WriteWords talks to Sara Maitland, novelist and mentor for The Literary Consultancy|
Tell us something about your background.
I’ve been a professional writer for about 30 years, so I have quite a lot of “background”. The question feels a bit like asking a teacher what lessons they have taught! I have published 6 novels – one of them, Arkytypes, was co-authored with Michelene Wandor; 5 solo collections of short stories (and I have another coming out this year) and some rather wide ranging non-fiction – a gardening book, a biography of Vesta Tilley – the musical hall star - some theology, a book about how to write, two “pop-up” (paper engineered) books about Classical and Egyptian mythology. I have also had two radio plays broadcast and been a contributor to a number of collections of stories and essays. I worked with Stanley Kubrick on his text for what (after his death) became Spielberg’s AI film. I have done some journalism too. At the moment I am working on a wonderful commission for Granta (and supported by the Scottish Arts Council) – a sort of history/ autobiographical account of experiences of Silence. I am also putting together a new collection of short stories to celebrate the fact that the impressive young British director Asif Kapadia is making a film based on one of my short stories, True North, starring Sean Bean and Michelle Yeoh. Despite the range of forms, I think there are common themes in everything I write – that risk and joy, danger and beauty are inextricable entwined. Or, put another way – feminism, socialism and Christianity made me a writer and I am still trying to work out why.
I am unusually lucky (and hard work has helped) because I do very little work that is not directly related to my writing. The thing is I love to think and talk about writing as well as doing it (I also like to think and write about praying as well as doing it – hence the theology.) Because of my addiction to solitude and silence, mentoring and on-line teaching works very well for me. I have come to think that mentoring on-line actually works better than face to face, because writing is such an obvious medium for thinking about and working on writing! For three years I was mentor co-ordinator for Crossing Borders – a joint project of The British Council and Lancaster University, devised and run by Dr. Graham Mort – which delivered on-line mentoring to emergent Anglophone writers across Africa. We provided mentors for about 300 new African writers many of whom had no access at all to workshops, Creative Writing courses or, in some cases, even decent libraries. I found this so exciting that when the funding came to an end, I wanted to have a way of carrying on that sort of work. I am now setting up an email-mentoring scheme for TLC (http://www.literaryconsultancy.co.uk) ACE is funding this, and – through regional literature development officers – are offering subsidised places. This should be a good way of “testing the waters” to see if writers find this approach helpful. I am really excited by the potential here. Because I live so rurally myself I am very aware that we non-city folk can miss out on access, but even more than that I really believe that mentoring without personal contact has enormous strengths.
I am also working as a tutor for Lancaster’s Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing, which is more of the same sort of thing. I find this way of “teaching” really helps me to think about my own writing and to nourish it.
How did you start writing?
When my father died and we were clearing out his desk we found my “first novel”, in a laboriously hand-written and lavishly illustrated limited edition of one. I must have been six or seven, so really I have always been writing.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
My most important literary influence (in terms of language as well as themes) is The Authorised Version of the Bible. In terms of narrative it has all the strengths of a good Soap. It has seriousness of intent, global reach, a vast cast and a huge range of styles, moods and moments. In addition it is dense with myth and magic and it has the most beautiful, complex, powerful prose and poetry. (Also it stands against the modern delusion that committees can’t write lovely language. This is important to me as a socialist feminist who goes on believing that the collective – even in writing – is likely to be stronger and richer than the individual.)
Otherwise I like books that take up in their own way that kind of passion for the hugeness of things – George Eliot, Dostoyevski and Melville. And among more contemporary writers, Margaret Lawrence, Salmon Rushdie, Marquez. Stylistically increasingly influenced by some of my younger contemporaries who are doing such bold things about bringing magical realism home to domestic British life – Paul Magrs and Ray Robinson for example.
What's the worst thing about writing?
The fact that I never do as much or do it as well as I would like to and know I could.
And the best?
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