming events seems very busy at the moment. What is it like to come face to face with your readers?

It’s always a pleasure to meet the people who have read your work, though I get very nervous about public speaking.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming writing project(s)?

I’m working on a Jacobean thriller at the moment called The Poison Bed. It is set around the circumstances of a notorious murder in the Tower of London, which scandalized England and remains, to this day, something of a legal mystery. It will be my first crime novel. It is a new process for me as the structure and pace, as much as character, are key to making it work. Usually character is the cornerstone of my work, so this is different, though it has many of the characteristics of my other novels. I’m very excited about it and am thoroughly enjoying exploring a new genre and stretching myself creatively.

Also by Elizabeth Fremantle ‘Watch the Lady’, ‘Sisters of Treason’ and ‘Queen’s Gambit’ all published by Penguin.

Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of four novels all published by Penguin. She has a BA in English and an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London and has contributed to various publications including The Sunday Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. She also reviews fiction for The Sunday Express. She lives in London.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , , ,

Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Karin Salvalaggio

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 Karin Salvalaggio, about her latest novel, Walleye Junction (Minotaur, May 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

Walleye Junction by Karin SalvalaggioMJ: Walleye Junction came out in May this year and is the third novel in the Macy Greeley Mysteries series. Can you give us a brief introduction to the novel?

KS: Walleye Junction is the third book in a series of crime novels set in northern Montana. The stories follow a special investigator named Macy Greeley, a single mother struggling to balance career and home life. She’s often on the road and when the book opens she’s in Walleye Junction, a rural community that lacks the necessary infrastructure to deal with a major crime. Members of one of Montana’s private militias are suspected of kidnapping and murdering a controversial radio talk show host named Philip Long. When two of the kidnappers turn up dead of a massive heroin overdose the local authorities believe the case is solved, but Macy has doubts. A cryptic email message points the investigation toward the murky world of prescription painkiller abuse and Philip Long’s estranged daughter is beginning to think there’s a link between her father’s murder and a school friend’s death 12 years earlier.

Did you always intend to write a series of novels or did this come about organically?

The series came about organically. I started writing the opening novel, Bone Dust White during my first year at Birkbeck where I was working toward an MA in Creative Writing. I never intended to write a ‘crime novel’ and saw this first book as a standalone, but life has a way of throwing up unexpected opportunities. Early versions of Bone Dust White were far more ‘experimental’ and infinitely less publishable. Looking back I’m relieved most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. The result is far more accomplished. Bone Dust White is a taut thriller with a strong sense of place and a cast of characters that feel authentic. I’m very proud of how far I stretched the genre in a debut novel. I’m now writing the fourth book in the series and it’s probable there will be more in the future. I don’t get bored because each book has its own personality and unique set of challenges. The only constant is Macy but she too is slowly evolving. It is the locations, characters and plotlines that change radically with each new publication.

What do you enjoy most about writing crime fiction?

I suppose I should now hold my hand up high and admit that I have an unhealthy fascination with the darker side of human nature. I read crime fiction but am often turned off by the gratuitous violence and the unending parade of serial killers stalking young girls. I prefer a good psychological thriller with authentic characters, a believable storyline and zero time spent in the morgue. I try to base my books on issues that are prevalent to small town America. Burnt River features returning war veterans who are suffering from PTSD and Walleye Junction touches on the prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic that is presently crippling America. Gun crime, drug abuse, sex trafficking, right wing militias, traumatised war veterans, unemployment and general disillusionment are all elements that feed into my novels. I like to create a point of tension that can no longer be sustained and drop an inciting incident into the middle of it. Throw in a bit of small town politics and a population that is barely hanging on and you’ll find the plenty of stories in the reckoning that follows.

The short story, Walleye Junction, was published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review in 2011. Are the novel and short story connected?

The short story, Walleye Junction, is actually connected to the whole series, as its setting and tone provided much of the original inspiration. I didn’t attempt a direct adaption until the third novel because I needed some distance from the source material. Redrafting it into a longer format would require making a lot of changes to a short story that meant a great deal to me. There was little room for sentimentality. A lot of ‘darlings’ died while writing this book.

The short story follows a young woman who is returning home to a rural community after years of estrangement. She has to cope with both her father’s death and the many unresolved issues she’s left behind. Much of the storyline is left to the reader’s imagination. We don’t know the cause of her father’s death or why she was forced to leave town in the first place. We only know that she’s been unfairly blamed for the death of a friend who died of a drug overdose sixteen years earlier. The novel puts these mysteries to rest.

