Creatives in Profile: Interview with Josh Spiller

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It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

So how can new writers hope to deliver something genuinely new and unique when the old models are so built to actually stifle, rather than support, new ideas?

One intrepid expression explorer (this interviewer’s  favourite term for writers) is looking to do just this. Josh Spiller, author of The 8th Emotion, is using the crowdfunding model to bypass risk-averse corporate structures and so publish a piece of speculative fiction that  promises to be different to anything you’ve ever read before.

In the following detailed interview, Spiller discusses the inevitable challenges and opportunities that crowdfunding presents to new, aspiring creatives hoping to make something new and unique.

INTERVIEWER

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

SPILLER

Born in Sydney, reared mostly in Cheltenham, before breaking through the paper-sky of that Truman Show town and fleeing to London, where I live wild and untamed like an escaped gorilla, yet plagued by the paranoia – whenever I spot a CCTV camera – that, secretly, I’m still trapped, but just in a bigger TV show.

I primarily write prose stories and comic books, but have tried my hand at pretty much every form of writing I can think of, including screenwriting, stand-up comedy, scripting scenes for plays, poetry – both conventional and (perhaps embarrassingly) rap-inspired – advertising copy, restaurant & theatre reviews, a radio play, newspaper articles, essays, and even a (sadly aborted) spoken-word piece that would have been accompanied by music. Obviously, having been a lucrative success in these other fields, I now focus on prose and comics merely to support my gambling addiction.

Beyond the “work” side of my life (writing, tutoring in English, working in a bookshop a couple of days a week), I mainly like to exercise (football, swimming, rock climbing), socialise, gorge on stories/art, and try new things. However, this is starting to sound like a dating profile, so I think I’ll end it there.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

SPILLER

First love (well, after Thomas the Tank Engine). I think I began writing stories when I was about six, but the conviction that I was going to dedicate the bulk of my life to writing, specifically storytelling, only crystallised when I was 16 or 17 years old.

I have other passions, but if you took writing and reading out of my life, there would be an immense vacuum, and I’m not sure anything could fill that hole. Best not to risk it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SPILLER

Arguably, there are two types of people: those who list and compulsively rank their favourite things, and those who don’t. I definitely belong to the former. So – even if I accidentally and egregiously miss out some luminaries – I feel well-prepared for this question.

First and foremost, Alan Moore.

Then, completing the “Trinity” with him (I may have a deluded sense of grandeur about this stuff) are Shakespeare and John Fowles (The Collector being maybe the greatest debut ever, The Magus being my top novel of all time).

Just below this, but still in the top echelons of global literature and worthy of much hero-worship, are Tolstoy, James Joyce, China Miéville, Nabokov, Gene Wolfe (whose Book of the New Sun tetralogy literally left me flopped out on the sofa, awe-struck), Grant Morrison, Iain Sinclair, David Simon, David Chase, John Milton, Matt Stover, Lovecraft, and Dostoevsky.

Like I say, I’ve doubtlessly left out some key players, but there’s my crème de la crème in a nutshell.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your speculative fiction project, The 8th Emotion?

SPILLER

Wouldn’t it be weird if I said no?

Basically, it’s set in a small post-civilisation society long after the world’s economies have collapsed. On the surface, this post-civilisation – at the novel’s outset – seems to be a utopia.

Mixed with this is the core high-concept that humans, having supposedly evolved from single-celled organisms (which don’t seem to have our range of emotions), must, therefore, have evolved emotions over time. So what could our next emotion be?

An exiled scientist-figure, through the chance discovery of a plant-based psychoactive agent, learns the answer. And although he is only a bit-player in the larger story, the hitherto-unknown emotion he unlocks – and its implications for society and humanity in general – cause the “utopia”, ultimately, to erupt into a civil war.

8th emotion

Spiller’s The 8th Emotion is illustrated by Victoria Stothard – producer of stunning, psychedelically vibrant, and highly-textured paintings, and also the winner of The One Show’s competition to create a garden at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

INTERVIEWER

Talk us through the title. Which emotions do you think define us as human beings?

SPILLER

The title was inspired by a 16th-century Japanese shogun called Tokugawa Ieyasu, who claimed that humans have seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, adoration, grief, fear, and hate.  Now, I don’t happen to agree with him (there seems to be at least several distinct shades of human emotion not accounted for by his statement, such as boredom, yearning, despair, hopefulness, even straightforward love – of which ‘adoration’ feels like a subset, but not a complete description).

However, the ‘Seven Emotions’ thing sounded cool, and made me wonder what the 8th one could be. So ‘The 8th Emotion’ became the working title I never let go of.

And if you look at Ieyasu’s list, five of the seven emotions are negative. Which is a bummer. I thus thought that the 8th emotion, for the sake of balance, should perhaps be something a bit more positive…

As for what emotions most define us as human beings, I’d say – off-the-cuff, and this may just be a reflection of my mood – love, boredom (a great springboard for creativity), and (often misguided) yearning.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did your interest in speculative fiction initially come from?

SPILLER

A+New+Hope

Star Wars: inspiration for speculative fiction?

Star Wars, I’d guess. Blew my mind. Still a killer film, and still a high-water mark for the type of energy and affectivity – by which I mean, emotional power – that I’d like my fiction to have.

 

(Incidentally, I think Star Wars a far stranger creation than I think most people perceive it as; with its bizarreness obscured beneath its patina as the pre-eminent popcorn blockbuster).

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that the project took you four years to put together. Could you tell us a little bit about the processes involved? Was it a labour of love?

SPILLER

It was definitely a labour of love. To begin with, I just wanted to write a novel for the its own sake – without any concern as to whether it would be published or not – just so I could learn how to handle a story on that scale.

The first year, during an MA in Creative Writing and the time for thought that afforded, was spent planning it. The next three years were spent writing it, mostly in the evenings after a 9-5 job. (My weekday target was 1h15 of writing in which I had to produce 400 words, no matter what their quality).

All the key points of the story were mapped out before I started writing, apart from one: the ending. However, I had two or three very vague possibilities, so I knew I’d be able to come up with something that did the trick (otherwise, I wouldn’t have begun writing the story). But I thought that leaving the final point unknown would help sustain my energy and enthusiasm for the story; somehow keep it more alive in my head. Having now completed the piece, it’s certainly a tactic I’d recommend.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

SPILLER

The main one was just to keep going, and ensure the story was finished, even after it kept taking longer… and longer… and longer than anticipated. But apart from that crux of sustained application, most narrative hurdles could be solved through a combination of thought, and looking to other fiction I admired for guidance.

Meanwhile, in the dastardly “real world, the biggest challenge/tedious hassle was waiting for responses from agents. Many never reply, and in my experience, those that do frequently take twice as long as they say they will. I spent a year-and-a-half just waiting for responses.

“Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again”

Having now tried the crowdfunding model, I don’t think the agent-route is something I’d bother with again. Too much dead time, and I like the creative control self-publishing offers. And if the book –  which, crucially, I can ensure is put in the world as I intended – strikes a chord and catches on, a publisher could still buy it off me at a later date anyway.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve decided to pursue the crowdfunding route for your project. Do you think the internet has made it easier or harder for aspiring writers to break into various ‘literary scenes’?

SPILLER

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have the experience to usefully comment upon this topic. All I’d say is that I imagine snobbery is present within numerous literary cliques, and that without the imprimatur of being signed by a major publisher, self-published authors are likely to be on the receiving end of this prejudice. That’s understandable – I’ve done it myself.

But I suspect this is something that will change more and more over the next few years, as more self-published or crowdfunded books win or are nominated for awards (see The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, shortlisted for a Kitschies ‘Golden Tentacle’ award; and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, longlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the Gordon Burn Prize) or are runaway commercial hits (see Letters of Note and The Good Immigrant).

Incidentally, as a lot of my favourite writers are or were cultural fringe figures, breaking into a literary scene isn’t something I worry about.

INTERVIEWER

What would it mean to you to see The 8th Emotion in print?

SPILLER

EVERYTHING! But maybe that’s a bit far. An awful lot. There – that’s a bit more dignified.

INTERVIEWER

When writing fiction, what do you try to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

SPILLER

Before writing a scene, I plan it in detail, so I know the flow it should have (for The 8th Emotion, I probably went a bit overboard with this, even – for a period – working out what the key symbol, colour, smell, and other things would be for each chapter, to give it a unique identity. Very Joyce à la Ulysses. Now, I would just scribble down the scene’s key beats and put them in order).

This means, by the time of the writing, all the heavy-duty thinking is already taken care of, so I can simply focus on making each sentence as good as possible. Tell the story you’ve plotted, as well as you can: that’s my sole aim when writing my initial drafts.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

SPILLER

Yes – me. I believe the reaction of any general audience is far too hard to predict to be a useful reference point. Moreover, it is not really the audience that you would be using as your reference: it is your imagined version of that audience. Their likes and dislikes. And the odds of your version mapping accurately onto reality are pretty slim (for example, consider how often political pundits – whose job it is too predict the behaviour of the public – get it massively wrong).

