Plotting the Perfect Crime: a crime writing exhibition from the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA

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This year’s crime writing exhibition, created to coincide with Noirwich, reveals the intricate planning behind some of our greatest contemporary crime novels, with material from Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Robert Edric, author of a crime trilogy set in Hull, this year’s City of Culture. Stuart MacBride predicts a nosebleed amongst fellow writers.

Here archivist, Justine Mann, introduces her personal highlights.

Stuart MacBride

MacBride’s notebooks and mindmaps are the earliest incarnation of his novels. He has created a literal map to visualise his fictional town of Old Castle, all the better to locate the murders and the distances between them. What begins as an impressive tool evolves into something the Ordnance Survey would be proud of and is published within a subsequent novel. Perhaps the most striking of elements within this display is a graph. At first glance it appears to be a chart of multiple, frantic, sound waves but on closer inspection it reveals the cadences of plot points marshalled to pinpoint accuracy in order to create the most devastating effect on the reader. He remarks casually, that ‘This has been known to give other writers nose bleeds’. This display also reveals his painstaking restructuring of the plot for In the Cold Dark Ground, scene by scene with scissors and sellotape.

Val McDermid

The author’s latest novel, Insidious Intent, ‘impeccably plotted and intensely gripping’ also began in notebook form. On display are original pages from a numbered outline charting key plot developments. ‘When I start a book, I have an idea of the story arc and I’ve spent most of my prep time thinking about the characters: how they’re going to conduct themselves, how they got to be the person they are today.’

The evidence here suggests that McDermid’s subconscious is working hard on plot design before she tackles the page. While crafting the language she refers to the outline notes to keep the structure on track. She recently revealed her daily routine to The Guardian:

‘Around the second cup of coffee, I take a look at what I last wrote, tweaking and revising, stripping the prose back till I’m more at ease with it. I spend the first month feeling my way into the book, getting a sense of its world and learning its nooks and crannies. Then it picks up pace and I can’t escape it.’

Robert Edric

How does a literary novelist take on the challenge of writing crime fiction? In 2002, the Booker longlisted author, Robert Edric, took a break from writing literary novels, to create a crime trilogy set in Hull, this year’s City of Culture. In The Times, Neel Mukherjee, applauded Cradle Song, Edric’s first, for: “its vertiginously devious plot twists, the maze of multiple-crossings (which) all close like a fist around the throat of the reader.”

“When I’m working on a literary novel,” Edric says, “it’s less important to me whether I write a, then d, g , x then e. The meaning of the book might be in the middle. The goal is not the end, but whether it fails or succeeds in your own mind. With a crime novel, you’re less organic. There has to be a logical process.’

A sense of place has always been important to Edric and in the opening chapter on display he uses Spurn Point, a bleak yet beautiful peninsular, 30 miles from Hull and ravaged on all sides by the North Sea, as the setting of a key meeting between ex copper, Sullivan, and private investigator, Rivers. The drafts reveal the key phrases and striking images that survive, almost in tact, from first draft through to final publication, as well as the tweaks and line edits that heighten characterisation and plot tension.

Previewed on Friday 15 September (UEA, TPSC Foyer) /

UEA Archives Foyer, UEA Library Floor 02, Tue 19 Sept – Fri 22 Dec (Free access)


Sebald Visit from Heinz-Berggruen-Gymnasium, Berlin

A guest blog from the students of Heinz-Berggruen-Gymnasium in Berlin, Charlottenburg who visited the WG Sebald Audiovisual collection at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing last Summer (just days after the Brexit referendum).

Thank you UEA!

This summer we are leaving school. This means also looking back on eight years at Heinz-Berggruen-Gymnasium in Berlin, Charlottenburg.

One unforgettable memory is our trip to England last June (2016).

During that school trip we also went to UEA because we wanted to find out more about W.G. Sebald, a well known German author who had lived in England most of his time and had taught at UEA.

Our visit to UEA was and still is an unforgettable experience.

