Craft & Culture Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Julie Noble

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with author Julie Noble to discuss writing, literature, and what it means to be a working class writer.
Author Julie Noble with her latest book in Robin Hoods Bay. Pic by Richard Ponter.

In 2018, The Guardian asked a simple question: where are all the British working-class writers? In a country as obsessed with class as Britain, it is becoming increasingly evident that, in England (if not the UK as a whole), this is a question that cannot be asked loudly enough. Especially since, as Tim Lott has said, “for at least a generation there has been a dearth of English working-class novelists – and characters.” 

Acclaimed author Kit de Waal has described working class fiction as featuring “narratives rich in barbed humour, their technique and vernacular reflecting the depth and texture of working-class life, the joy and sorrow, the solidarity and the differences, the everyday wisdom and poetry of the woman at the bus-stop, the waiter, the hairdresser.” These are stories that plug a gap in our literary culture that has been missing for decades; and we need far more of them.

So, within this context, we are pleased beyond words to introduce you to our latest ‘Creatives in profile’ featuring award-winning author, Julie Noble.

Noble is a working-class writer who lives in North-East Yorkshire with her two youngest children- the three older ones have homes of their own. She is one of Kit De Waal’s ‘Common People’, a Moniack Mhor Two Roads recipient and Penguin WriteNow longlisted. Her short fiction has won short story competitions including the Writing Magazine Jane Austen Alternative Ending competition in 2017 and She Magazine (2010). A participant in the New Writing North Working Class Writer Development Programme, has also written a stage play, a TV script and an audio play.

Interviewer

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

Noble

I’m a working-class mum of five who lives in North-East Yorkshire with the two youngest children. We’re lucky enough to live in a gorgeous part of the world but there’s a lack of well-paid jobs in this area. Culturally it’s a challenge and a social mobility cold spot. – thank goodness for the internet to help make those vital connections writers need.

Interviewer

You’ve previously said in interviews that you “can’t not write”. Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

Noble

Writing is like breathing for me –necessary for survival! It has helped in many ways, and challenged in many more. I’m very interested in creative writing as a method for recovering from traumatic events, I attended the Writing Recoveries conference in Glasgow last year and it was fascinating. 

Writing has helped divert my mind from a challenging reality and opened new doors. In time I hope it helps me follow another passion, for travel. I would love to write stories that reflected authentic experiences of people across the world. As the working classes are underrepresented in literature, it would broaden the range of reading matter for everyone.

Interviewer

Who inspires you?

Noble

Kit de Waal. Fay Weldon, Matt Haig, Pink and loads more.

Interviewer

Your writing has been celebrated in the prestigious anthology, Common People, featuring writing from working class writers. What does the term ‘working class’ mean to you in this day and age? And do you find these identifying monikers helpful as a writer?

Noble

For me, being working class is not just a category. It affects you emotionally and limits your dreams, especially in the Arts. We are not ‘entitled’ in our attitudes and our voices are hesitant rather than bold and confident.

Being called working class can be a negative experience, sometimes it is intended to be derogatory, not simply descriptive. I’ve met successful  working class writers who hide their roots to prevent  this happening to them.

Diversity schemes often come with the insinuation that you are not good enough on your own merits. Some people fail to see what the barriers are and question the talent-finding opportunities as misguided. It’s very hurtful, but we have to rise above it, and keep going.

Interviewer

With writer’s incomes collapsing to “near abject levels” according to reports – and many creative industries regularly favouring investment in risk-free sequels, prequels or books/films that have famous names attached to them, how can working class writers hope to pursue their passions?

Noble

With immense difficulty.  As you know, being working class often means you have a low-income, like myself. Low income writers can’t afford courses such as Arvon, MA’s, festivals, paid-for places at conferences, paid-for meetings with agents, or even entry fees for competitions,  therefore we are often invisible to the publishing industry. It is hard to have the experiences and connections that help shape our careers.

The external challenges of trying to write in between paying bills can make for a different experience to write from, one that many people don’t understand. There’s no cushion or safety net.  For myself, it’s exhausting physically and mentally, partly because I write most late at night.

Interviewer

With these industries skewed the way they are, are we denying ourselves (as readers, audience members, etc.) the opportunity to discover important new work? If so, what can be done to change things?

Noble

Yes. Diversity schemes do work, several of the Common People now have agents (hurray!). There are many people reading anthologies with new writers and finding work they love. Organisers could offer reduced entry fees for people on a low income to allow all writers to enter competitions which also showcase new work. Some allow you to send in bank statements as proof.

