Mighty pens, mightier words

The gods of rock’n’roll, hunky (but mad) police officers, and the least sexy objects on earth. These are just some of the things that have caught the imagination of Glamorgan’s writers.

Part of the Pocket Notebook cover image, used with permission

by the Glamlife Team

Studying writing

Mike Thomas: Pocket Notebook

Pocket Notebook is an angry black comedy about Jacob Smith, a tactical firearms officer with a violent temper and a generous helping of character flaws. It follows Jacob’s very public breakdown and subsequent fall from grace, all of which he meticulously records in his police notebook.

Pocket Notebook cover

Read the reviews in The Independent, The Mirror Book Blog, or, if you’ve already read it, leave your own at Amazon or book review sites.

You might imagine a typical writer to be a recluse, living in a cottage atop a mountain with only a typewriter and a cigarette for company. Or maybe you imagine the writer as a bit of a drunkard on a Caribbean island, living amongst people, but always slightly removed from them. Of course, if you did a course in writing, someone would soon point out to you that these images can be a bit clichéd…

Mike Thomas, for example, is a full time police officer and the father of two young children. He is also a writer, and one of the MPhil in Writing’s recent students. Mike’s first novel, Pocket Notebook, which he wrote on the course, has just arrived in bookshops. It has started gathering positive reviews in the press. You may be interested in attending the Bedwas launch of Pocket Notebook.

Mike is enthusiastic about what the course did for him. “The framework works really well. Those rolling eight-week deadlines really give you a kick up the backside to write. I’d return home after an afternoon shift at midnight, then write until 5am. It was almost a compulsion for me.”

Creative writing courses are taught through workshops – where writers read and discuss each others’ works. If you’ve never been to a writing workshop, imagine it like a book club that sees the book long before it is printed and bound; a club that can influence the writer. Lessons and lectures are not the main focus – most of the time is spent discussing the merits of individual pieces of work.

There are few, if any text books – but the one thing all lecturers, including Philip Gross, Professor in Creative Writing, will tell you, is that a good writer is usually also an enthusiastic reader. "We don’t want people to read because they have to. We want people to read because they’re hungry. I want people to read because they’re in a conversation with everyone else. If they aren’t, then it’s almost like they’re in a room talking to themselves, which is always a little worrying.

Philip Gross

The Water Table, a poetry collection, won the TS Eliot prize and received rave reviews in The Guardian and The Telegraph. Published around same time was another collection, I Spy Pinhole Eye, which is a collaboration with Simon Denison, combining pinhole photography of the concrete slabs that electricity pylon stand on with poems by Philip Gross.

“In a sense, either book could be about anything. It’s about opening your eyes and looking at things with an extraordinary amount of attention. It’s almost a deliberate joke in Pinhole that we started by looking at this least sexy object on earth. What that book is arguing is… everything is wonderful, just open your eyes. If you look at it well enough, and long enough, then everything will give back echoes of the important things in the world.”

Philip has also written various other collections of poetry, novels, and more. Have a look at his website to find out more.

“This very morning, I had one of our undergraduates saying the classic thing that makes creative writing lecturers fall down and eat the carpet. ‘I don’t really want to do any reading in case it influences my style.’ – Your only hope of finding your own individual style is reading lots of other people. If you don’t, then you’re stuck with your default setting, which is probably a cliché.”

Aside from the need to read, the few rules that do exist can be bent, or broken, if it’s done with confidence and panache. For example, asked about the “write what you know” rule, Dr Tiffany Murray, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, tells us it needs to be stretched a bit. “I think that should be ‘Write what you know, until you’re brave enough not to.’ That’s where I am at the moment. My next novel, which I’m drafting, is still set in a house that I know of, that I’ve been in, maybe once or twice, but it’s set in the 1950s, and it uses place in a less known way.”

Success

Tiffany’s most recent novel, Diamond Star Halo, has just been published, and is gathering impressive reviews. The Hay Festival, one of Britain’s most important literary events, has chosen it for its recommended Book of the Month in January. “It is a novel about other novels, and it’s a mosaic of music as well as a mosaic of books,” Tiffany tells us.

The story is partially inspired by Wuthering Heights, but it is set in a world of rock stars and their surroundings. Actually, that last sentence might be a bit misleading: it is set in the surroundings, and rock stars drift in and out of the story. The geographical setting is “very, very similar” to the place where Tiffany herself grew up, Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire. It’s part farm, part recording studio, a rural haven for the Gods of rock and roll.

Tiffany Murray

Diamond Star Halo is Tiffany Murray’s second novel. Halo is a girl growing up on Rockfarm, surrounded by animals and rock stars. One band leaves behind a baby, and Halo gains a step brother, who grows into a charismatic rock hero…

Diamond Star Halo cover

Read the reviews in The Guardian or The Independent. If you’re interested in finding out what growing up amongst rock stars is really like, you can read what she wrote about the real Rockfield Studios.

Critical acclaim, book club recommendations and positive reviews are, of course, a delight for any author. But how do writers themselves define success? Tiffany is quite modest: “Success is waking up and thinking I’m going to write today.”

Philip Gross, who is an acclaimed novelist and poet, and who has made headlines recently by winning the TS Eliot prize, agrees. “The stage at which I feel that my writing life has been tentatively, on average, a success, is that I’ve been able to go on doing it. I think that counts as real success, if you reach some kind of negotiation with the world that lets you go on writing.”

Philip and Tiffany are already established successful writers – but just how do you get started? Mike Thomas, who is at the start of his career, tells us how his particular success story panned out. “On the MPhil, we had a guest speaker – a highly respected publisher. I kind of ambushed him, and put my manuscript in his carrier bag. For a few months, nothing happened, but then he got in touch and told me he really liked it and was interested. I panicked, and rang every agent in the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, and finally found Curtis Brown. Ironically, in the end, we actually went for a different publisher.”

Since signing the deal with his publisher, Mike’s life has turned into a blur. Rewriting, taking part in publicity, and starting work on his next novel – he has certainly not rested on his laurels just yet. Being a modern author brings with it some surprises, such as the fact that many books now get promoted by video trailers, such as the one below.

Mike is not the first Glamorgan alumnus to be a successful, published writer. In fact, the list of successes is quite stunning. You can find a more comprehensive list at the end of this article.

Two other writers who honed their craft at Glamorgan have been published in 2010, so far: Dan Rhodes and Maria McCann. Both their novels have delighted reviewers. One is a darkly humorous novel set in a contemporary, fictional Museum of Suicide, the other is a novel set in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and focusing on one family and their secrets. Maria McCann will be returning to Glamorgan in April, as a guest speaker on the MPhil in Writing. The reading will be open to all.

Meanwhile, if reading about writers and writing has whetted your appetite, and you’re interested in finding out more about studying creative writing, you could read about the undergraduate degree, the postgraduate MPhil, or, if you would like to try a taster sample first, there will be short creative writing courses at Glamorgan’s Summer School, details of which will be announced shortly.

You could also submit your own writing to Daps, the University’s annual creative writing anthology. The 2010 edition of Daps will get an official launch party on 12th March, so come along to that if you’d like to meet the current crop of undergraduate writers. If you want to submit your own work, the submission period will be open again in the new academic year, for the 2011 edition.

Books written by Glamorgan’s writing students and alumni: the past 10 years

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2001

2000