I think if I was writing a story for a close friend, even then I couldn’t be certain they’d like it. They might tell me they enjoyed it, but how could I be sure they weren’t just being nice? And if they did like it, did they like it as much as that novel/comic/film/etc. they’ve been raving about, and which weren’t even made specifically for them? If not, why not?

If I can’t with all confidence predict a single friend’s reaction, I definitely don’t think I can second-guess the reaction of a mass audience of strangers. That way lies madness.

Besides, even if you could, and you tailored your piece to make it a critical darling and a commercial smash… would that be enough? Perhaps – you’d have a fortune, people may adore you. But if, at the heart of it, I felt I’d compromised my own vision – what I genuinely wanted to say – for the sake of these rewards, then I believe all the subsequent success would ring pretty hollow.

“I would rather I loved my stories and no one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish”

In fact, I believe I would rather I loved my stories and one else cared, than for the world to be in raptures over my work while I believed it was actually pretty rubbish. I think the former would give me more happiness.

And not to harp on the same point too much, but foreseeing the next big trend has been shown to be almost impossible. No one – no one – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be. And when everyone was desperately snouting around for the next book to take the world by storm, did anyone place a bet on it being a piece of BDSM erotica (50 Shades)? I certainly didn’t.

Harry Potter.jpg

“No one – no one  – even had an inkling of how popular Harry Potter would be”. Image via Flickr.

No – I reckon it’s better to write for yourself. You’re the only person in the universe whose opinion you can truly know. Use that as your lodestar. Remove your work – as much as possible – from the need for any external validation, and its success (and your attendant psychological well-being) becomes much more under your control.

Furthermore, if at any point in the creative process you suffer doubts, big or small, you can always ask yourself: would I like this if I found it in someone else’s story? Although it may be hard sometimes to make these judgements, you have a much better chance of fine-tuning a story to suit your own tastes, than moulding it to suit anyone else’s.

And if all this sounds a bit insular and poverty-stricken, just consider: without people following their own against-the-grain vision, we wouldn’t have had William Blake. Or Harry Potter. Or Star Wars. Or superheroes. Paradoxically, the people who are most attentive to their personal predilections seem to be the ones that connect with the largest portion of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SPILLER

I think, at its most basic, as problem solving. Nigh-on every artistic piece, in its creation, is just a series of problems that need to be solved in order to achieve the desired outcome.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

Someone who writes frequently. You don’t have to make money from it: those who do are professional writers. But they’re not necessarily better. Payment doesn’t correlate with quality. In fact, the inverse is often true.

This straightforward definition also means that, if you sold 10 million copies of a novel a year ago but haven’t sat down at the proverbial typewriter since, you’re not a writer. You were a writer.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SPILLER

“… he killed me!” Apocalypse brings necro-trials.

INTERVIEWER

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

SPILLER

In no particular order:

  1. Cordon off time – Getting writing done requires time to focus on it. I’d advise setting a clear timeframe in which you have to work that day (say, 10am-2pm). In that period, you can either write, or do nothing. And when I say nothing, I don’t mean watch TV, go on the internet, idle away time. I mean nothing except sit in your chair, lie on your bed, have a sleep, or – if you need some fresh air – go for a brief walk. No one’s forcing you to write. You can do sod all if you want.

But you’ll be amazed how quickly the fidgety urge to do something else before writing… to tackle it later, when you’re more in the mood… is dispelled when boredom is your only other option. You can’t just sit there for four hours. That’d be mad. So, tentatively, you begin to write. And within a few minutes, you’re in the flow. Easy.

  1. Ideally, make your writing times a habit – As with exercise, once your body is used to the routine, it automatically readies itself for the endeavour. Helps prevent that heavy, sluggish mental state that is the bane of getting going.
  2. Finish things – Told this by a visiting speaker at university. Top advice. If you at least finish pieces, no matter how bad they are, your confidence will grow, and you’ll have something to show for your labour. Earth-shatteringly simple, this may be the main key to getting better at a craft.
  3. Follow the energy – This is one of those personal mantras that is of great help to me, but may be hopelessly vague to anyone else. Essentially, it means follow whatever interests you; whatever feels energised in your head, no matter its obscurity. If it means a lot to you, there will automatically be an audience for it. No one’s so unique that there aren’t other people on the planet who share their taste.
  4. Relax properly – vital for recharging your mind and creativity. I find working mornings and afternoon is best, as that way, I’ve earned my evening relaxation and thus its pleasure is enhanced.
  5. Pretend the internet doesn’t exist – The super-villain of distraction, you have to have some way to thwart it. For me, this works wonders. As long as you think you could be on the internet, you can be tempted to justify to yourself why you should, this once, be allowed to quickly go on it, just to check that one thing.

But: tell yourself it doesn’t exist and, suddenly, there’s nothing to persuade yourself about. No distraction demanding your attention. Just an added sense of calmness and simplicity, making it easier to be productive.

(It’s amazing how quickly telling myself the internet doesn’t exist convinces the rebellious part of my brain. Maybe I’m mentally simple).

Note: Only break this rule if there’s something you absolutely NEED to research online for your piece. Confine yourself to the research. Close your web browser straight after.

  1. Treat yourself as a terrorist – Don’t negotiate with yourself over any writing rules you’ve made, at least for that day. You can reassess afterwards if they’re worth sticking with or not.
  2. Read idiosyncratically – I disagree with the publishing advice that says you should be up-to-date with the latest fiction, and au fait with the current trends. Reading novels is time-consuming. You could spend all your energy simply keeping abreast of the newest releases, and it’s not like modern fiction is a priori better than the classics (the clue perhaps being in the term ‘classics’).

If every aspiring writer reads similar stuff, they’ll produce similar stuff. Instead, read idiosyncratically. Follow your own interests, wherever they lead. Do that, and your brain is likelier to make fresh connections, come up with new ideas, and bring something different to the table.

Which means this approach is not only better for you as a reader and writer, but better for the reading public as well.

  1. Write ideas, not words – I don’t know about you, but thinking about that X number of words I have to write… oh, that can feel so tiresome. But wait. Think of the ideas (as in the feelings, visuals, scenes, etc.) you’re going to convey, and the task suddenly seems like a much more exciting prospect.

Words, devoid of content, seemingly just an abstract target you have to hit, sit dead and oppressively on the mind. Ideas are full of animation and life. Focus on capturing them, one at a time, and the words will take care of themselves.

  1. Art requires willpower – Lots of people have good ideas, but that doesn’t make them good writers or storytellers. Once you have an idea, it is your job as a creative person to bring it down from idea-space (in your head) into the real world (this can be as a book, film, album, whatever. Just something others can experience).

In fact, this process is how all ideas manifest. Even something as simple as thinking I’ll see my friend tomorrow, then arranging that meeting and going to it: that’s having an idea, then bringing it into the world through willpower.

It may not be as glamorous as a sudden burst of inspiration, but for me, this application of willpower – which enables you to turn the abstract into the tangible, the blurred outlines of a notion into vivid detail – that’s where the real magic happens. It’s an often necessary, and incredibly empowering, part of the process. Enjoy it.

 

You can pledge your support for Josh Spiller’s exciting debut novel, The 8th Emotion, via Kickstarter – you can get a signed first edition copy, and lots of other exclusive rewards

 

 

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Self-doubt and the cure for procrastination

procrastinate

The well-known ailment of any artist, writer, illustrator, photographer, comedian, actor – anyone creatively inclined at all, in fact – is of course creative block. So often, this mental obstacle that seems to stifle our ability to think clearly about creative challenges is met with hours of another well-known symptom: procrastination.

Indeed, this symptom is increasingly common throughout the world – in office blocks and class rooms, in the student dormitories of undergraduates and post graduates not working on their theses or essays, and in our own homes, where chores are put off in favour of watching that latest episode of Catastrophe, or simply staring at a spot in the wall above the fireplace until you can’t tell whether you’re asleep, awake, or in some crazed semi-reality where everything is off-white and always out of focus.

These life-draining hours spent putting off new projects is often predicated on the illusion that tomorrow will contain more favourable – or even optimal – conditions for beginning it. And this theory itself is of course based on the clear untruth that there will ever be any perfect or optimal conditions for doing anything, anything at all.

Yet what so often happens when trying to begin a new creative project – or that novel you’ve been working on – is that the more we stall and procrastinate after the initial spark of inspiration, the more we stifle the force it fired within us, until eventually – tragically, inevitably – we douse it completely without catalysing a beginning at all.