In the beginning I tried to stay true to the short story’s plotline but I ended up making some major changes. Try as I might, I couldn’t make the original ending work. It was too sentimental. The young woman had changed too much over the course of the novel. She refused to bend to the ending I’d originally set up for her. I tried writing it a dozen different ways but to no avail. I ended up changing it radically. It is now much more subtle.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

Karin Salvalaggio

Karin Salvalaggio

Anyone who writes seriously spends a great deal of time sitting in a desk chair in front of a computer. If you’re not writing, you’re doing research. If you’re not doing research, you’re doing admin. There’s no garret in Paris and I’ve not smoked a Gitane in years. It’s actually a lot like running a small business. If you’re going to stay on top of ancillary writing commitments, social media, your finances (such as they are) and your relationships within the industry it pays to be highly organised.

I’ve written 4 books in 5 years. I’m not one to skimp on quality so that means I work long, hard hours. Though I have an idea of how I’d like things to go I never plot out my novels ahead of time. I create a place, a cast of characters and an inciting incident. After that anything goes. I try not to think too much about outcome when I’m working as I feel it’s better to be a little lost on the page. When I’m writing freely I tend to find the most surprising and interesting storylines. This strategy has its setbacks. There is a lot of waste. Thousands and thousands of words get thrown out. I’m far more brutal than I was when I started. Instead of saving it in a file, I simply hit delete. It’s strangely liberating.

I get up as early as 4 in the morning if I’m on a roll, but usually the alarm goes off at 7. I make a vat of black coffee, eat some breakfast and sit down to work. I’m lucky to have a beautiful home so I rarely feel the need to write anywhere else. In summer there’s a little house at the end of the garden. In the winter I’m in my office, at the kitchen table or on the window seat in the front room. I’m a bit of a social media junky so I have to be sure to shut down everything if I want to get the word count up. If I need to clear my head I take my dog for a walk. I’m pretty sure people think I’m going crazy as I sometimes talk to myself when I’m trying to work out an issue I’m having with a book. Thankfully, the dog doesn’t seem to notice. Generally speaking, I work on new stuff in the morning and edit it in the afternoon. Interjected within these hours are bouts on social media and something I like to call my ‘real life’.

How did the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck affect you as a writer and do you have any advice for current students of creative writing?

I owe a great deal to the Creative Writing course at Birkbeck. I went in with zero confidence and I came out believing it was just a matter of hard work and time and I would be published.

I found the ‘work-shopping’ modules to be invaluable. It was how I learned to look at my work and the work of others more critically. It was also my first chance to see how readers really viewed my writing. Most of the students were incredibly generous with their time and feedback and I tried hard to reciprocate. Much of the course’s success depends on student participation. I’m not sure it’s the norm but I’d say I was in a particularly good year group. The cooperative approach to learning created an atmosphere that was surprisingly intimate. I made some very close friends during my studies at Birkbeck.

My advice to current students is that you’ll only learn if you listen. If everyone is telling you it’s not working, it’s probably time to put your ego aside and stop resisting. Some students would argue against every criticism that was thrown their way. I always wanted to ask them why they were on the course if they had no interest in improving their work.

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

I’m pretty much finished with the fourth novel in the series. It is tentatively entitled Silent Rain and will be out in May 2017. The storyline was originally inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Beasts but I’ve made so many changes that the source is barely recognizable. It’s an ambitious project. I’ve been a huge fan of Oates for years so have even more reason to get things right.

My next novel will be a standalone, which I’m hoping to work on between my other writing commitments. Though it’s a thriller, it will be set in London and Suffolk so will have a completely different feel. If I want to get a solid first draft done in a timely manner it will mean writing two books in one year. It sounds like a pretty insane thing to do but I’m determined to try. I need to get my head out of Montana for a while. I want to write about the city I live in and the characters I meet everyday.

Karin Salvalaggio was born in West Virginia in the 1960s. Her father was career military and her mother was a homemaker. Karin has fond memories of her nomadic childhood – the hours spent on the road, the anticipation of a new life, the unpacking of the old one. She’s lived in places as climatically diverse as Alaska and Florida and as culturally distinct as California and Iran. Karin attended the University of California Santa Cruz, graduating in 1989, but aside from two years in Italy, she has lived in London, England since 1994.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Her short story “Walleye Junction” was published in the Mechanics Institute Review in 2011. Bone Dust White was her first full-length novel.
 Her second novel Burnt River was published in 2015. Walleye Junction will be available on May 10th.

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.

. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , , ,

Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Julia Gray

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 Julia Gray about her novel, The Otherlife (Andersen Press, July 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

The Other Life, by Julia Gray

The Other Life, by Julia Gray

MJ: The Otherlife will be published in July this year, what can you tell us about the novel and the themes behind it?

JG: I set out to explore what a rather amoral child might do if he were put under too much pressure; if the expectations for what he should achieve were too great and burdensome. How we deal with situations that demand too much of us is one theme – addiction, violence and escapism all feature in some way. Coming to terms with death is another.

You call on your experiences as a private tutor in this novel but also mix these with the supernatural and Norse mythology. Can you tell us about the process of mixing experience based writing with myth?