Undoubtedly, for people who are interested in literature visiting the University of East Anglia in Norwich is  a great opportunity to gain knowledge in a very comfortable and personal way.

We were especially lucky as Professor Jon Cook offered to speak to us about Sebald.

When Professor Cook read from Sebald’s books and added stories from his personal encounters and his cooperation with Sebald we could all feel the power of this exceptional author.

That way we not only gained insight into Sebald’s work but also got to know what he must have been like in private life.

We were all particularly moved when Professor Jon Cook pointed out how devastated he was on the news of Sebald’s death and how UEA had lost a creative spirit.

WG Sebald visitors 040716We also went to the archive where we were introduced to visual and audio material, which added greatly to our impressions of Sebald’s work and life in Norwich.

On top of that Professor Cook’s explanations regarding the Brexit referendum impressed us deeply and they are as fresh today, March 29, 2017, as they were last summer.

In the end we left Norwich deeply impressed and enriched because we had spent a morning sensing the invigorating power of creativity and reason.

We would therefore like to thank Professor Cook and his staff, who introduced us to the audio and visual material, once again for making this possible.

Thank you!

Students from Heinz-Berggruen-Gymnasium, Berlin.

Chance Meetings: Roald Dahl, Monica Dickens and Charles Pick


Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal photographed by Carl Van Vechten (1954) – Library of Congress Collection (public domain)

An UNBOXED blog from Andrew Kenrick

“The stories of how authors meet their publishers or publishers meet their authors are legendary and many are coincidental.”

— Charles Pick, unpublished memoirs 

It is April, 1960. Roald Dahl has just published his second collection of stories, Kiss Kiss, to some acclaim in the United States but is having difficulty making a success of it in the UK. Determined to find a publisher in Britain, he returns from America with his young family on board the SS Queen Mary. Through some incredible coincidence, on this same voyage is the publisher Charles Pick, who is glued to a copy of Kiss Kiss.

While this anecdote appears in Roald Dahl’s biography, Storyteller (1), the incredible full story is related only in Pick’s unpublished memoirs (2).

Early in the voyage, Pick learned that Roald Dahl was on board and, having enjoyed his book, was determined to speak to him, but he could never find him at dinner. Eventually he marched down to Dahl’s cabin, successfully evading the snooty purser, where he was greeted by a scene of utter chaos. The crossing was rough and Dahl’s whole family had been beset by seasickness, his two children and their nursemaid vomiting profusely as the door was opened. Clothes and luggage were strewn everywhere, as his American wife, the actress Patricia Neal, turned over the cabin searching for a lost diamond. Amidst it all, stood the striking figure of Roald Dahl himself, telling her to stop, as he “never did like it.” The diamond was, then, worth £2000.

Later, when the seas – and the family’s stomachs – had calmed, Pick took them to dinner, making Dahl an offer to publish Kiss Kiss. Unsure what to do, for he knew he had other offers waiting for him on arrival, Dahl sent a telegram to his agent, asking for advice. Pick thought no more of it until after they had docked in Southampton. There, as Pick left the customs shed, Dahl came running after him waving a piece of paper and shouting “It’s all yours! It’s all yours!” The paper was a reply from his agent, telling him to accept Charles Pick’s offer before he changed his mind. This was to be the making of Roald Dahl’s literary career in the UK.

Charles Pick (1917-2000) was one of the giants of the British publishing world in the 20th century, a distinguished literary agent and publisher who worked for Victor Gollancz and Michael Joseph ending up as chair of the Heinemann Group until his retirement in 1985. Over the course of his career he championed, nurtured and corresponded with some of the literary greats, including JD Salinger, Wilbur Smith, Graham Greene, Catherine Cookson, JB Priestley and many more.

Roald Dahl was far from the only author whom Charles Pick met by chance. Another was Monica Dickens, great-granddaughter of Charles, who would go on to become “one of the best-selling authors of her generation” (3) as well as a close personal friend of Pick’s. Pick first met Dickens in 1937 at a charity dinner organised by a friend’s mother, where he found himself spellbound by her stories of life working “below stairs” as a cook. Later, he learned who she was and told her, “if she could write a book as well as she could tell a story, she could write a bestseller”. She was signed up immediately, and six weeks later had written her first novel, One Pair of Hands, which, as Pick had predicted, became her first bestseller.