Part of this may have to do with overthinking, which is an especially common form of procrastination. Picasso famously captured the error with thinking that art can begin with planning or a novel can begin with a thousand post-it notes when he said: “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

Another great artist articulates the psychological underpinnings of this tendency with an uncommon clarity and vulnerability. Eugene Delacroix’s journal provides us with a transcendental, moving meditation on procrastination and self-doubt.

delacroix self-portrait, 1837

Eugene Delacroix – Self Portrait, 1837

In an entry from April of 1824, two weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix writes:

“I’m always having excellent ideas, but instead of working on them while they are still fresh in my imagination, I keep telling myself that I will do them later on — but when? Then I forget about them, or worse still, can no longer see anything interesting in ideas that seemed certain to inspire me. The trouble is, that with a roving and impressionable mind like mine, one idea drives another out of my head quicker than the changing wind alters the direction of a windmill’s sails. And when I have a number of different ideas for subjects in mind at once, what am I to do? Am I to keep them in stock, so to speak, quietly waiting their turn? If I do that, no sudden inspiration will quicken them with the touch of Prometheus’s breath. Must I take them out of a drawer when I want to paint a picture? That would mean the death of genius.”

Delacroix’s solution to this is to turn to the classics as a clarifying force of inspiration:

“I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there. For really, what could be more stupid? How am I to choose between all the subjects I have remembered because they once seemed beautiful to me, now that I feel much the same about them all? The very fact that I am able to hesitate between two of them suggests lack of inspiration… What I must do to find a subject is to open some book capable of giving me inspiration, and then allow myself to be guided by my mood.”

Four days later, he returns to this topic, reasoning that at the heart of procrastination lies self-doubt – and the most effective cure for it is immediate action:

“I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me. And as for this ridiculous fear of doing things that are beneath my full powers…. No, this is the very root of the evil! This is the mistake which I must correct. Vain mortal, can nothing retrain you, neither your bad memory and feeble strength, nor your unsuitable mind that fights against ideas as soon as you receive them? Something at the back of your mind is always saying: “You who are withdrawn from eternity for so short a time, think how precious these moments are. Remember that your life must bring to you everything that other mortals extract from theirs.” But I know what I mean. I think that everyone who has ever lived must have been tortured by this idea to some degree.”

Procrastination is by no-means a modern phenomenon. No doubt Homer spent days picking sand from his toes after walking on the beaches of the Aegean rather than pen the Iliad. Shakespeare undoubtedly spent many weeks talking about how high the price of apples were rather than start working on Romeo and Juliet.  And it spares no-one: not the troubled French artist nor those writers we celebrate as geniuses: after all, Steinbeck reasoned, that to avoid procrastination, one simply had to get on with it: “One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all […] I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.”

delacroixfaust

One of Delacroix’s stunning illustrations in Goethe’s Faust.

Yet in our digital world, it is undoubtedly harder to concentrate, and procrastination is far easier to fuel when the means of distraction are all around. We know, for instance, that digital devices are disrupting our creative tendencies when all we really need is silence and – in fact – boredom.

To steady ourselves in a thrashing sea of distraction and procrastination, then, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix remains an invaluable source and reference book for all creatives struggling with creative block – and two centuries after it was first written. Not only does it provide readers with an invaluable record of the inner life of one of humanity’s greatest artists; but also serves as a timeless trove of insight into the universal afflictions (and their cures) which take the challenges of the creative life and turn them into art.

 

The little-known poems of Chinua Achebe

achebe

The Nigerian novelist is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers of the past century. His debut novel, Things Fall Apart, is still the single most widely read book in African literature, despite being published in 1958.

Yet despite his fame and status, few people are familiar with his lesser-known – though certainly not ‘lesser’ in any other sense – poetry. Indeed, this was something the great man himself was well-aware of: joking in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts event that there was a “conspiracy” theory against his poetry.

Yet his love for poems and poetry dates back to the very dawn of Achebe’s career as a writer. And the very title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”.

It was only thanks to Professor Wu stumbling upon this edited recording of his nearly two-hour long Literary Arts lecture during his idle trawling through the interwebs that we have discovered this fantastic example of Achebe reading three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology ‘Collected Poems’.

Please enjoy:

Complement Achebe’s poetry with some examples of poetry from our own fabulous contributors – or contemplate the role of poets and other creatives within society, and their place in culture.

Creatives in profile: Interview with Russ Litten

Litten

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series,  we’re thrilled to introduce acclaimed writer, Russ Litten.

Litten is the author of “Scream If You Want To Go Faster”, “Swear Down” and “Kingdom”. His short stories have appeared in various international magazines and he has written for the screen and radio.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I am a 47 year-old man from a working class background who lives and works in Kingston-Upon-Hull and entertains himself with fairly simple pleasures; walking the dog, going to football, sitting in the pub talking bollocks.  In between all of this I sit down and write. For the last five years I’ve been a writer in residence at a prison, but the funding got pulled in May when the current set of psychopaths got into government. So my lifestyle currently involves balancing the need to make money with the need to make time to write.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

LITTEN

I’ve always written and that’s the thing closest to me, but for years I was in a band. I played bass and wrote lyrics. I think this period was the closest I’ve come to achieving transcendence through the act of creation, but of course it’s a shared experience, and sooner or later you’ve got to push your own boat out. So music is my significant other passion. I still play bass guitar to amuse myself. I’d give anything to be able to sing though. That must be amazing, to be able to entrance a room with your voice, rather than clear it in seconds.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

LITTEN

As far as the writing goes, everyone and everything on the face of the planet and beyond, human beings especially. If you’re talking about heroes or influences on life in general these change from year to year, but the hard-core influences remain: Muhammad Ali, Quentin Crisp, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ, Chief Sitting Bull, Charles Bukowski, Kevin Rowland, Billy Whitehurst, Lillian Bilocca and Eddie Smith. Anyone who had a go, basically.

INTERVIEWER

Your 2010 novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, is rooted so firmly in the location and geography of your home city of Kingston upon Hull. What role does region and notions of ‘home’ play in your writing?

LITTEN

I was living in London when I started writing that first book. At the time, Hull had come bottom of some bullshit marketing gimmick “worst places to live” table. When I moved back up, Hackney took the bottom slot. So I’m obviously the kiss of death to any place I’ve previously lived. Except for Prague, hopefully. But generally, when considering notions of home and belonging, I refer to that Captain Beefheart song, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”.

INTERVIEWER

Your subsequent novel, Swear Down, has been described as “a postmodern triumph” – when you are writing, do you consciously attempt to create something that is ‘post modern’? Where does your focus, as a writer, lie when writing?

LITTEN

I certainly don’t set out to write post-modern stuff because I don’t particularly like post-modernism that much. I find it a bit tiresome and unhelpful. I like sincerity and stuff that’s from the heart. The focus for me when writing is purely to get the story down in as simple and as evocative a manner as possible. If that involves adopting a specific voice then I like that voice to be as authentic. I like Kerouac’s definition of literature as “a tale that’s told for companionship”.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any specific themes you’re interested in exploring as a writer?

LITTEN

I would very much like to write a love story. In fact, that’s what I’m doing next. A proper full-on exploration of love, in all its glorious fucked up wonder. Other than that, I like to start a story from an initial spark of intrigue and wander about within it until I find the thing that’s bothering me. It’s generally an abstract human emotion, like desire or jealousy or loyalty or grief, and out of that emerges the theme.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write?

LITTEN

Because if I don’t I get unwell. I realised this a long time ago. I write to get it all out of my head and put down somewhere safe where it can’t bother me anymore.

INTERVIEWER

In his work, The Psychology of Writing, Ronald T Kellogg explored the role of the daily writing routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity. Sometimes these are pretty specific. Virginia Woolf, for instance, spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. Do you have a specific daily writing routine? If so, what is it?

LITTEN

I do have a preferred writing routine, which is to get up, go for a run around the park, come back and start typing at around seven am. This is a summertime routine though. In winter, I usually avoid the running part. Generally, the earlier I start the better writing day I have. I like to write to music as well, instrumental stuff mainly, ambient or classical. I don’t like music with human voices when I’m writing unless it’s a language I can’t understand. I used to have this routine where I had to listen to Ralph Vaughan William’s “The Lark Ascending” in its entirety before I could type a sentence. But you have to be careful with routines; they can become crutches, which are a bit unhealthy.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing fiction, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

LITTEN

That you’re probably going to change everything, so it absolutely doesn’t matter. Just enjoy yourself. It’s the best bit, the first draft. It’s like spewing up and then immediately feeling better.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in literature, what are your thoughts and feelings on the publishing industry as a whole? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the ‘scene’?

LITTEN

I think it’s fair to say that the cramped financial restrictions on mainstream publishing means that it’s become a lot more safe and cautious, less experimental or willing to take risks. As a result, the books they push tend to be a bit dull and samey. Everyone seems to be frantically copying each other in the hope of emulating commercial success, hence the plethora of books about birds and grief, or girls in a variety of locations. Most of the interesting stuff comes from the small presses and the underground. As for aspiring writers, I’m not sure I’m well qualified to offer any hints or tips outside of the obvious stuff – write from the heart, don’t try and chase the obvious trends and find the thing you really want to say. Sooner or later some else will notice.

INTERVIEWER

Within this scene, is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

LITTEN

Not really, no. I try and ignore trends or any attempt to ride the zeitgeist. I suppose self-publishing will become more and more popular as a way of avoiding the traditional gate-keepers and I think that can only be a good thing.

INTERVIEWER

How is the digital age impacting writers?

