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)

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You cannot fake a writer: Kazuo Ishiguro on his experience at UEA

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UEA literature student, Melina Spanoudi, revisits an archived interview with Kazuo Ishiguro as part of the British Archive for Contemporary Writing’s Unboxed project.

Kazuo Ishiguro applied to the University of East Anglia in 1979, following a long year of social work in London. The MA in Creative Writing began in autumn, leaving the entire summer free for him to panic. He did so briefly, before beginning to write seriously for the first time. Ten years later, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day.

Returning to UEA during the Literary Festival of 1999, in an interview with award winning academic, novelist and biographer, Christopher Bigsby, Ishiguro is asked whether writing can be taught. Put plainly, his answer is no. Ishiguro believes that a writer cannot be crafted: rather, they are sculpted, refined in their involvement with the creative process of writing within an academic environment. Through sharing first drafts, exposing themselves and others to criticism, embarrassment and acclaim, the writer is given the opportunity to realize where they must stand when choosing to write.

However, the initial choice to write remains a personal matter. Any creation which is forced to extend itself beyond the boundaries of personal innovation is of no genuine value; you cannot fake a writer more than you can fake a text.

Ishiguro remarks: ‘You can certainly produce someone who can write more competently. But I would be rather more sceptical about the possibility of their producing anything of artistic worth.’

The process between writing and identifying as a writer is unique to each individual; However, what happens when you embark on a degree which expects you to be a writer before you have begun to write?

With little writing experience, sporadically noting descriptive fragments mirroring the semi-autobiographical style of Kerouac, Ishiguro’s journey to becoming a writer invites us to question whether he adopted the identity of ‘writer’ during the course of his degree in Creative Writing. Ishiguro explains that he discovered the space he required to explore his individual style of writing at the UEA. The learning atmosphere fostered through the flexible teaching methods adopted by his tutors, Malcom Bradbury and Angela Carter, enabled him to create, unaided and uninterrupted.

He describes his year at the UEA to Bigsby: ‘That was when I really started to write. So it was very fundamental. Before I went to East Anglia I had written very little indeed, certainly nothing I would count today as proper writing.’

Ishiguro dates the beginning of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, in 1979/80, during the year he was studying at the UEA. He notes that most of his time studying Creative Writing was spent writing that novel. Although his first book resembled a form of a semi-autobiographical work, his later novels are informed by the awareness of his ability to create outside the context of his own life.

He explains: ‘Somewhere along the way I discovered that I could write better, more effectively, if I changed the setting and put the whole thing at a greater distance.’

Somewhere along the way, perhaps at UEA, Ishiguro became one of the greatest writers of our time. His journey at the university reminds students of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing that we are not taught how to become writers, but of the ways which enable us to discover our most humane and distinctive narrative voices.

Quotations reproduced with the kind permission of the author. All rights reserved.

To view the Literary Festival interview in full in our Archive Reading Room, contact the British Archive for Contemporary Writing archives@uea.ac.uk

To find out more about our 300+ collection of Literary Festival recordings, visit http://www.uea.ac.uk/bacw/litfest

 

Terry Pratchett on Magic and Realism

Terry PratchettbAn Unboxed Blog from Electra Nanou

There was once a tape, a single, innocuous video tape, living in the UEA Archives’ snug depths. The name, Terry Pratchett, sometimes caught a knowing eye, but one or two were not enough. If only it could see the light of day, other admirers might come its way. Squinting, stuttering, it finally emerged to puff out its chest and squeak:

Arthur Miller Centre International Literary Festival (UEA) interview with Terry Pratchett, 22 November 2000

To describe this interview between Professor Christopher Bigsby and Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld novels, as amusing would be an understatement. Having passed away two years ago, almost to the day, every reminder of this man’s sheer character is precious. Contained within the video recording is more than a discussion on Pratchett’s life and literary accomplishments or his favourite Discworld characters or even the difference between children’s fiction and fantasy.

‘Children’s books for the respect; fantasy books for the money.’

It is one more testament to his wit and flair, as well as a tutorial on how to politely dominate an interview. And how to introduce potentially controversial topics with a smile. Perhaps, sheer naughtiness factored into certain small omissions in the transcript, available in Writers in Conversation: Volume 5 by Christopher Bigsby.

Even the first Discworld novel was created on a rebellious whim. He felt that ‘a kind of antidote’ was warranted to the Tolkienesque fantasy prevalent of the time. Little did he know how much it was needed. The crowd that attended the Terry Pratchett Memorial in April 2016, made up of children and adults alike, was proof of how important a fresh and humorous look can be to something as simple as a literary genre.

‘Discworld is a way of looking at a story.’

