Writer of the Month
May – EMBA
To celebrate this year’s fantastic shortlist, we’ll be featuring the East Midland’s Book Award authors in the countdown to the award ceremony on the 20th June, where the winning author will receive a ?1000 prize.
Jonathan Taylor is author of the novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta Books, 2007). He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators (www.crystalclearcreators.org.uk). He is editor of Overheard, an anthology of short stories for reading aloud (Salt, 2012).
Jonathan Taylor’s Entertaining Strangers has been shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award 2013.
Writing East Midlands caught up with Jonathan to talk about his writing:
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award 2013. How do you feel?
Obviously, I’m over-the-moon about it. I’ve never been shortlisted for anything so much as a high-school raffle before.
Could you tell us a bit about Entertaining Strangers?
Being a writer based in the East Midlands, how do you feel about the opportunities on offer in the region?
I think there is an incredibly – almost exceptionally – strong community of writers in the East Midlands region, and a vibrant culture of live events and readings. There are also some very good festivals, and some excellent independent publishers. All of this is great, and provides a strong foundation, I think, for future development – in terms of library events, more festivals, and more publishing opportunities. I’ve found people – readers and writers – very supportive in the region at all levels. It just needs more recognition as a region; after all, it would benefit so many people, I think, not to have such a heavily London-centric writing and publishing culture.
What advice would you give to emerging writers?
Never expect to emerge: all writers are ‘emerging’ till they shuffle off this mortal coil. There is no ‘arrival,’ just a series of ‘coiled’ stages – most of which, in fact, are returns to ‘Go.’ To put this another way, I think writing is always a starting-from-the-beginning. Every book is a new start, every single poem is a creation from nothing. There are, of course, things that you can build on, in terms of voice, style, technique and so on – but there are also circularities in the writing process. For example, very experienced writers often make the same mistakes as novice ones. Any idea of progress or linearity is, in part, an illusion: even successes are short-lived, and then you have to return to the blank page. All of this might sound negative, but it’s not: I’m glad that, as a writer, I don’t have to buy into the deadly idea of linear career progression, let alone the delusional idea of ‘progress’ in general. I can just get on with the messy and fun business of writing, and never have to worry too much about where I am in terms of a so-called ‘writing career,’ which, as I say, doesn’t really exist.
Can you tell us about your writing process? What do you find to be the most exciting part, and why?
There are two moments which, I think, are the most ‘exciting’ parts of writing: firstly, when you are overtaken by an idea, and secondly, much later, when you witness someone else who is similarly affected by that same idea. As regards the first, I have to be overtaken by an idea to write; otherwise, I’d just do something else, like watch TV, or buy an electric train set. As regards the latter, I think one of the most pleasurable things about writing is actually performing in front of an audience. Now, I know not all writers, by any means, enjoy this as much as I do, but I love the direct connection with an audience which you get when you read out loud. You just don’t get that kind of direct connection on the page. Hence why I do so many readings; and hence why I edited an anthology of ‘Stories for Reading Aloud’: I believe it’s not just a belated and promotional add-on to writing, but historically the true role of writers to connect directly with an audience. After all, that’s what Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens all did, in their different ways.
As you are an East Midlands author I wondered if the region affects your writing, perhaps by giving it a ‘sense of place,’ or a particular voice or identity, in any way. Or is this not a great factor in your writing?
Actually, Entertaining Strangers is based in the East Midlands, in a fictionalised version of Loughborough – or, rather, Loughborough as it was when I first moved there, in the late 1990s. I always end up writing about the places I know best – i.e. Stoke-on-Trent (where I grew up), Coventry and Loughborough. In that sense, I write what is often snobbishly called ‘provincial fiction’ – but it’s only ‘provincial’ if you live in, say, London. Wherever you live is the centre of the world to yourself, and there’s just as much remarkable material in Stoke or Loughborough for a writer, as there is in, say, London or New York. The wonderful novelist Arnold Bennett knew this well, of course. I’ve got a feeling that – to make a gross generalisation – that writers fall into two broad categories: those who go to places to write about them, and those who stay at home, and endlessly write about that.
Who, if anyone, has had the biggest influence on your writing and why?
Of course, this is an impossible question to answer, in that I could name a thousand different influences, a thousand well-known writers. Closer to home, my wife, Maria, is my fiercest critic, and I’ve learnt a huge amount from her as a reader, writer, and poet. And then there’s the wonderful novelist, memoirist and literary critic John Schad who taught me – whilst I was a student – how to write sentences, and how to join sentences together. It’s assumed that these things are taught at primary school, but actually most people, and especially writers, learn them properly (and consciously) years later. There’s nothing ‘basic’ or elemental about grammar, sentence structure and punctuation: they are infinitely complex tools. This is why I’ve always found editors essential – all my books, including the novel, are ultimately collaborative enterprises, which have been shaped or reshaped by excellent editors.
What are you working on at the moment? What are you hoping for next in your writing career?
I’ve got a few things going on at the moment: as well as my poetry collection, Musicolepsy, which has just come out from Shoestring Press, I’ve got a short-story collection coming out in July, called Kontakte and Other Stories; and I’ve actually completed a draft of a second novel, called Mellissa. I won’t talk about that yet, for fear of jinxing it. Despite all these ongoing projects, though, my deepest hope for writing is to give it up, and take up some other pastime. On the one hand, I can’t seem to stop writing, because ideas have a nasty habit (as I’ve said) of overtaking me; on the other hand, I dream that every book will be the last, and instead I’ll take up drink, betting on dogs, or electric trains, building an intricate model railway in my attic. My last New Year’s Resolution, in fact, was to ‘write less, drink more.’ Thus far, I’ve been successful in one of these aims.
The East Midlands Book Award winner will be announced at the Award Ceremony at Barnsdale Lodge on the 20th June as part of Oakham Festival. You can download the full festival brochure here.
Interested in reviewing the EMBA 2013 shortlist? with the opportunity to have your review published on the Writing East Midlands website?
All reviewers will be entered in to a prize draw to receive two tickets to attend the prestigious award ceremony at Barnsdale Lodge in Oakham on 20 June and win the full set of shortlisted books. Find out more here.