LITTEN

As soon as you can reproduce anything digitally it is worthless. You now have a generation that don’t realise you should actually pay for music. An artist now has to identify the people who are into what they do and hope that they feel enough passion and loyalty to part with some money in exchange for a physical thing. In a more practical sense, the digital platforms enable a writer to get a story or book or whatever straight to an audience pretty quickly.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

LITTEN

I really don’t know. I think the temptation of the last few years has to be sensationalist or extreme or brutal. I’m a bit bored of all that to be honest. Twitter is a good example of this, where people often feel the need to be endlessly sarcastic or cutting or witty. To me, it feels like one big public audition for people who want to be the next Charlie Brooker. It’s back to that post-modern thing, the endless self-conscious wink of the eye.  The best way to stand out is to be truly yourself.  Which is a task in itself.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

LITTEN

Not really, no. I write initially to amuse or engage myself and if anyone else recognises something of worth in there, then that’s ace. Writing to a specific audience would only end in disaster for all concerned.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

LITTEN

It’s a spiritual thing, and it involves breathing from within. Opening your head up like a radio receiver. It doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. It used to amaze me when I was in a band, having four or five of you in a room hitting bits of metal and wood and then all of a sudden there’s something there that did not exist five minutes previously. Swop guitars and drums for a typewriter and the effect is much the same.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

LITTEN

Someone who writes things down, regardless of whether it gets read by anyone else or not.  A recorder, an observer, one who scratches marks in the mud for posterity and kicks.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

LITTEN

I would identify that “other” as the subconscious. If you write often then your subconscious mind tends to bubble to the surface and you become less elf-conscious. I think that’s a vital part of finding your own writing voice; letting go of conscious hang-ups and telling the truth as you perceive it.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I’m writing a love story and a non-fiction book about prison. I’ve also got a collection of monologues in the pipeline and a longer animation project for kids that I’m tackling next year.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LITTEN

Probably not, no. Oh, hang on …

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

  1. Turn off the internet
  2. A long walk throws up many answers.
  3. Most TV isn’t worth watching
  4. Listen to The Beatles
  5. Don’t measure your success against others
  6. Pull down the blinds
  7. Try and finish everything you start
  8. Don’t worry
  9. Read stuff you don’t think you’d like
  10. Try and tell the truth unless the lie is more sincere

 

 

River of Ink – A portrait of a reluctant revolutionary

River of Ink

River of Ink, the debut novel from Paul M. M. Cooper, is set to be published by Bloomsbury on 28th January 2016 – and we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are already excited about it.

Combining the intrigue of Wolf Hall, the drama of Game of Thrones and the elegance of My Name is Red, the novel promises to be one of the most thrilling new novels published in recent times.

Madeline Miller, Orange Prize-winning author of The Song of Achilles, says: “Potent, beautiful and wholly absorbing, Cooper’s  portrait of a reluctant revolutionary had me in thrall from its first chapter. A wonderful, memorable debut.”

True power lies in the tip of a pen

All Asanka knows is poetry. From his humble village beginnings in the great island kingdom of Lanka, he has risen to the prestigious position of court poet. When Kalinga Magha, a ruthless prince with a formidable army, arrives upon Lanka’s shores, Asanka’s world is changed beyond imagining. Violent, hubristic and unpredictable, Magha usurps the throne, laying waste to all who stand in his way.

To Asanka’s horror, Magha tasks him with the translation of an epic Sanskrit poem, The Shishupala Vadha, a tale of Gods and nobles, love and revenge, which the king believes will have a civilising effect on his subjects.  Asanka has always believed that poetry makes nothing happen, but, inspired by his love for the beguiling servant girl, Sarasi, as each new chapter he writes is disseminated through the land, Asanka inadvertently finds himself at the heart of an insurgency.

True power, Asanka discovers, lies not at the point of a sword, but in the tip of a pen.

About the author

Paul M. M. Cooper was born in south London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales. He was educated at the University of Warwick and UEA, and after graduating he left for Sri Lanka to work as an English teacher.  There he returned again and again to the ruins of Polonnaruwa, learnt to speak Sinhala and to read Tamil. About River of Ink, Paul has said:

‘I was inspired by the life of Thomas Wyatt and how he used his translations of Petrarch to vent anger at Henry VIII, due to his rumoured romantic relationship with Anne Boleyn. I loved the idea of the poet using translation’s slipperiness to hide his sedition but wanted to set the story elsewhere.’

Analysis

Professor Wu says: “All of us here at Nothing in the Rulebook are eagerly anticipating the release of what appears to be a stunning debut novel from a really exciting young writer. It’s so important that, in this day and age, we continue to invest in and support aspiring writers – because it is through them that our literary canon can be expanded and taken in new and exciting directions.”

“Once again, it looks as though the University of Warwick writing programme has given us yet another fantastic novelist. Paul clearly has a fantastic literary career ahead of him. We’ll be sure to bring you a detailed interview with the author, along with a detailed book review. So watch this space, comrades!”

Creatives in profile: Interview with Asher Jay

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Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can illuminate the path ahead.

Because of this, Nothing in the Rulebook has been founded to emphasise such creativity. Yet we’re also here to highlight not just works of creativity; but the creative individuals who write our stories; take our photographs; create our artworks.

Our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series offers creatives the opportunity to discuss their life and art at length. And it is an honour to introduce our latest detailed interview – with artist, writer, National Geographic Explorer and creative conservationist, Asher Jay.

Asher Jay

In the last 40 years, the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. Of course, hearing such figures one often echoes the sentiment ‘something must be done’. But what is that something? And who must do it?

Asher Jay believes that something is creativity – and is using her artistic inclinations to save the world’s threatened wildlife. Her cause-driven art, sculpture, design installations, films, writing, and advocacy advertising campaigns bring attention to everything from oil spills and dolphin slaughters to shrinking lion populations. “The unique power of art is that it can transcend differences, connect with people on a visceral level, and compel action,” she says.

'Blood Ivory'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Blood Ivory’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

Much of her best-known work spotlights the illegal ivory trade. In 2013 the grassroots group, March for Elephants, asked Jay to visualize the blood ivory story on a huge animated billboard in New York’s Times Square. Viewed by 1.5 million people, the internationally crowd-funded initiative aimed to provoke public pressure for revising laws that permit ivory to be imported, traded, and sold. “Conservation can no longer afford to be marginalized,” she asserts. “Today, we need everyone’s involvement, not just core conservationists.

She participated in the Faberge Big Egg Hunt in New York, where her oval oeuvre went on to raise money for anti-poaching efforts in Amboseli. Her upcoming projects will tackle biodiversity loss during the Anthropocene and expose threats to the world’s most traded and endangered mega fauna.

Nothing in the Rulebook is privileged to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

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

JAY

It’s weird to admit, you don’t belong to a place, that you feel connected to all life on earth all the time, that you can be born somewhere and not have it define you in anyway, that you can be raised by the world at large, where every place, person, action and thought has come to undo you from the boxes that society tries to bind you within… but that is my story. My dad used to say, it wasn’t hard to parent me, because all it took to raise me was sunshine, water and dirt, but my mom maintains I was raised by wolves… perhaps that had something to do with my walking on all fours with my first sibling, a fluffy white Spitz by the name of Leander. I ascended the evolutionary tree over the course of my childhood, from T-Rex, to bat, to chimp. My family never told me otherwise, so I had the freedom to be, to breathe, without boundaries. It wasn’t until my Kindergarten teacher told me that I couldn’t bond with my classmates by grooming them, that I first realized I was human. That was incredibly disappointing to learn, but my mom was quick to assure me, that I could be chimp or bat whenever I felt like it, that the wild was where I came from, much like everyone else, but that most others had lost this ability to recall and relive their animal ancestry. I was encouraged to let the wild within extend into the wild beyond. However, for those who care about geographical locations, I was born in India, and I owe who I am, to several countries in Europe, to family, friends, and a horse named Chester in the UK, to Africa’s unbridled wilderness and an aggressive love affair with the filthy yet fabulous New York City.

INTERVIEWER

You once said, “Channel your inner mosquito.” Can you explain to our readers what exactly this means? What is special about a mosquito? What can we learn from mosquitos?

JAY

A mosquito has impact with every bite, just as we have impact with every breath.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity – art and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

JAY

My first love is life. I love everything that life brings into focus, its dynamic range, vibrant spectrum of colors, light, shadow, balance, and depth… It sounds like I am speaking about my Canon equipment doesn’t it? Well, we hear often enough that life is what you make it, but I will qualify that by saying, life is what you bring your attention toward during the moment at hand. So I suppose life and cameras have something in common, they both require us to peer through a viewfinder and make the most of what the world has to offer in a given sliver of time and space. Look around you though, everything is life, there is nothing on this planet untouched by it. So I love life; I love all life on earth, I love my life! I get to be up in the air in a refurbished Gypsy Moth doing a loop-the-loop in Bedford one day, and swimming with Whale Sharks off the coast of Cabos the next, so my passion for life is as unbound as life itself. I also love life no matter the form it has found expression in, because we are all the same when we breathe, when we allow ourselves to just be.

