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About this book

In this inspiring collection of essays, a range of award-winning, established and newly published writers offer highly personal accounts of their creative processes. Authors reveal the anxieties, considerations and discoveries that shaped their own first novels, arming new writers with practical advice, focus and inspiration. The book's final section presents the perspectives of an agent, a publisher and an author on the business of publishing a first novel.

Writing a First Novel offers an illuminating read for both aspiring and seasoned writers. It contains contributions by:

- Hanif Kureishi
- Valerie Martin
- Johanna Skibsrud
- David Vann
- Maile Chapman
- Edward Hogan
- Kishwar Desai
- Wena Poon
- Alison MacLeod
- Andrew Cowan
- Jane Rusbridge
- Isabel Ashdown
- Helon Habila
- David Swann
- Soumya Bhattacharya
- Jane Feaver
- Hannah Westland
- Helen Garnons-Williams
- Lionel Shriver

Table of Contents



As a teacher of creative writing I meet students who join our university expressing a strong desire to write a novel, both on our undergraduate and graduate programmes. Our annual publishing panel, literary events and book launches are also increasingly attended by the public. From discussion with colleagues at other universities it appears that this flourishing interest in the novel is happening across the UK, the US and beyond. Universities have been responding accordingly by offering courses aimed specifically at writing novels, as well as opening up literary events to the local community. Public readings by novelists, storytelling events and reading groups are as strongly attended as they ever were. Literary festivals, many of which are devoted to new fiction, are booming and evolving with the emergence of micro festivals which cater to their own surroundings and local literary interests. A new and imaginative breed of literary event is thriving on both sides of the Atlantic, drawing heavily on the relaxed interactive ethos of comedy nights. And writing programmes across the UK and US are buoyant, generating an extraordinary explosion of varied new fiction.
Karen Stevens

‘Inspiration’ and the Novel


1. Something Given: Reflections on Writing

Where do stories come from? What is there to write about? Where do you get material? How do you start? And, why are writers asked these questions so often?
Hanif Kureishi

2. Look Back in Angst

I grew up in New Orleans, where I attended a public grammar school and a Roman Catholic high school. My father, a sea captain for Lykes Brother’s Shipping Company, was a great reader, as was my mother. He had wanted to be a writer and had, in fact, a degree in journalism from a college in Missouri. I remember that he sent out a few stories to the men’s adventure magazines of the period and that he received at least one response suggesting changes. Changes were beyond him and somehow, I gathered, beneath him. The letter was torn up in disgust.
Valerie Martin

3. Illuminating the Shadows: The Space between Fact and Fiction

I was 23 years old in the summer of 2003, and working as a canoe and backpacking instructor in Northern Maine, USA. Flagstaff Lake was one of many lakes that I paddled that summer; a man-made lake, it was created as a result of a hydroelectric dam that was introduced to the area in the mid-1950s. The houses of the small settlement had been – as with many other settlements in the region during that time – either destroyed or relocated to form a small community nearby. Traces of the original town, which now lie submerged below the lake, are still visible above the waterline. Long poles stick out of the water, marking the old foundations of the relocated homes; a road, beginning on one side of an island, disappears back into the water again on the other without apparently leading anywhere at all. Finally and most evocatively (though it had long since disappeared from view) an old church steeple was rumoured to have remained for many years partially visible above the waterline, as though floating on the waves. These traces caught and held my imagination that summer. I was fascinated by the way that the lake’s present (that which was visible, and could be encountered, on the surface of the water) was literally marked by its past (that which lay beneath). As I dipped my paddle into the water, it seemed that I could actually feel, in the water’s perfect combination of resistance and give, the history that the lake contained.
Johanna Skibsrud

4. Genesis

Two years ago, in late January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, from the shore towards Caribou Island. It was early afternoon but looked like evening, the sun low. I didn’t know how thick the ice was, or how safe to walk upon. The snow in drifts, like dunes of sand. No other human, and no bird or other animal or even wind. Just silence. The air so clear it seemed I should be able to touch things that were far away, the mountains above the lake.
David Vann