Interviewer

Common People was published through innovative publishers Unbound – who combine traditional publishing with crowdfunding. Can you tell us more about Unbound, and what your experience of crowdfunding was like?

Noble

Unbound are offering a new option for authors who for whatever reason are not taken up by the big boys – and it usually is boys who are in charge. Unbound asks for support from individuals to pay a cost towards publishing a viable book.  Personally I love it when supporters of the Common People introduce themselves to me, I think both reader and writer benefit from the connection. Myself and other contributors regularly retweet supporters comments, and thank them. The fact that people have faith in you pre-launch gives greater confidence.

Interviewer

Do you think the crowdfunding model is one that can help solve some of the challenges facing the industry at the moment?

Noble

Yes, there’s many unknown writers who deserve to be heard, and this is a way of doing it, especially for working class and low income authors who can’t afford to support publishing costs.

Downside is that there are multiple requests for crowdfunding, which may mean it’s a challenge to know what to support.

Interviewer

Willa Cather once said that having to push yourself constantly in a job that you didn’t enjoy “can’t be good for one”; yet with austerity continuing to bite and hit the poorest people in society hardest, and with so many creatives nowadays having to hold down regular jobs on top of their creative pursuits, do you think our current societal structures act as a barrier to genuine creativity?

Noble

Yes of course. One of the greatest barriers to being creative when you are on a low income is the fact that you have to earn money to pay the bills and earning money takes time away from trying to be creative and developing your practice.

Time is the one thing you need to produce the work and improve it.

When I am doing one of my various jobs, I always feel conscious that I could be doing my writing and that I am missing out on time. Since meeting agents it has been really hard to find time to redraft the novel I have submitted to them and also to work on the next, which is ready to write.

My fellow working-class and working writers all say similar things about how hard it is to find time. I’ve met writers who have other sources of income who can book themselves into a cottage or a retreat to devote a week or more to finishing a project.

I’ve spoken to people who will only write when they have nothing in their schedule, no work to do, nobody to care for and they can take their time and spend days immersing themselves in their subjects. This is not an option for me. The only time I managed it was when I borrowed a spare room where I used to do bookkeeping, shut myself in and stayed for hours at the laptop.

It was an eye-opening opportunity.  I was writing my book while at the same time felt like I was experiencing it. When the guy I do books for opened the door at 9:45 to see if I was ok, I was convinced I was in Venice. That one-off chance to spend unbroken time immersing myself in writing made me realise what I am missing.

Having said all that, if possible I make use of my experiences when I’m writing. One of my stories was about a single mother doing book-keeping and accounts, and trying to gain a sense of perspective instead of getting depressed. Part of it was based on on a financially challenging time, and it was lovely when it helped me win the place at Moniack Mhor.

Interviewer

As someone who has worked multiple different jobs – while also raising a family – how did you find a balance between the exertions of your day-to-day-work and the need to write? And how would you advise other creatives in a similar position to yourself to manage all competing priorities?

Noble

This is a tough question. There is no easy one-size-fits-all solution. For myself, my kids come first, then paid work. To do the writing I go without sleep and stay up late to meet deadlines.  I also try and multi task as much as possible e.g. dictating into my phone while I am chopping veg for meals. If you can keep an idea percolating in the back of your mind while you are doing something else, then it may be you can write notes on your notebook or on your phone to remember them. I often email myself and when I get on the computer can be surprised to find scenes I might otherwise have forgotten.

Interviewer

Paul McVeigh has spoken about how “the working class vernacular” of the characters in his novel, The Good Son put traditional publishers off from publishing his book; while James Kelman found his Booker Prize winning novel How late it was, how late under attack from mainstream media and critics for the “vulgar” language (as they saw it). Have you ever encountered any resistance from people within the publishing industry because of any working class aspects of your writing?

Noble

I loved the Good Son. It’s laugh out loud funny sometimes and the language in it completely fits the characters and their setting. But I know authentic, realistic situations may not be to everyone’s taste.  Some of my stories have been described as too bleak for readers, for instance one which was based on a real event that still haunts me, when a desperate mum jumped off a bridge with her son.

In my writing I avoid swear words as much as possible, I try to use alternative means of expressing displeasure if I can.

Interviewer

What role to writers have in an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’? Does the world need more fiction?