These stories, along with many others, can be read in Pick’s unpublished memoirs, which, alongside diaries, letters, obituaries, cuttings and tapes, form the Charles Pick Archive. The Charles Pick Archive shines a light on the business of some of the most important British publishers of the 20th century, and can be accessed at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA.

Andrew is a former editor turned writer, who is studying for an MA in Creative Non-fiction at UEA. He writes about food, travel and ancient history, sometimes all at once. 

1 Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (United States: Simon & Schuster, 2011), p356-377

2 Charles Pick (1990), Memoirs. Unpublished manuscript.

3 Charles Pick, “Obituary: Monica Dickens,” The Independent (Independent), December 31, 1992,

Snoo Wilson Scriptwriting Prize

snoo-wilson-prize-poster-2On Thursday 1 December 2016, the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing will award the Inaugural Snoo Wilson Prize for Scriptwriting.

There will be performed readings from the shortlist (student names featured in the poster – right).

Date, time, venue:
1 December, The Garage in Norwich – 7-9pm
How to find The Garage:
Light refreshments will be provided

More about the prize and about Snoo Wilson

snoo-wilson-portrait-by-josephine-wilsonThe late Snoo Wilson read American Studies at UEA and was taught by the author and literary critic, Malcolm Bradbury. He graduated in 1969 and began his writing career in the same year. He was one of a handful of playwrights who reinvented British theatre in the 1970’s and 80’s. More About Snoo Wilson.

The Snoo Wilson Archive was gifted to the British Archive for Contemporary Writing in 2015 and the Faculty of Humanities kindly funded the prize which acknowledges Snoo’s legacy. The award of £500 will be given to the student who has written the strongest dissertation submission.

Drama students will perform readings of extracts from each of the shortlisted UG and PG dissertation scripts before the winner is announced.

Also in attendance will be members of Snoo Wilson’s family and friends, judges: Steve Waters, Adam Taylor (The Garage in Norwich) and Tony Frost and an invited audience of students/ and families of the shortlisted entrants.

Professor of Playwriting, Timberlake Wertenbaker, is unfortunately unable to attend but her  colleague, Steve Waters, will read her tribute to the award and the shortlisted students.


Making Bond – exhibits from the Charlie Higson Archive


Until November 24 2016, an exhibition from the Charlie Higson Archive, ‘Making Bond’ is available in the foyer of the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Library.

Below the curator, Matt Woodcock, a Senior Lecturer at UEA, introduces the material. The archive exhibition was the basis of his interview with Charlie Higson at UEA on 16 September which can be viewed from the link below.



Matt Woodcock: Higson on Bond

‘How do you go about making a James Bond novel, and re-imagine Ian Fleming’s, at times controversial hero for a young adult audience? The materials in the Charlie Higson Archive offer a valuable insight into this process.

This exhibit presents different stages of the making of Higson’s Young Bond series, starting with the background research undertaken in order to place the hero into historical and geographically accurate contexts. We then see various stages of authorial revisions from the 2005 Young Bond book SilverFin, and look behind the scenes of Higson’s characters and narrative voice taking shape. The Higson archive also contains a record of editorial and reader feedback on the series. We can see here what the author’s editors made of early drafts, and how a selection of young readers responded to SilverFin once published.

The easels accompanying the display case show details from proofs of the 2008 SilverFin graphic novel, illustrated by Kev Walker. Here we see Bond’s first appearance in the novel, and the first time he sports the number 007.’

Dr Matthew Woodcock
School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing
University of East Anglia
E: T: 01603 59 3483phe

Snoo was a natural iconoclast – be inspired by this archive to write joyous, freewheeling, audacious, iconoclastic plays


Snoo Wilson’s Archive launch took place at UEA on 21 April 2016 with speeches from the playwright Steve Waters, the playwright and director, Dusty Hughes, and the theatre producer, Jenny Topper.