Research and the Novel


5. Treasure, Trash and Planned Obsolescence

As a fiction writer, I’m spoiled in the kind of research I undertake. While it is important work, it feels luxuriously aimless and self-indulgent, in part because I usually don’t know what I’m looking for unless I find it. This I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it method allows for a lot of poking into random dark corners and rooting around in second-hand bookstores. Ideas for my debut novel, Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, first came from the stacks of old architecture books on my desk, picked up idly because I like black-and-white photos. Through them Finland began to appeal to me because, as I was discovering, Finnish architecture was so forward-thinking and so influential, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, the era I had in mind. Finnish design elements were linked to the landscape through natural materials and curving shapes that mimicked the coastline. This made me wonder how such buildings might affect the people living in them, which strikes me now as a novelist’s preoccupation.
Maile Chapman

6. Writing Home

One afternoon, I took a call from my hometown newspaper back in Derby. I was feeling pretty excited. My first novel, Blackmoor, had been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, the winner of which was due to be announced later that week. I’d had a few nice little reviews in the national papers, but I was hungry for recognition in the motherland. My family would be proud, and it would be one in the eye for the doubters. I was the local boy done good, right? This interview was going to be a pleasure.
Edward Hogan

7. Walking the Tightrope

Part of my problem when I start working on a book is that I simply can’t stop researching for it. I worry endlessly about not knowing the subject thoroughly, about making mistakes, about not having the required skills to communicate a difficult story authentically. I worry about the library not visited, the book not read, the person not interviewed, the house not tracked down.
Kishwar Desai

8. The Reluctant Aficionado

Alex y Robert is a story of two friends, inspired by two real-life friends. Bea and I grew up together in Singapore. Bea always wanted to be an actress; I always wanted to write. We were precocious children and were prolific artists by age 14. I went to see all her plays and she read all of my novels. Fast forward 20 years: Bea is an actress; I am a novelist. We live in different countries and haven’t seen each other for many years. One day, Bea stumbled upon a bullfight in Madrid. She was traumatized by what she saw, but also haunted by its tremendous theatrical potential. She contacted me out of the blue. ‘You have to write a bullfighting story. Any story, as long as it’s set in Spain, with bulls. Please. I can’t write, I never could, but oh! The drama. The colors. You are the only person who can do it.’
Wena Poon

Voice and the Novel


9. Hearing Voices

It’s a strange thing to open the cover and turn the pages of my first novel The Changeling, a book I began writing 20 years ago. It’s a big read that was written in a tiny room – just five feet by four – with one small window and a rickety blind. When I wasn’t under the green, flickering spell of my Amstrad screen, I was staring at the bare wall. I favour the bare wall over the sublime view. I’m more easily transported, I suppose, and ‘transport’ is, for me, as vital as the dogged labour of novel-writing.
Alison Macleod

10. ‘This Won’t Do’: Pig and the Temptation of Silence

I’ve published five novels now, most recently Worthless Men, and it strikes me that each of these novels is a renewed attempt to solve the problem of how to write a novel. The fifth has been no less difficult to write than the first. And in fact, were the process to become any less difficult I think I might begin to suspect myself of complacency and the work of being formulaic, inauthentic, ‘unearned’. Which isn’t such an unusual scruple. In the words of W. G. Sebald, ‘The process of writing is a constant battle against the temptation of saying, “This will do and I will hurry on to the next scene because this one will do.” Nothing ever does do.’1
Andrew Cowan

11. Knots and Narrative

When I began writing The Devil’s Music, there were fewer than ten short stories to my name, plus a slightly larger number of poems. Although already in my early forties, I was a beginner, a late starter filled with euphoria at discovering my writer’s ‘voice’. It was all new. As I will explore here, issues of ‘voice’ were to preoccupy me throughout the writing of my first novel, but the process began, quite simply, with two related issues: my strong reaction to one voice and the absence of another.
Jane Rusbridge

12. ‘Voice’ and the Inescapable Complexity of Experience

In life, we don’t have the luxury of choosing our closest family members, and yet we live together in close proximity for many years. Extended members – in-laws, step-siblings, half-siblings, step-children, boyfriends, girlfriends – are at best warmly welcomed into, at worst inflicted on, the existing family unit, bringing with them all the complexities of their own existence. As a reader, I am most interested in the complicated dynamics played out between family members. I am endlessly fascinated by documentaries which reunite separated siblings, explore genetic similarities or uncover secrets from the past. Secrets, if spoken aloud, have the power to unite or destroy families, for while knowledge is an enlightening thing, it can also be dangerous and destructive. It is my fascination with consequence – the compulsion to see what happens next, to explore how a family copes with new and potentially life-changing knowledge – that drives me forward as a writer.
Isabel Ashdown