Noble

Yes. Fiction stretches your imagination and exercises the brain to think in new ways. Writers can help by addressing big issues and giving insights into unfamiliar lives such as working-class and disenfranchised. The deeper and wider we think, the better we will find the truth behind the lies.

Interviewer

What draws you to a topic? And, once inspiration strikes, what does your writing process look like?

Noble

Life draws me to a topic and inspiration, if it strikes, is an overwhelming rush of words and ideas that are hard to keep up with. After I have got the first fresh impressions, I have to work hard to edit and improve, over and over. It feels like standing under a waterfall and trying to channel it into a neat stream that’s still beautiful and vital but follows a proper course.

Interviewer

When writing a new story, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

Noble

Remember the energy and joy of inspiration. Keep that freedom in as much as possible. Don’t try to police it in the early stages. Wait till it grows older before you reprimand it and curtail it.

Interviewer

How would you define creativity?

Noble

The process of making something you can see and appreciate just from thoughts within your head.

Interviewer

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

Noble

Someone who writes from their soul. Those are the best writers.

Interviewer

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

Noble

I need to redraft and shrink a big novel (118k words), write the first draft of the next (currently 48k in), select about 15-20 short stories (from 56) for a TLC Free Read I got as part of the Northern Writers Awards, and prepare some scripts for TV writing opportunities.

Interviewer

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

Noble

Mine were rather autobiographical and a bit bleak till I got to this one:

Abandoned, alone. Love came – a horse!

Walk alone, soul grows, world knows!

Discussed it with the kids while camping this is what they came up with:

Melissa: Stop! I know you’ll regret it.

Laura: She died that night. A relief.

Kieran: Kieran went South. Everyone else, North.

Interviewer

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

Noble

Ok my top 10 tips for writers.

  • Number 1: read and write most days.
  • Number 2 : join a book group and make sure other people choose books to get a range.
  • Number 3 : read critically so you know what works and what doesn’t.
  • Number 4 : figure out what you like as a writer so you can identify your favourite genre and reasons for writing. That will give you a stronger voice.
  • Number five : send out as much work as you can but not to vanity press or mass anthologies where authors end up subsidising the publishing by buying loads of copies.
  • Number 6 when things get rejected you have two options: either send them out again or leave them for now. If you leave them go back to them after a rest period and either resend or edit and then resend. Remember that different markets give different responses and different editors can give different answers at different times in their lives. Sylvia Plath sent one of Ted Hughes’ poems to the same magazine and the same editor. First time it was no, second a yes. How many people would dare do that?
  • Number 7 Get to every writing related course/workshop/event that you can. Make notes. Reread them.
  • Number 8. Be aware of senses – wind on your skin, taste on your tongue.
  • Number 9. Be interested in everything, read small notes in museums, listen in on conversations.
  • Number 10. Keep going.

The best tip I was ever given was to ‘keep hustling’ by Ishy Din. He’s the playwright who started off as a working-class cab driver in Middlesbrough and now writes for TV, radio and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He told people last year to watch out for me as I was always sending things out, he was right because this year I won three awards.

Quick fire round!

Interviewer

Favourite author?

Noble

Fay Weldon – had the joy of interviewing her once. She’s wonderful.

Interviewer

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

Noble

Critically acclaimed.

Interviewer

One book everyone should read?

Noble

Common People – obv!

Interviewer

Most underrated artist?

Noble

My friend Bridget Wilkinson.

Interviewer

Most overrated artist?

Noble

Damien Hirst. He’d say it himself. I did art classes with him.

Interviewer

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

Noble

Kit de Waal, she’s bold, wise, forward looking with a global eye to what the world needs to improve. She would be brilliant in politics.

Interviewer

If not writing – what would you do?

Noble

As a job – teaching kids that struggle.  For a creative passion – photography or painting.

Interviewer

Do you have any hidden talents?

Noble

I can paint horses rather well – hours of drawing practice in science class lol.

Interviewer

Most embarrassing moment?

Noble

Suggesting to Simon Armitage that he change a stanza in a new poem and also giving him too much detail about a walk I’d done the same day, same place as him when I jumped in Alcock Tarn in my bra and pants.  I’ve not dared go to any of his events since!

Interviewer

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

Noble

That I go out in the world trying hard to make ends meet and succeed in writing and this year my kids have seen some success after massive challenges. The youngest two came to the Deer Shed Festival and Moniack Mhor with me and had two brilliant new experiences they would never have had without my writing.

Interviewer

One piece of advice for your younger self?

Noble

Don’t get married! (but I probably wouldn’t listen.)

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