'Global Conversations'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Global Conversations’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you?

JAY

Art inspires me, I often head to museums to look at creative expression from past to present, before I commit to a canvas of my own. I have a very visceral connection to visual media, in fact I have never met a painting I have liked that I have not wanted to lick… but the colors seldom taste as delicious as they look, which is unfortunate. This is why I enjoy cooking, food is rich in color and texture, and unlike most paint, and when organically produced, it is not toxic. Since I use my creativity to communicate urgent ecological concerns of our time, I am also inspired by the bold and borderless from the field, people who display extraordinary courage of conviction, and passion for life. Luckily, I encounter most of these individuals in person at our Mothership – the National Geographic Society- role models like Emmanuel De Merode, the former director of Virunga National Park, or Explorer in Residence, Lee Berger, a highly intuitive, yoda-esque, paleoanthropologist who has been an extraordinary source of wisdom and guidance for me. I am grateful for all the input I receive, without which I would have no output.

INTEVIEWER

Who outside of your field inspires you and why?

JAY

Every one I encounter inspires me in different ways, and it’s hard to discern where my field ends and someone doing something else begins, but I suppose I could stop being abstruse and arduous and admit to being inspired by every single contestant on Cupcake Wars. It combines my need for sugar with spontaneous ingenuity. On a side note – Nacho Duato (Ballet Choreographer), Paul Klee (artist), Alexander McQueen and Cristobal Balenciaga (Couturiers).

INTERVIEWER

Who has been the biggest source of inspiration throughout your career?

JAY

 Wildlife, they don’t let me down like many of my role models have. (#TheDarkerSideofAsherJay haha)

INTERVIEWER

The work you do inspiring conservation tackles everything from the illegal ivory trade to overfishing in the Mediterranean. What drives you? And how do you manage multiple, different creative projects?

JAY

I am driven by caffeine each morning, but I guess the secret ingredients to my lifestyle are passion, love and happiness. It’s like, with the wild, I found my soul mate, the love of my life, now wouldn’t you do everything in your power to protect, nurture and give to the “one?” All my emotional states orbit wild, and I have fallen hard for its beauty, complexity and diversity. Wild keeps me tethered to the present tense; it’s Deepak Chopra unabridged. With the wild, all the human white noise of projecting for a future that hasn’t happened yet, and worrying about a past that is by gone fades away. It’s refreshing to just be, it is incredibly liberating. I love wild, because it has helped me understand the value of now, for now is all I need to contribute. I stay present, informed and open, and I say yes to life and flow with the go. All of it rather effortless, like my mom always says, “If you feel like you are working hard, then you are doing something wrong.” Managing multiple projects is easy when you are bursting with ideas, love what you do, and are caffeinated or on a sugar high in regular intervals.

It’s a privilege to be able to do what I do. I get to dive, I get to hangout with lions, travel extensively, innovate and collaborate with some of the most brilliant minds of the 21st century and fight for a collective wild future… so I am grateful every day, for all of it. It is really hard walking this path, I have immersive emotional meltdowns, eat my feelings on blue days, and I seem to have missed the memo on adulting, but as my generation says, Beyonce wasn’t made in a day. It’s just a lot of hard work, consistent action, self-integrity and self-belief.

INTERVIEWER

Both your artwork and your writing seems inherently tied in with your work as an activist. What do you make of creativity as protest? And where do you think it fits within some of the broader activist and protest movements currently at play throughout the world?

JAY

I know I often get cited as an art activist, but I am not entirely comfortable with that term. I think it is important to recognize the importance of art as a medium that can empower awareness and enable action but activism is ripe in negative connotations, as is protest. I don’t think we should be against something, because the minute we are, we give rise to an “us versus them” argument. I am not protesting the current paradigm, how can I when I live in it? I am a part of the problem, as much as I am a part of the solution. I have really begun to see that off late, what with my constant globe trotting to give talks and participate in field efforts; my carbon footprint is up the wazoo. I also occasionally do drink out of a plastic water bottles, life on the go encourages that sort of convenient consumerism, and I even catch myself eating things I have never eaten before, or feel morally against. Circumstances have a way of challenging what we hold to be true, but because I hold my self accountable, I don’t let myself off the hook when I misbehave. I am aware when I do something that isn’t congruous with what I say, and when I say something that isn’t in alignment with what I do. I really am striving to lead a life of reduced internal conflict, so I can enrich other’s lives holistically. I get it right sometimes and I fail on other occasions. I am still learning, but I think the greater solution lies in being inclusive.  So I think we need to evolve past using words that denote violence and separation, like “activism” and “protest” and embrace resolved states that embody peace and coexistence, and enter an era of higher consciousness that promotes “inclusivity” and “unity” so we can do right by the largest number of living beings on this planet. It is time we recognized that we are all on a Noah’s Ark, and we should inhabit the earth cooperatively and consciously.

'Every Soup Slays A Shark'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Every Soup Slays A Shark’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Since you’re involved with so many different causes, could you tell us a bit about how you choose the cause / the campaign? What are elements that you look for?

JAY

I don’t really choose causes, causes choose me. Caring about extinction, caring about pollution, caring about human trafficking, caring about women’s empowerment, is not a choice. For any compassionate, connected person, it is impossible not to feel compelled to contribute and be an instrument of change.

INTERVIEWER

Describe your process during the development of a campaign. Are you given a topic to focus on or do you choose what speaks to you? Do you travel to remote areas for research?

JAY

I have done all of the above to realize a campaign, however I try to put myself in the paws, hooves and fins of my true clients, the reason I got into this line of work.

INTERVIEWER

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose” – Mario Cuomo. It’s interesting to see how you move between literary forms in your writing – using a combination of poetry and prose. What does poetry mean to you?

JAY

Poetry, to me, is thought expressed in its raw and vulnerable form. It is sensual, sensory, and subjective, a medium you just dive in to and experience for yourself, rather like a work of art. A poem does not need to be figured out, it just needs to be consumed in its entirety, so it can reach you as only a poem can. Let your cerebral palate be tickled by the myriad flavors it sprinkles across your mind, heart and soul. I find poetry offers the unworked fragments of my subconscious freedom of articulation and like a decanter it helps my innermost workings find the space to breathe and be.

INTERVIEWER

Can writing right wrongs?

JAY

Any form of creativity can right wrongs and wrong rights, particularly when it deprives a being of the right to freedom, as is the case with some laws that deprive animals of their personhood based on humanity’s ability to calibrate intelligence. Writing is but a weapon, and it can be wielded just as easily to hurt, hinder and hold hostage, as it can be used to protect, permit and promote process.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

JAY

Defining the word, creativity, would limit its dimensions and scope.

Asher Jay Covered in Paint

Asher Jay Covered in Paint

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk us through your creative process? How long does it take you to finish a piece?

JAY

It varies as much as public opinion on climate change, but always seems to involve hard science, baggy sweatpants, middle of the night epiphanies, gallons of coffee, academic research polls conducted in my apartment on my roommate and her boyfriend, and random paint stained body parts and occasionally my floor but don’t tell my super.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

JAY

I think it’s important to listen to all the babble, to be tolerant, and give every expressed perspective an unbiased moment of your time. Then I mull it over, to see if the ideas or arguments presented make sense to me, if they feel ethically congruous and in the best interest of the marginalized, then I assimilate it, if not I bear it in mind and work on crafting a counter position based on scientific findings and hard numbers. I don’t make the mistake of assuming I know everything there is to know about anything, I remain receptive and willing to change my stance based on open, and rational dialogue.  I maintain my voice and unique creative stand on issues by being malleable and forthcoming about my confusions and concerns.

INTERVIEWER

Great pieces of art often inspire great pieces of writing and literature – and great pieces of writing often inspire the finest pieces of art. Do you think the two naturally complement one another? How do you find balancing your work as an artist, with your work as a writer?

JAY

I don’t communicate in words when I see in pictures and I don’t see in pictures when I communicate with words, on the rare occasion both come together, and that’s pretty engaging for me, it feels like all my neurons are having hot sex with one another and resulting in one cerebralgasm after another.

INTERVIEWER

It was interesting reading your recent post on Tenerife – especially the way you note how its tourist-fuelled economy is “brash, irreverent, myopic, materialistic, irresponsible [and] itinerant”! This is travel writing as protest, and it’s difficult not to ignore your call to arms when you insist on the “importance of saving marine habitats [because] we owe one out of two breaths to the world’s cerulean expanse”. How important, do you think, art and writing are in drawing attention to these issues, which, despite not getting much coverage in the media, nonetheless have the power to significantly affect us all – no matter where we live?