Performances from the archive were given by actors: Alastair Bourne, Sam King, Gabby Onyett and Emily Wyley.

Excerpts from a speech given by the theatre producer, Jenny Topper, on the launch of the Snoo Wilson Archive at UEA are included below.

“During the latter part of Snoo’s life he faced rejection or perhaps I should say indifference more than most – quite wrongly – so I thought then and I continue to think now. For he was not only a wonderful man but also a unique writer who, as Simon (Callow), a most stalwart supporter of Snoo’s writing, would have said, were he here, wrote plays dominated by big and generous ideas, plays that often had a sprawling canvas but were full of humour, full of a genuine spirit of enquiry & usually had an erudite pioneer drawn from all over the world, from all over history at their centre. Simon directed three of Snoo’s plays – two of them – MORE LIGHT & DARWIN’S FLOOD in my top three Snoo Wilson plays – and I know that he relished the sheer inventiveness, the wit, the audacity and the collison of ideas within each of the plays as much as he did working with Snoo, who as a man was as big and generous in spirit as were his plays.

For myself, putting on my own hat and thinking about both Snoo the man and Snoo the playwright, I think that yes, this is all true but that actually quite often, such was his energy as a writer, that ideas actually rampaged through his plays, often taking no hostages but always with such a joyful sense of the infinite possibilities of theatre that the reader, the director, the audience could only be seduced into entering into & marvelling at the worlds he created. Or to put it another way: most of us have one drawer of a filing cabinet in which we store our knowledge of the world, Snoo had not just a whole filing cabinet but  an office full of serried ranks of filing cabinets, all of them jam packed with what he knew of religion, of history, of myth, of poetry, even of unadulterated gossip. And from these drawers tumbled big thinkers, mythic figures, characters from other world – some to be venerated, many of them – for Snoo was a natural iconoclast – to be brought to their knees by a well aimed verbal swish to the back of the knees but all of them united by Snoo’s freewheeling thinking & glorious use of the English language.

One final observation I want to leave with you: however hectic, however glorious his imagination, however big a picture he wished to paint, he was always respectful of the needs & the demands of those who translated his words from page to stage. I am sorry that none of you here will ever hear his chortle as he sat watching & so appreciating actors bring his plays to life for the chortle was generated both by his relish for the frankly naughty but also his relish at the skills and the commitment of his comrades in arms.  I began by talking about his generous ideas & let me end by celebrating Snoo the man who was as big & generous as his ideas. I hope there are those amongst you who will be inspired by his Archive coming home to UEA to write joyous, freewheeling, audacious, iconoclastic plays; & I also hope that you will be inspired to produce his plays in years to come.”

Readings: Plays: A Girl Mad as Pigs (1967), Pignight (1971), Blowjob (1971), Darwin’s Flood (1994), Revelations (unfinished play). Newspaper cutting/ correspondence: Eastern News on UEA’s revue ‘A Girl Mad as Pigs’ (1967); Christopher Davis, Simon Callow and Sir Trevor Nunn.

About Snoo Wilson – Snoo graduated from UEA in 1969 and began writing in the same year. He was one of a handful of playwrights who reinvented British theatre in the 1970s and 80s. Together with Howard Brenton, David Hare and Tony Bicât, he founded Portable Theatre Company. Following his sudden death in 2013, the many obituaries confirmed that, at their exuberant, inventive and utterly original best, Snoo’s plays deserve their place in the country’s history of post-war playwriting.

Wilson’s career spanned more than 40 years. Landmark works include: Pignight, The Pleasure Principle, The Glad Hand (Royal Court), The Soul of a White Ant, Vampire, The Number of the Beast, More Light, Darwin’s Flood (Bush Theatre), The Beast (RSC), Orpheus in the Underworld (ENO), Bedbug, a musical (with Gary Kemp & Guy Pratt) based on Mayakovsky’s 1929 satire (NT Connections 1995, 2016), and Reclining Nude with Black Stockings (Arcola Theatre).