Each of his books, from the children’s book The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents to the Discworld novel The Truth, have something to say. In his own unique way, he touched on issues like morality, equality and feminism, his philosophical undercurrents drawing the attention of philosophy professors James M. Held and James South. They produced a book titled Philosophy and Terry Pratchett, a collection of essays including ‘Plato, the Witch, and the Cave: Granny Weatherwax and the Moral Problem of Paternalism’ and ‘The Importance of Being in the Right Trouser Leg of Time’ (The Guardian). When asked about the Thief of Time, the 24th Discworld novel, Pratchett said:

‘It is… about how people perceive time, how people perceive humanity. What is it that actually makes us human.’

If there is any lesson to be learned from Terry Pratchett, it is to not be afraid to be bold and different. Labels are trivial in a world that craves imagination, an escape from reality.

‘Magic realism … is fantasy with a collar and tie on.’

With 53 books to his name not including his numerous collaborations, he was, and still is, someone writers of any genre can look up to. He lived, learnt and struggled, while writing from his heart with minimal aspirations to fame and fortune. And yet they found him.

 

Sources

Recording: Arthur Miller Centre International Literary Festival (UEA) interview with Terry Pratchett, 22 November 2000. The University of East Anglia Literary Festival Archive www.uea.ac.uk/bacw/litfest – visit the Archive to view the recording in full.

Transcript: Bigsby, Christopher. ‘In Conversation with Terry Pratchett’. Writers in Conversation: Volume 5. Unthank books, 2013. Print.

Flood, Alison. ‘Terry Pratchett’. The Guardian. 28 Nov. 2014. Web. Oct. 2016

 

Tessa Hadley on uncovering memory: do we really know our past?

tessa_hadley-copyright-mark-vessey-2015An Unboxed blog from Freya Turner, student blogger from the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing (University of East Anglia).

‘Let me take you back just a few years. It’s 2013, and the UEA Literary Festival is hosting authors such as Rose Tremain, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. Among them is the perhaps lesser-known Tessa Hadley (pictured right), making her first appearance at the festival. What immediately becomes apparent to the audience is her generosity and patience to treat them to a reading of one of her short stories, ‘An Abduction’, in its entirety. For those who aren’t familiar with the Literary Festival’s format, it very rarely happens that an author will read the entirety of one of their texts. For Hadley to somewhat rebel against this format only makes her appearance at the festival stand out more. Hadley has written several novels and short stories, which focus predominantly on family relationships and women. ‘The Abduction’ is no exception to this.

The story concerns a fifteen year-old girl living in Surrey in the nineteen-sixties, and it negotiates and complicates the relationships between childhood and adulthood, and trauma, time and memory. The story involves Oxford University students, women’s bodies, British suburbia, drugs and the titular abduction.

When asked about the violent domesticity of the story, and how the term domesticity is often applied to women writers, Hadley confirms that there is indeed a gender divide in the process of writing domesticity. She goes even further and argues that a novel about family somehow becomes ‘domestic’ when a woman writes it, whereas when this is written about by a man this is never the case. She is a writer who shows great maturity in her understanding of how she and other women writers are perceived in writing about the family; a writer who is concerned about the writing community as well as her own work. Hadley coherently articulates why she so often writes about the family. She believes that the novel and the family are more or less the same thing; they both concern people within small spaces who haven’t necessarily chosen to be together, and it is this very notion that allows people to grow into themselves.

When Hadley discusses memory within her story, it is almost as if something in her lights up. She points out that there is a reductive model of memory in literature, where people can access the past because it supposedly remains within their minds. In a lot of novels, she argues, characters fix something unwanted from their past that is making their present unbearable. When this process is complete, the present is fine again. Hadley doesn’t believe in this model, instead believing that processing and narrating the past is a lot more complicated. We are not reliable in terms of remembering the past, but, as she emphasises, this is interesting because this both frees us and troubles us. It becomes apparent that Hadley really understands the delicacy and dysfunctional traits of humans, and looks to celebrate it. When I watch the interview it seems like this is less a sense of personal preference for her, and more a feeling of responsibility. Another impressive thing about Hadley is that she is not afraid to put our perceptions of ourselves in different directions.

Hadley rather modestly goes on to say that the silences in her work prevent her writing from spoiling or diluting her narrative. She argues that silence is powerful. For Hadley, great writing is associated with subtlety and what is not said. What becomes apparent is that Hadley not only shows a sense of delicacy within her characters, but also in her writing style, and this is a skill that very few writers truly achieve.

At the end of the interview, Hadley tells us that ‘An Abduction’ is a story about momentarily stopping the process of growing up. It is about how, in trying to teach ourselves a lesson in life, and holding on to this lesson, we actually hinder the growth that is necessary to become an adult. It is this final remark that encapsulates just how confidently and eloquently Hadley confronts the various ways in which we naturally tend to think about and lead our lives. Her writing explores what it is like to think in the modern age, especially concerning the modern understandings of memory. She is therefore a writer for our time, and of time itself, and a writer with such a talented awareness must not go unnoticed.

The video recording of Tessa Hadley’s interview can be viewed at the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA, along with interviews with many other famous authors.’   http://www.uea.ac.uk/bacw/litfest