I’ve always been fascinated by books in which everyday life interfaces with the surreal or extraordinary. British fantasists like Diana Wynne Jones, Penelope Lively and Susan Cooper do this especially well in my view, and I knew I wanted to try to create this kind of mixture myself. I used my experiences as a tutor and teacher as a basis for the world in which Ben and Hobie live; I also drew quite a lot on my own childhood education, particularly in terms of the rigorous scholarship preparation that the boys go through. In general, these parts were a pleasure to write, since they involved a kind of rapid downloading of whatever memories happened to surface as I went.

The mythology, in terms of how the boys first encounter it, was also based on experience, in so far as I used the stories I’d written (as homework) when I was a child – sometimes word for word – as part of the text. Later, though, I had to do a lot of reading and research: learning a bit of Norse grammar, poring over dictionaries, tracking down esoteric translations in Senate House library. This was also pleasurable, but much slower. I’d say the process of mixing the two was the hardest part, since it was here that the plot became key to the architecture. The other challenge was to manage the incredibility of the supernatural elements; I wanted to preserve a real ambiguity for the reader, and this was hard to navigate at times.

The novel is written from the perspective of a teenaged boy, what was it about this particular voice that you found inspiring?

There are two narrators: sixteen-year-old Ben and twelve-year-old Hobie. Although Ben is the more sympathetic character, I struggled a lot more with his voice than I did with Hobie’s. I’ve spent much more time working with children of Hobie’s age, and I’d say of the two it was Hobie’s voice that I found the more compelling to write.

One of the first things I tried to do was recreate the rhythms of speech found in American Psycho – that kind of relentless, slightly flat tone, namechecking labels and brands, not pausing for breath – and then add dashes of Nigel Molesworth in full Down With Skool mode. What drives Hobie’s narrative is his rage: his frustration with his mother, with the boundaries imposed daily on his life. To write in Hobie’s voice I had to feel his rage, which was sort of refreshing, and then go with it. Ben is a softer, nicer, more thoughtful and sensitive person, but strangely this did not make it easier to write in his voice – all the rewrites I did were of Ben’s narrative. Another challenge was sufficiently differentiating the two voices.

Young adult fiction is increasingly popular with adult readers. Do you have any thoughts on what the genre has to offer readers of all ages?

I think YA has a kind of tautness of voice and a briskness of pace that are probably compelling for many readers. There are big themes, strong characters, absorbing worlds; there are many subgenres to choose from. Sometimes a book with a teen protagonist is marketed as YA, when in fact it might have been originally written for adults: just because it’s targeted to a particular audience doesn’t mean it should exclude a wider readership.

How have your experiences as a musician and songwriter affected your prose writing?

Julia Gray

Julia Gray

Music is quite important in The Otherlife – Ben is a massive Metallica fan, as am I. I really enjoyed writing about heavy metal, as it’s something I’ve not had the opportunity to do before. As I worked my way through various drafts I had certain playlists that I always listened to while writing. One was just called ‘Sad Songs’. Songwriting by comparison is a far faster process.

For me the hardest thing was to learn to sit still long enough, and to have enough tenacity and patience, to produce something eighty or ninety thousand words long, as opposed to a set of lyrics on the back of an envelope. From the first chapters (written for Julia Bell’s Writing for Young Adults Workshop) to the final copyedits, I spent exactly three years working on The Otherlife. I found the writing of prose informed my music-making as well.

How have you found the experience of becoming a published author? Have there been any memorable moments along the way?

I was sitting exactly where I am sitting now – on the floor in my living room – when I received an email from Louise Lamont, who is now my agent, asking me to come in for a meeting. (She had been given the manuscript of The Otherlife by another agent.) At this moment, it all started to feel a little bit more possible that maybe one day someone might publish my book.

You completed two Creative Writing courses at Birkbeck, a post-graduate certificate in Children’s Literature and an MA in Creative Writing. How did these courses affect you as a writer?

For me, the deadlines, structure, peer support and the guidance of tutors were all totally essential and I wouldn’t have had the confidence, understanding or ability to write a book in its entirety without having done them.

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

I’m halfway through another YA novel, which is coming along slowly but surely.

Find out more

Julia Gray is a London-based writer and singer-songwriter. Her first novel for young adults, The Otherlife, will be published by Andersen Press in July 2016; she has also written a picture book about the endangered Arabian Leopards of Oman, published by Stacey International in September 2014, and has contributed a short story to the eleventh edition of the Mechanics’ Institute Review.

Her most recent album, Robber Bride, was recorded with the support of the Arts Council. Named after the novel by Margaret Atwood, the album explores how turning points in contemporary and ancient narratives can be reflected in song. Julia has a first in Classics from UCL, a post-graduate certificate in Children’s Literature from Birkbeck and most recently an MA in Creative Writing, also from Birkbeck, for which she received the Sophie Warne Fellowship. www.thisisjuliagray.com

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.

. Reply . Category: Arts, Categories . Tags: , , ,