About the Archive The Snoo Wilson collection forms part of The British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA.

As well as extensive notebooks, diaries, manuscripts and working papers, it includes correspondence from, amongst many others, Peggy Ramsey, Sir Peter Hall, Max Stafford-Clark, Richard Eyre, Terry Hands, Sir Trevor Nunn, Howard Brenton, Simon Callow, Simon Stokes, Dusty Hughes, Jenny Topper and Carmen Callil. There are short stories, novel manuscripts and the unperformed and unpublished play, Revelations, ironically about an obituarist, which Wilson was working on before his sudden and untimely death in 2013. The material will play a crucial role in developing critical understanding of his life and work and represents a resource of major international significance. There are fascinating research possibilities for both writers and theatre historians documenting the last forty years of British theatre practice. UEA is honoured to be the custodian of this fascinating archive.

To arrange a visit, please email the Archives team Bridget Gillies/ Justine Mann or call 01603 59 3483

To read the full press release:

See also: The Stage and  The Observer

When Doris Lessing met HM The Queen

DL with drinkToday we received two new letters written by Doris Lessing to an old wartime lover and friend, John Whitehorn. The two corresponded in the 1940s when Lessing was still in Southern Rhodesia and writing her first novel. Those fascinating letters – which number over one hundred – are already held at the University of East Anglia

The two new additions date from 2000 and were discovered by John Whitehorn’s stepson, Francis FitzGibbon, who came across them in some old files. The letters are written when Lessing was awarded the Companion of Honour. She accepted this award, having declined an OBE on numerous occasions, saying to the media at the time that she liked the title because “You’re not called anything – and it’s not demanding. I like that.” She describes her visit to Buckingham Palace, including her interaction with the Queen and a lady in waiting, with characteristic wit and is unable to take the accompanying pomp and circumstance seriously. The letters will be added to our substantial collection of Lessing’s private correspondence, gifted to the University in 2008. A larger collection, received as a bequest in 2013, is embargoed during the writing of Lessing’s official biography.


What is a literary archive, anyway?

Goats' hair 009

What is a literary archive?

Students of this year’s MA in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) attended a session in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing to look through some of our literary collections. MA Creative Writing dissertations were deposited at the University of East Anglia as part of Malcolm Bradbury’s archive and include the authors John Boyne, Tracey Chevalier, Anne Enright and Andrew Cowan. There are also files charting the history of the emergence of UEA’s MA.

Naomi Alderman’s archive includes the annotated workshop scripts from her entire MA year and shows the transformation of her first novel, Disobedience, under the influence of students and tutors.

We also exhibited diaries and writers notebooks from Amit Chaudhuri, Roger Deakin and Snoo Wilson showing how ideas evolve in the earliest stages.

Correspondence between authors and their agents, publishers and other writers was also on display including:

  • Graham Greene’s 1962 letter to Charles Pick, announcing his intention to leave Heinemann after many years
  • Letters from JD Salinger to an old school friend in which he raises the prospect of a new publication but makes clear his dislike of publishers
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s thank you to Doris Lessing for the review of a re-released novel
  • Doris Lessing’s correspondence with her long time editor and friend, Tom Maschler
  • Salman Rushdie’s correspondence with Doris Lessing in April 1989 during the fatwa

We discussed the nature of the literary archive in the digital age and the challenges of curating a creative process when it exists in purely digital form. A number of the students still write in longhand while others work exclusively on the screen. UEA, along with other literary archives, are grappling with how to capture and present access. This was an opportunity to instil useful working practices and to raise awareness of the importance of retaining certain papers and correspondence.


Science Fiction and Beyond

‘What catapulted you into space?’ Asks Professor Christopher Bigsby when interviewing Doris Lessing for the last time at UEA’s Literary Festival in November 2007. He was referring to Lessing’s move from realism into ‘space fiction’ which he identified as beginning with Shikasta. Actually, it began sooner, she says, with Memoirs of a Survivor.

