Valerie was one of my first followers on Twitter and one that I felt qualified to hook up with immediately by virtue of her proximity to me. She too operates from Manchester and she too has taken a left turn at some point in the recent past, when she enrolled from an MA in creative writing after having worked at the BBC. Well, imagine my immense delight a few weeks ago when I saw Valerie's tweet from the Bristol Prize award ceremony, when she said, 'And I just went and won the thing!'. I guess that, like most writers, I felt that the success of one of us is the success of all of us. Just look at how delightfully startled she looks! Priceless!
The Bristol Prize is one of the most prestigious prizes in the short story arena (yeah but... watch how BIG The Creative Identity Short Story Competition is going to get!) and one that has rapidly grown over the past three years. Valerie has bagged the prize with a very short short story (it's only 350 words long!) which is featured in the anthology with the other nineteen that soared above all other entries. I am currently planning a podcast with Valerie for The Creative Identity eCourse and I must admit to be looking forward to it enormously. I have read the winning short story and I really would love to know how a writer can take up someone else's identity so beautifully and, seemingly, easily as well. But for now, it's the usual raft of Creative Identity questions for Valerie and if you can't get enough of her, head over here!
What is your idea of perfect writing?
Hi Steph! And thanks for having me. My idea of perfect writing? As a writer, I'm rarely happy with anything I've done; there just comes a point where I find I'm going in circles and so I make the decision to give the piece its graduation cap and send it on its way. I'm usually happier with my dialogue than anything else –reading it out loud, it can seem bang on, which is a state I find harder to recognise in more descriptive or explanatory prose. The perfect writing experience, though, is easier to nail – it's when the story starts telling itself, when I'm not struggling to move onto the next scene or line. That happens from time to time, and it's fun.
As a reader, my idea of perfect writing is something that makes me smile to myself when I opened the book – the feeling that I'm in expert hands; somebody in full control of the language and the story. Then I'm excited every time I pick it up. That last happened when I read Wolf Hall, earlier this year – no matter how grim the subject matter it made me happy to think that Mantel had perfectly married her prose and her plot.
What is your greatest writing fear?
The same as many writers or artists, probably: that each successful piece is the last one I'll ever produce, that my critical ability will fail me and I'll start writing absolute rubbish; that I'll never have another decent idea again. Thankfully this hasn't come to pass yet – but I'll continue to worry about it. I haven't allowed myself to worry about my long-term prospects, like getting an agent or a publisher – I try to limit my stress to a project-by-project basis. I am a natural worrier, though, so if it's not one thing, it's another. Chocolate helps.
What do you consider your greatest writing achievement?
Winning the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize was a fantastic achievement for me. I've been writing and submitting for a couple of years, and I've had short stories published, and been long-listed for another competition, but to win a national award was a real boon. It's given me a real confidence injection. It's easy to start doubting yourself, shut away in your room with your laptop and scraps of paper and numerous cups of tea that have gone cold, so major publication validation like the Bristol Prize is fantastic.
It also brought me into contact with plenty of other writers, and I've gotten to do several interviews, including one on the radio, which was rather terrifying, but a very enjoyable experience in the end. I still can't quite get over the fact that I won – it seems very grown-up and official. My next Major Achievement will be finishing my novel, but that's got a way to go yet.
What is the writing tendency you most deplore in yourself?
Can I give two things? One: procrastination. Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, various online forums (fora?), webcomics, flash fiction when I should be doing the novel, boiling the kettle, phoning and complaining to the utilities companies, tidying up (very occasionally), Amazon browsing, eBay, the Ikea catalogue, back to eBay, napping. If I get beyond those things?
Then, two: overwriting. My first drafts are full of superfluous adjectives, descriptions, scenes, characters, exciting yet pointless events, and just far, far, too many words. I'm not bad at recognising it, and reading aloud certainly helps to identify the padding, but I still do it, and I still want to pound my head against the keyboard when I'm editing. Why did I waste hours polishing this scene that adds nothing to the plot/characters/theme/world? Then, of course, I get discouraged, and head on back to Twitter and eBay.
Which living writer do you most admire?