JAY

Art and writing can breathe new life into a hackneyed narrative arc, while keeping the grey areas alive. The human mind has a way of separating situations and individuals into good and evil, vilifying those who commit a “wrong” and pitting them against the crusaders who fight the good fight, but more often than not, issues are more complicated than that. There are more variables to address and it is seldom a ‘one off’ incident. Take Cecil the Lion, everyone got riled up about him, but in a week he will be old news. The Exxon Valdez spill is still a problem, the oil hasn’t gone away in all these years, the animals in that ecosystem have forever been impacted, and my friends tell me that you can still smell the gasoline beneath the shore side rocks. The same is true of the BP Maconda spill, and Haiti’s reconstruction efforts but we are quick to forget, because people just like being entertained by sensationalized stories, and enjoy the feel good factor of doing a quick call to action, and moving on to the next thing. The engagement seldom results in the culmination of a long haul solution.  We are all too distracted by the sheer volume of choices when it comes to causes and tragedies that we buy into them based on PR, not because they are a priority. Environmental degradation compromises our continued survival and health, it makes us vulnerable to the compounding impact of volatile externalities as a collective, but why think about that, when business as usual guarantees a pay-check that you can donate ten dollars from, toward a charity of your choice as you check out at your local health foods store? We are creatures of habit, and it is convenient to think, “we have been okay thus far, we’ll be okay going forward, technology will take care of the rest.”

INTERVIEWER

You mention the BP oil spill there, and have previously noted that it was absolutely pivotal in your career. Could you please explain why that’s the case?

JAY

It was the moment I realized, I had to participate more substantially, that signing petitions and recycling was simply not enough for me. It became apparent to me that this work is my calling.

'Hydrocarbon Hospice'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Hydrocarbon Hospice’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Or a specific audience/viewer in mind for your artwork?

JAY

I write what insights I have, I create what comes to me, and it reaches those it is meant to mobilize. I do strategize the channels of dissemination, discern the target demographic and determine the benchmarks of a campaign or op-ed before launching it, but creative expression has a larger impact on shaping cultural consciousness than we have ways to measure it.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

JAY

No. Gosh, it is hard enough being me; I doubt I have the time to manage an alter ego, besides I strive hard to resolve duality, reduce conflict within the self and live a more unified life. Encouraging oneness would get infinitely harder if I fracture myself, and by extension my voice. It all comes from the same place within me.

INTERVIEWER

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language // and next year’s words await another voice” – T.S. Eliot. There’s always a danger, when it comes to protest, activism and writing, that what we do becomes outdated – addressing last year’s problems using last year’s language. How do you keep your writing and artwork fresh? And what voice, do you think, we need for next year (and all the years afterwards)?

JAY

Trying to unite a modern world of ever-changing technological advances, social movements, fashion trends and a constantly distracting digital landscape with an irreplaceable and finite wild world keeps my art as fresh as the changing culture of society. Because people, communication and ideologies change, I must adapt my methods of reaching the masses in a way that will have an emotional impact on them and recruit them to a consciousness of compassion and concern for the larger picture, i.e., the wild world upon which our very existence depends. The voice of tomorrow will find expression when tomorrow becomes today. We need only take it a day at a time, and give it everything we have got. This day, this moment it includes everything that is, and everything that has ever existed, why isn’t that enough? Why can’t we do justice to all that exists now? Why can’t we make ‘now’ count?

INTERVIEWER

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

JAY

Launching a “Your Shot” assignment with National Geographic on September 7th, to build on the premise of my iStorm Faberge Egg from last year’s Big Egg Hunt. I will serve as editor and curate the content, picking out the best images from the submissions, but I will also be using the raw data/images to composite a larger story that will then be disseminated back to the public through an open source application. I have several other projects in the pipeline including an issue-artwork I created for Joel Harper’s All the Way to the Ocean children’s film and book, which will tour and sell in conjunction to Joel’s inspired efforts to raise youth awareness. Also finishing up a project called Beyond the Frame in Focus, which relies on multimedia to tell stories that are multidimensional. I shot a series of photographs while I was in the Serengeti last year, and while each image I clicked is a complete composition of a single moment, it is also incomplete as it excludes everything the lens isn’t able to bring into focus in that moment — the larger story. Through my ability to conceptually integrate various ideas into a single layout through paint, graphics, collage and collating scientific data/field information, I have seen begun creating works that go beyond the frame in focus. The questions I am looking to answer: What is not being told by the image captured? What else can I be bringing to light in that moment? I have also been incorporating notes from the field, and coining innovative ways to fold data into the layouts. The final works are highly textural, rich and uniquely different from any other project done thus far on African wildlife.  I presented two pieces from this series at the National Geographic Explorer Symposium this year.

'Up In Smoke'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Up In Smoke’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

And what about the future in general? Where are global trends and issues taking the world (and humanity along with it)?

JAY

The future isn’t here yet, lets do right by the present first. We don’t have the bandwidth to assess what our future will be like, bleak or bright, what we can do is take responsibility for the moment at hand, and do better than we have in moments past.

We are living in a world that no one wants to be a part of; everyone is desperate to escape it, one way or another, through emotional opiates, indulging experiences or by constantly awaiting what comes next. No one wants to be present, it’s far too boring in the digital age to be contained by the reality of your present tense, so everyone finds ways to leave or lose “now.”

INTERVIEWER

Creative types and writers have always been imagining the future – Brave New World and 1984 immediately spring to mind. What role do you think writing and art play in the way we think about ‘the world of tomorrow’?

JAY

It can imbue us with hope and fuel our imagination, as such oracular writing and art often does, but we should not confuse fiction with reality. Yes we are capable of modelling for a future based on hard facts and figures, especially when we have certain controls in place. We make specific assumptions as our foundation, upon which we build the model, but time and again we have failed to be cognizant of the fact that we are limited, and as such incapable of comprehending the complexity of compounding consequences. It doesn’t stop us from trying, but life and nature has a rewarding way of putting us back in our place, and giving us the freedom of acceptance that comes from surrender.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say you’re in the utopian or dystopian school of thought?

JAY

Neither. I don’t think projecting for a future that hasn’t happened yet has ever prepared us for how things have actually unfolded at any given point in our collective history. I try to anchor myself in the realities of our world without impressing my interpretations upon them, which at times is extremely hard, but deep down I recognize that things are the way they are and choosing to reject, accept, hope for a better tomorrow or surrender to a post-apocalyptic future, will not make this instant any different than it is. You see, how I perceive any aspect of reality only changes that aspect for me, not for others, so in truth, all that my perceptions, ideologies, aspirations and beliefs do, is isolate me from the rest of humanity and life, which honestly accomplishes nothing. It’s hard to be in an objective, unified place continually though, but I guess that is at the crux of the human condition.

INTERVIEWER

Say you met your future self (say from the year 2030) – what one question would you ask?

JAY

Are you present?

INTERVIEWER

If everything that was wrong with the world was righted, what would you write about? What art would you make?

JAY

If the things I write about and create art about get resolved, I will probably stop doing what I do now. I will adapt and find new purpose, because life will show me what the world needs from me at that juncture, or better yet I’d move to Africa and live in the bush wild with the elephants, lions and rock hyraxes I care so deeply for. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling way to spend my time if all this conflict gets effectively addressed by tomorrow.

'When The Blind See'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘When The Blind See’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

And finally, could you write us a story in 6 words?

JAY

Lion slumber party? Lived through it!

The Starling

'Starling'. Photograph: Lori Garske/Flickr

‘Starling’. Photograph: Lori Garske/Flickr

I paused. There was a noise above my head, in the attic. It was intermittent. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard anything at all it was so indistinct, so gentle. The child which remained somewhere within me played with the idea of ghosts and spirits but I wasn’t intrigued enough to venture into the cold space that topped the whole house in wintry mystery. It had been a while since I had climbed the stairs up there. I resumed brushing my teeth with a stiff-shouldered shrug. My bed and hot water bottle were waiting for me, and silence had returned to keep me company.

It was the day after and I was in the garden. I wasn’t able to move all that well because I had wrapped up so tightly against winter, refusing to let in a single gust. Still, my face was furiously chilled, and my nose felt a separate extremity with the cold. At times I touched it with my gloved hand or scrunched it up just to move it about. The thought of a cup of English Breakfast tea warmed me, and the promise of it spurred me on. The field beyond the sparse lawn was veiled in crystal, and the early light offered a pearlescent shine. In fact every piece of patchwork land which stretched undisturbed to the distant horizon was painted in the same frosty hue. Each naked tree of the arboretum was paler in suspended death, the branches ready to snap. The leafless hedgerows were tangled streaks of caliginous grey against the earth; the ice-dry veins of the countryside. Nothing moved, except myself. Turning my back on the austere scene I proceeded to the open barn.

The barn was dark despite its facelessness. The machinery was dark too. The red of the tractor had become a sanguine brown, the green of the mower a murky sea colour and the black of the old car chassis blacker still. Above, in the wood-worm beams numerous items were suspended; rusted oil lanterns I had replaced long ago with torches; an ancient canoe which I had never used; rope, coiled like snake-skin.

The smell of fuel left its addictive trace on the exposed, broken carburetor which I knew lay abandoned upon the wooden workstation tucked into the deepest shadows of the old barn. The enjoyable scent accompanied that of the log pile I had to tackle before I could have that cup of tea.