SF ModuleUndergraduate students of the University of East Anglia’s literature module New World: Science Fiction and Beyond have been reading Memoirs of a Survivor, first published in 1974, along with other writers as they investigate different modes of science fiction and their definitions.

They visited the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia for part of their seminar on Doris Lessing where they were introduced to archive material including audio and video interviews and private papers deposited by Lessing at UEA in 2008. Amongst the collection is correspondence with fellow writers Kurt Vonnegut and Brian Aldiss. The response of the mainstream literary establishment towards science fiction is a regular subject.

Lessing attended the World Science Fiction Convention in 1987 as Guest of Honour and wrote to the Independent newspaper wondering why such rich discussion did not see any coverage. Amongst the file is her conference badge, a fictional piece on a nudist camp for the programme – welcomed by the publications committee, her speech notes and a long list of writers who influenced the author’s ‘space fiction’.

In a file of correspondence from Octagon Press there is a letter from Sweden where the Swedish translation of Memoirs of a Survivor was influencing social policy in dealing with deprived children.

There are also letters from academics and friends discussing their response to the novel.

The students had identified various political, spiritual and feminist themes in Lessing’s work. In these unique primary sources, they found echoes of the various debates they have been grappling with, together with new insights – such as her use of myth and the influence of Sufism. They enjoyed hearing Lessing’s take on what was happening in publishing and literature.

As one remarked, ‘Lessing clearly had no problem with being identified as a science fiction writer but she did object to the way it was perceived by the establishment.’

The only complaint from students was not having long enough to look at the material.

‘I could loose a few weeks in here…’ one wrote. ‘It’s amazing and a privilege.’

It’s also on their doorstep – so hopefully they’ll be back soon.

Retro ways of capturing and preserving experiences of air raids, love and nature

UEA students from the Year 2 module, Digital Media: Theory and Practice, took a look at some old media in a seminar led by the University of East Anglia’s Eastern ARC Fellow, Dr Paul Gooding: ‘Historicising new media: from analogue to digital media’.

In preparing the exhibits for the session we were reminded of the range of formats lurking within our collections and the ever present challenge of continuing access when technology threatens to become obsolete. Many observers wonder why we don’t simply digitise everything and be done with it.

The complexity inherent in such projects (quality assurance; metadata; storage; resource discovery) require significant time and resource. We are currently engaged in just two proof of concept digitisation projects focusing on two key collections (the UEA Literary Festival Video Collection and the digital preservation of Doris Lessing’s Whitehorn Letters).

We demonstrated the transformation in a digitally remastered clip from a UEA Literary Festival video when compared with a straightforward digitisation of its original.

The students were given a hands on introduction to the following archive material which included getting to grips with microfilm readers, slide viewers and cassette players and considering how analogue items might translate into their digital counterpart with the integrity of its original intact.

A series of over 100 typed love-letters from the 1940s. Complete with envelopes and photographs. [Doris Lessing’s letters to John Whitehorn (BACW)].

Aerial photographs, maps, tables of data indicating bomb drops and bomb damage. Target and attack data 1942-1945. The students considered how to reflect integrated and complex data and the treatment of fragile material. [Zuckerman Archive].

A series of 1930s photographs of Southwold Railway. [Hill Papers].

Handwritten notebooks with inserts. [Roger Deakin Archive (BACW)].

Microfilm and original manuscripts. Over 2000 school children’s essays “What I did and what happened to me in an air raid”.  Microfilm was introduced as a form of preservation; and to show the transfer between mediums when scanned to PC. [Zuckerman Archive].

Slides (mounted, glass). Royal Norfolk Show, 1957; Parliamentary visit to China, 1956. [Hill Papers].

LP (Vinyl) The Sound of New Orleans (A frisbee? Something to create pizzas on?) [Formerly UEA Record Library].

In the next week, the students will compare the experience of using both the analogue and digital versions of one of the media demonstrated.