That's a tricky one. When I was younger I used to be all about the biographical detail, but I don't bother with that much any more, so I'm often unaware of the writer's personal lives, and my admiration is more stylistic than anything else. I admire Hilary Mantel for the breadth of her output – from Fludd to Wolf Hall, the lady is damnably versatile – and Denis Johnson because I'm so envious of his ability to create scenes and characters with huge amounts of pathos and humour, I've got plenty of respect for Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins for raising the public's awareness of atheism and humanism, as well as being very, very readable. I'd have put David Foster Wallace on the list, but unfortunately he passed away a couple of years ago – his linguistic ability was unequalled.
What is your greatest writing extravagance?
I'm not sure that I have one; I write on a pretty inexpensive laptop, and though I sometimes lust after very fancy notebooks, I tend to use pretty cheap ones, along with whatever pens I find in the house (usually ones stolen from work). The printer is from the Jurassic period (and it's not even mine, it's my partner's) and the paper is from Asda. We're even very stingy when we buy ink for the thing; meticulous internet research goes into finding the best bargain. I really need to splash out, don't I? Get myself some luscious kit.
I think my greatest extravagance has probably been to take a year out from work to do a Creative Writing MA – which has been amazing, but very expensive, and I couldn't have done it without a redundancy package and several years of savings. Right now, I'm back at an arts graduate level of poverty and beginning to panic. But I would have always regretted not taking that chance, so extravagance or not, it's been worth it.
What is the quality you most admire in somebody else's writing?
I love it when somebody can make me laugh. I'm a hardened old biddy who's difficult to impress, but I love a giggle. Mainly I want to be transported into the character's world, though, and if you can do that, I'm in and I'm happy.
What or who is your greatest writing love?
At the moment (and for the last year or two), Alan Warner's Morvern Callar and The Sopranos. They bowl me over. Warner's got such an idiosyncratic style and voice, but it's rare that characters stick in my head as long as these did. When I was in school, my ongoing literary crush was To Kill A Mockingbird – I'd have thrown myself as Atticus Finch's feet. I used to know whole pages by heart. I'd love to meet Harper Lee and shake her hand.
And a little after that, it was Catch 22 – that was my go-to book when I needed a laugh. I'm rambling now, but one more: I'm, not a huge poetry reader, but I studied Derek Walcott's Omeros in university. It's a retelling of the Odyssey, set in St. Lucia, and it's another one I returned to, over and over. Beautiful.
When and where were you happiest with your writing?
I think I'm actually happiest with my writing right here, right now (to paraphrase Fatboy Slim). I'm living in Manchester, where there's a busy literary scene; I've gotten to know plenty of local writers, including my own classmates and my MA tutors, and I think my work is on the right track. I've had a steady flow of publications and my work-in-progress is taking shape. I've got a positive vibe about it. I've probably just jinxed myself, though, right?
If you could change one thing about your writing, what would it be?
I'd be faster, less easily distracted, more focussed. I'd pound out my thousand words a day before breakfast. I'd learn to get up in the morning and not procrastinate until after dinner. I'd type with all of my fingers, not just one thumbs and a haphazard assortment of the remaining eight. I'd be able to look at the screen while typing.
What is the most marked characteristic of your writing?
I seem to often write about pretty grotesque or disturbing situations – my most recent publication was about a revenge castration. I'm interested in how extreme circumstances force people to behave, and what their reactions are, and how the situation can get resolved. I wrote a story last year about the Pied Piper and child abduction, but from the Piper's viewpoint. I also like the nitty-gritty aspects of everyday life; I don't tend to write in a very poetic, abstract way. I'll put in the washing up and the curdled milk.
Who are your writing heroes?
Same as the ones I most admire, as above.
How do you hope your writing will be referred to as long after you've gone?
If people refer to me at all, I'll be happy! Even if they're saying my stories are melodramatic and awful, it's
better than nothing; I'd rather an awful legacy than none at all! Ideally, of course, they'll be showering me
with praise and my books will be required reading everywhere. Realistically, if I can get a book published,
then I'll worry about the next book, and then the next, and maybe then, when I take a breath, I'll consider
the legacy! And I'll take success now over posthumous recognition, thanks.What is your writing motto?
Just get to the end of this scene, and then you can have a treat.