Form and the Novel


13. Giving Shape to One’s Universe

I wrote most of my first novel, Waiting for an Angel, in Lagos, Nigeria, and if you have been to Lagos the fractured, discontinuous style of the narration would make sense to you immediately. Lagos in the 1990s, under the military dictatorship, was a large, sprawling suburb of hell – this is not an exaggeration. There were dead bodies lying for days by the roadside; there were traffic jams that went on for hours, trapping you in old, overcrowded molue buses where you were pinned between sweaty bodies as you hung on to the top railing for balance with one hand, and with the other hand you held on tightly to your wallet. Do I need to mention that when you finally got home from work, sometimes around 9 p.m., it was guaranteed that there would be no electricity? In my particular neighbourhood of Ketu we had had no power for months, at exactly the time I was writing my novel. Chinua Achebe, asked at a reading to say something about Lagos, said that his only advice to anyone who found himself in Lagos was to get out as soon as he could.
Helon Habila

14. Another Fine Mess

Sometimes when teaching the craft of short fiction, I show my students the old one-reeler Our Wife in which Oliver Hardy’s optimistic attempts to elope are frustrated by the tiny car that Stan Laurel has hired for the getaway.1 When Stan tries to squeeze himself, Ollie and his lover, and all of their suitcases into a matchbox-sized vehicle, I hope the students will laugh while also detecting what a decent story needs: characters struggling against their flaws to meet difficult goals, and not giving up easily, no matter how great the odds. And I hope they spot the parable I’ve smuggled in about short stories – namely, that you can’t take everything with you. Unless you leave behind most of the backstory, you risk the fate suffered by Ollie, whose dreams eventually lie crushed on the asphalt.
David Swann

15. Man of Letters

In the summer of 2006 I published my first book, a memoir about being an Indian cricket fan. You Must Like Cricket? was actually a book not so much about as around cricket; it was a book about India, and about how one game has come to define a country of more than a billion people. On its publication, the book garnered enthusiastic reviews (particularly in England and Australia), was nominated for a couple of prizes, and was a book of the year for Britain’s award-winning Observer Sport Monthly.
Soumya Bhattacharya

16. Belief

In 1959 Sylvia Townsend Warner gave a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts entitled ‘Women as Writers’. Early on she asks her audience to visualize literature as a palace – a place, she tells them which, if you happen to be a woman,
you could only know from outside. Sometimes you hear music playing within, and the corks popping, and sometimes splendid figures came to an open window and spoke a few words in a solemn chanting voice … from time to time you met someone who had actually been inside … it was always a man…1
Although Warner doesn’t cite him, Henry James provides a case in point. In his preface to Portrait of a Lady, he outlines, with great confidence, his vision for the novel: ‘I would build large — in fine embossed vaults and painted arches …’, describing ‘the neat and careful and proportional pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument’.2
Jane Feaver

The Business of Publishing


17. An Agent’s Perspective

I was having tea at a friend’s house recently when her six-year-old daughter came into the room and sidled up to me. ‘Is it true you get books published?’ she asked, wide-eyed and expectant.
Hannah Westland

18. The Role of the Editor

One of the difficulties in trying to offer advice on how to get a first novel published is that writers want there to be rules. They may have spent months, sometimes years writing their novel; they may, or may not, have found a literary agent; and now it can be tempting to believe that if only they gain a place on the right creative writing course, or use the right wording in their submission letters, or work out what the secret password is, then their novel will make it on to the desk of an editor who will immediately see its potential, and make an offer for it the very next day.
Helen Garnons-Williams

19. Baby, You’ve Got It Made

You’ve sold your first novel! After years of scraping by as a sales minion in the Apple Store and making time for your fledgling manuscript when peers were slumped before box sets of ‘The Wire’, you have finally distinguished yourself from the cesspool of fellow aspirants, so many of whom, unlike you, have no talent.
Lionel Shriver
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