And there they were, the logs, crowded together as if for protection. You’ll all burn eventually I said to myself. I reached down to collect the long-handled axe my father had left to me years ago. I dragged the tool to the chopping block, it felt heavier than last winter. Or perhaps I was weaker. I let the handle slip through my hand gradually until the axe hit the ground with a dull, resigned thump, and then I propped it against the block. I returned to the huddled logs and continued to load the rusted wheelbarrow with them, pushing them to the end of their road. The single wheel left a harsh trail in the crunchy, pale grass.

With a deliberate tempo I began the task. Each blow echoed from the barn behind, only to be shouted across the open expanse of the field in front. The countryside almost barked back in retaliation, and each sound bounced from the wall of my house. The arc and swing of the axe, its downward plummet and inevitable thud savagely marked the passing of time, and soon only kindling remained of the botched logs and sizable chunks of the clean-cut ones. I refilled the wheelbarrow with the butchered wood and left the axe to suffer the cold.

I looked up at the house. The attic windows, two eyes with pyramid pupils, stared across the land I had been gazing at. Like captive’s facing an enemy interrogation, they had a clandestine look. I remembered the bodiless noise I had heard in the attic, but again, was not certain if I had imagined it. And so I let the memory go.

***

I was in the garden again, but not for logs. I needed the stepladder to replace the light in the high-ceilinged drawing room. On my way to the garage I passed my car, the only car; the once-white-now-ashen estate. I still needed to take a look at the guts of it, to try and locate the cause of the splutter whenever the ignition was turned. I paused briefly, only to scratch the rust from the passenger door’s handle. I approached the large garage. The broken padlock hung limply, feigning protection, its mechanism no longer functioning. I considered throwing it out, but as I pulled open the heavy door with both hands the inclination left me. I had neglected to put on my gloves, and so my fingers reluctantly left the frigid surface of the handle. I rubbed my hands against one another and entered. The fragile light form outside fell through the crack in one severe splinter, cutting the darkness in two. The stepladder was in the light’s path. I marched to it, my lungs already chilled, my breath already short.

I hitched the stepladder under one arm. En route to the house I paused again, but it wasn’t my car which took my attention. The fountain was frozen. I broke the ice, cracking the hostile cover and promising myself I would do it the next day and the day after, and continue throughout the perpetual winter until the sun usurped the chill and stole my deed from me.

The drawing room was cold; I hadn’t heated the room for a while. Warmth never seemed to linger so I had given up trying the year my father had died. I opened the stepladder beneath the broken light. The neglected fireplace was beautiful in its dormancy. Before I climbed the stepladder I brushed the dust from the marble mantle. It was as I removed the spent bulb and slotted the new one into place that the slightest of sounds reached my ears. It had come from the attic, I was certain this time. My brow furrowed with the doubt that almost immediately pushed against the momentary certainty, and I kept still, one ear cocked upward. The noise didn’t occur again, but my heart felt a little quicker for the interruption. I returned the stepladder to the garage. Closing the door, I positioned the broken padlock, and turned my back on it.

The heat of my house wasn’t able to purge the frostiness from my limbs, nor did the tea do much to warm me. I made my second cup, the tinkling of the teaspoon stirring in the one-and-a-half sugars the only sound to grace the many vacant rooms. Even the fire seemed hushed, and outside there was nothing. It smelt of extinction and seclusion. As I tapped the teaspoon a final time on the edge of the aged cup I heard noises above, in the attic. They were a little more urgent, a little less soft. I exhaled and, pushing ghosts and spirits from my mind, began the ascent, leaving my tea to steam its life away.

At the foot of the attic stairs I lingered, and as if waiting for such an action, another noise sounded. A whispered beat. I climbed carefully until I reached the trap door. When I opened it the noise ceased with a violent blast of cold. I closed the wooden door behind me quietly and stood, the image of a statue. I turned my head slowly, my eyes falling over each corpse of furniture, each piece of moth-eaten fabric, each damaged toy with colourless faces and eyeless sockets. Old shelving units leaned this way and that under the weight of dusty boxes containing perhaps old photographs or once-sentimental trinkets. Mounds of faded newspaper cuttings rested precariously atop stacks of obsolete books. Some, it seemed, had been disturbed recently. I licked my lips and scoured the cluttered yet vacant space. Everything was shrouded by an insubstantial murk.

Then I saw it, the starling.

I was spooked by life, life that was carried on oil-coloured wings. I had startled it too, and at once it erupted about the eaves, its flapping noise suddenly frantic, no longer delicate. I followed it with my eyes, immediately captivated by its fervor, its movement. Some of the newspaper cuttings were blown about in a haze of dust which clouded my vision of the creature momentarily. Its silhouette became clearer as the dust settled back into place, coating the newly exposed areas. I inched closer, willing the starling to be calm, but I only panicked it further. It crashed against the large, slanted window pane before hurtling across the messy space, barely avoiding the detritus of bygone years I could not recollect the details of. It didn’t pass me, but it seemed to sense that its space was shrinking. One last attempt at the impenetrable pane drew it to a shuddering stop. I thought it had broken its neck but it looked at me, its tiny chest twitching with its heart’s troubled beat. Its black eyes seemed so full of fear that I halted.

I observed it, as it observed me. It was odd to see something so animated, I had become so accustomed to stillness. The colours of its plumage were like dark rainbows, peppered with pinpricks of white. A bird-shaped galaxy. Gradually, ever so gradually, I extended my arm, stretching my fingers until they gripped the cold latch, but my fingers were oddly warm. They had been so icy, white twigs, but now they were pink with life. I pulled and pushed and the window opened.

I waited. The starling waited too, uncertainty in the eye that watched me. Then it hopped once onto the window sill, and again into grateful flight. I hurried to watch the creature find its home. There it was, a graceful dot in the leaden sky rapidly being consumed by the otherwise lifeless space. I shivered, my hands were cold again.

About the author

Hannah Fairney Jeans was constantly imagining as a young child. These ‘imaginings’ were brought to life by her favourite toy; her type-writer. Now, twenty years on, Hannah is still penning stories, still consumed by her worlds, and still in love with creation, and her type-writer.

5 top writing tips for writers, from Rishi Dastidar

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In a series of posts, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have been asking writers to share their top tips and advice on writing. Today, it is our pleasure to bring you the top writing tips from journalist, copywriter and poet, Rishi Dastidar.

Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these great little pieces of advice will set you on your way!

Rishi Dastidar’s top five writing tips:

  1. Always carry a notebook and a writing implement: I mean a phone is OK, but there’s nothing quite like dashing something off in a cursive script that only you can decipher.
  2. Read more, and then read more than that again: Other people’s words are your fuel. What you do is compress, re-interpret, play, dance with them to make your new things. If you don’t read, you won’t write.
  3. Find your place and time to write: and the trick is that it doesn’t have to be a long time. 15, 20 minutes every day starts to mount up very quickly. The habit of doing so soon becomes addictive, and you’ll find that the time constraint gets good stuff out of you – fast.
  4. The blank page is scary. So don’t leave it blank before you start. Make some form of mark. Try writing 1 to 10 down the side – then you only have ten lines to write. And you’ll find you blow past that fast enough. Or pick a word from the nearest newspaper or magazine, and write that at the top of the page, then start scribbling.
  5. Because ultimately you’re writing for you, it doesn’t really matter if another souls reads what you write. So be bold and brave when you start – there’s no one else you need to please.

About the author

Rishi Dastidar has worked as a journalist, copywriter and poet. He has written for a wide variety of brands in different sectors during his career, while his poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others. His work was most recently in Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). A winner of And Other Stories short story prize in 2012, he has also had reviews published in the Times Literary Supplement. He was part of the 2014-15 Rialto / Poetry School editorial development programme, and also serves as a trustee of Spread The Word. Rishi was recently featured in our Creatives in profile interview series.

YA Author Lola Blake’s Top Ten Writing Tips

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In a series of posts, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have been asking writers to share their top tips and advice on writing. Today, it is our pleasure to bring you the top writing tips from YA Author, Lola Blake.

Every writer is different

Every writer is different and every book is written in a way that is unique to the author, as well as to the book itself. Some authors use formulas, other’s creative license. Some writers are night owls and work best at 3am, others get up early and write by the dawn light. As I said, every writer is different so some of these tips may not work for everyone, so take what you need from what I’m about to say. These are my top ten tips for settling into completing that pesky manuscript that’s been playing on your mind for a while. This is what works best for me, hopefully there’ll be a tip or two on the list that will work for you also. Enjoy!

– Lola

Lola Blake’s Top Ten Writing Tips:

  1. Know your characters

Character motivation is what drives a narrative. If you understand your character’s reasons and motivations, the story will almost write itself. Think about your story’s main issue or point of contention, then consider; what does it mean to each and every character? How is your character(s) going to react to this news? Consider the voice and temperament of your characters. Before I start my manuscript, I like to write out a brief character summary of each and every player. I decide whether or not that person is headstrong or easy-going, manipulative or level-headed. I refer to my notes before I put any dialogue on paper.

  1. Find a method to your madness

When Stephen King puts pen to paper, his ideas are driven by his imagination. He has no plan or rough storyline drawn out, he just goes with it and ends up where his clever mind takes him and this method has proven successful for him. For me, personally, I’d get tangled up in a web of my own convoluted ideas, if I went with that method. I write my ideas out on paper and then try to come up with a timeline of cause-and-effect events to that there’s no gaps in my narrative. This works best for me. Some writers take this a step further and write out blow-by-blow synopsis for each and every chapter. This also wouldn’t work for me. To each, their own, but find something that works for you.

  1. Don’t procrastinate

I lost months, maybe even years, of potential writing time by waiting to feel ‘inspired’ to write something. Over the past couple of years, since I became a published author, I’ve learned that free time is the best time to write. Even if your mind is blank, you’re feeling tired or particularly unmotivated, once your fingers start scrambling across the keyboard, the words will come to you. I’ve written some of my best pieces during times of apparent lethargy. I disconnected my pay TV and now I keep my laptop in the living room, in plain sight. It helps!

  1. Know how to overcome writer’s block

Nothing on your mind? No words coming out? Can’t think of an interesting predicament, scenario or character to get your thoughts on paper? Take an ipod, listen to some cool tunes and go for a walk in the fresh air. A long walk! I don’t know if this will work for everyone, but it certainly works for me. Lots of ideas will come to you when you’ve got nothing to think about except the scenery and the music will stir up different emotions to get your synapsis firing.

  1. Get some sleep

No-one ever won a literary prize for something they wrote when they were sleep deprived. Sleeplessness has the same effect on the mind as intoxication. I should know, I tried to write the first chapter of my second book while looking after a newborn. When I read it back a few weeks later, I couldn’t believe the garbled crap I had been prepared to put on the shelf! When my little one started sleeping through the night, I rewrote the chapter and felt much better.

  1. Keep reading!

Whenever I hear someone say ‘oh, I’d really like to be a writer, but I hate reading’ I wonder why on earth they’d choose writing as a profession in the first place. Read a range of books, have at least one book on your bedside table, read when you’re on the train, even if it’s only for twenty minutes or so every day, but keep reading! It’s good for the soul, it opens you to new ideas and reading is great for keeping you up to date with grammatical structures and literary language.

  1. Think about your audience, but not too much

Granted, if you’re writing a Young Adult novel it’s probably not a good idea to fill it full of F-Bombs, however, many writer’s get bogged down in the idea that they have to produce a book within the guidelines of a particular formula, to appeal to a certain market. Whether or not there’s truth in the idea, I couldn’t tell you, but I can tell you this; so many authors burn out creatively trying to write a book that’s interesting to others but not to themselves. If there’s an idea that’s interesting to you, explore it. Write the book you’d want to read yourself and chances are, someone else will like it too.

  1. Manage your time

Decide when you’d like to complete your manuscript, set a date and then work out a schedule to achieve it. Most people that know me, can vouch that I’m an organisational Nazi, but I’ve also never missed a deadline in my life.

  1. Ignore self-doubt

You’re your own worst critic. No-one else will ever judge your work as harshly as you. Don’t be scared of rejection, it happens to everyone and no-one experiences rejection as often as a writer, so don’t be scared to send that manuscript. Send it to as many publishers as you can. Send it until you get that ‘yes’ response, or exhaust every avenue trying.

  1. Be proactive on social media

Lots of writers find social media exhausting (and it is!). Getting your name out there, updating your website constantly, connecting with your fan base, all of these things can be just as exhausting as the writing process itself, but it’s worth it! Even established writers use social media to connect with their readers, so don’t ever underestimate the power of social media. Even when it feels like you’ve been treading water for ages, you never know when someone’s going to click on a link to your website or Amazon author’s page. Persistence is the key!

About the author

Lola Blake writes both adult and young adult fiction. She grew up in Australia’s Surf Coast Shire, before moving to Melbourne to study creative writing. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she spent the next ten years trying out various careers and travelling, before finally deciding on teaching. Her first novel, Coming Home was written in eight weeks, during a visit to the seaside. She now lives in Melbourne with her husband and daughter and still retains her love for the beach. She tweets as @LolaBlakes

Why do some authors write in secret?

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Writers often hide behind a pen name or keep the very act of writing a secret from colleagues, friends or family. But what is it about writing that makes writers want to hide from view? Chris Smith investigates…

Pick up the pen (name)

It wasn’t until the publication of his first novel Call for the Dead in 1961 that David John Moore Cornwell became better known as John Le Carré – but not to his colleagues at British secret service agencies MI5 and MI6 where he worked at the time.

Cornwell took the pen name Le Carré (Le Carré is French for ‘the square’) because serving officers were forbidden to write under their own names – a relief possibly for Cornwell as interviews suggest a certain reluctance to expose his hobby anyway. Le Carré says that most of his early writing was done on his 90-minute daily commute between London and his home. Whilst the later electrification of the line made the journey far quicker, the result was “a great loss to literature” according to the former spook.

Le Carré also wrote secretly during his lunch hour and grabbed any time he could during the working day to plot out his novels. “I was always very careful to give my country second best,” he said in an interview with the Paris Review in 1996. Le Carré left the secret service to concentrate on his writing soon after the success of his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

From commercials to couplets – the copywriting poet

Another writer who invested rather more in writing than the day job was American poet and novelist James Dickey. After being unable to find his job of choice – a lecturing position – Dickey was forced to take a copywriting role at New York advertising firm McCann-Erickson. Something that involved him having to grind out endless perky radio ads for the likes of Coca-Cola. Unbeknownst to his fellow mad men, Dickey used each morning to dash off his commercials and the afternoons to write poetry and prose – courtesy of the company typewriter.

According to his biographer, Dickey used to keep his office door locked and write on a desk scattered with poetry manuscripts and books. When colleagues came knocking he’d hurriedly hide his notes and pretend to be engrossed in Coke’s latest ad campaign. Things caught up with Dickey after he started making a name for himself as a writer and his bosses suspected his poetry was taking priority over his promotions – which of course it was. Dickey was fired from the ad company in 1961.

Jane Austen’s furtive habits

Furtive writing was also a character trait of Jane Austen – author of Pride and Prejudice and other literary classics. Austin lived surrounded by her family in a large busy bustling household. She used to write in the family sitting room and whilst she expected constant interruptions, she didn’t want anyone outside her immediate family – such as servants or visitors – finding out about her writing.

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Jane Austen

To make sure she could quickly stash away her work, Austin used to write on tiny scraps of paper that could be easily brushed under a large piece of blotting paper she kept with her at all times. She also wrote with a box of sewing material nearby so she could pretend to be engrossed in needlework should an unwanted visitor come snooping around.

Using a pen name

Whilst writers like Le Carré and Dickey might have been delighted to escape the confines of the office in order to concentrate on their writerly endevours, Henry Green – an English author best remembered for novels Party Going and Loving – embraced his day job and gained emotional stability from it.

‘Henry Green’ was the pen name of wealthy industrialist and aristocrat Henry Yorke who ran his family’s manufacturing plant in the Midlands by day and wrote his novels by night. Yorke found solace in the structure of the everyday and found that it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity. He used a pen name because he never wanted any of his business associates to know about his work – although they did in time as his fame grew.

Sue Townsend’s secret

British comic novelist and playwright Sue Townsend spent years writing in secret whilst she raised her family and worked a string of jobs in factories and shops.

Indeed, it was only in her thirties, after her fourth child was born and with large doses of coaxing from her husband that she started attending a writers’ group at Leicester’s old Phoenix Theatre. Initially too shy to speak, she didn’t write anything for six weeks. Then she was then given a fortnight to write a play. This became the thirty-minute drama Womberang (1979), set in the waiting room of a gynecology department – after that, there was no stopping her.

Townsend didn’t adopt a pen name like Yorke or Cornwell. She didn’t conceal her writing for fear of colleagues or servants finding out nor to gain inspiration or emotional stability. Rather more likely is that she didn’t reveal her writing for the most human of reasons. She didn’t think her work was any good.

In interviews, Townsend says that as an unknown writer, she used to store up ideas for characters and stories. She always thought she’d have a use for them later on. Perhaps no wonder then that her most famous work is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Are you an undercover writer?

The team at Write Trackwrit reckon that for whatever reason, lots of writers write in secret.  They have day jobs, families and chores that take all their time and much of their energy – but they still find the time to write.

Do you hide your writing from your colleagues, friends and family (or like Jane Austen from your servants)? When and where do you secretly write? Why do you keep it a secret? Tell us your furtive writing habits by visiting the website and getting in touch. We promise that your secret is safe with us!

About the author of this post

Chris Smith is a writer, blogger, former philosophy lecturer and now co-founder at Prolifiko, a tech startup making digital productivity tools for writers of all types. His most recent side project is a new blog called Founders and Philosophers, where he’s aiming to write about what entrepreneurs can learn from history’s greatest thinkers.  He tweets at @SwarmComms.