So it’s been a pretty exciting November. On the 7th we had a fabulous book launch with Nuala Casey and Matt Haig here at YSJ. Matt read from his latest novel, The Humans, and reminded us all why it’s great to be a human, from the point of view of an alien. Matt’s lively and moving writing is highly recommended. Nuala Casey, a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing here at YSJ, read from her debut novel, Soho 4 a. m. Nuala held the audience with her atmospheric and gritty prose, taking us through the shady streets of Soho. Nuala doesn’t wait around either, her next novel, Summer Lies Bleeding will be out next summer. Both writers responded to questions from the audience with generosity and refreshing honesty, and we all got an insight into the discipline and hard work necessary to become a successful writer.
Last week we were incredibly proud to see our first cohort of joint honours Creative Writing students graduate in the grand York Minster. We were all dressed in our finery, struggling to balance our hats and comparing our gowns. JT Welsch definitely won that particular contest…
We know that all our students are going on to do great things, and are happy to have the pleasure of continuing to teach some on our MA.
Finally, novelist Barrie Sherwood gave a wonderful reading of his latest work, Sandia, yesterday evening. Barrie was a lecturer here at YSJ for five years and recently left to teach in Singapore. It was lovely to see him again, and lots of his previous students turned up to wish him well and thank him for being an inspirational teacher. Barrie’s new novel is remarkable, a work that shows a novelist at the height of his ability. I was bowled over by the control and power of the prose. I can’t wait to read the whole thing.
There are more exciting events coming next year, including a reading of Holophin by Luke Kennard, who will be joined by Tom Chivers of brilliant independent press Penned in the Margins. We are also welcoming an literary agent, and looking forward to the York Literature Festival, where we’ll get to see Germaine Greer, Nicholas Royle, Alison Moore, Emily Berry, Helen Mort, Rebecca Goss (to name only a few).
Ben Warden has recently completed the MA in Creative Writing at YSJ. He had already published a novel Life Without just as he began the full-time MA. He also works full-time at York St John University as a Quality Officer & Deputy Admin Manager for the Faculty of Arts.
Hi Ben, what made you decide to take an MA in Creative Writing here at YSJ?
I’d been writing for about 6 years, after doing a degree in film. I’d written in loads of different genres and formats and entered competitions and sent my work off to literary agents but I was getting very little interest. When I came to work at York St John I started to hear about this fantastic MA from loads of students, colleagues and graduates and I heard nothing but good things. I went to talk to the Head of Programme and the course just looked perfect. I wanted to be challenged, improve my writing and get back into a room full of other writers, which I’ve always found makes the ideas come so much quicker and stronger than trying to write on your own. The MA looked like it could provide all of that and it did.
You chose to study full-time over one year – was this really intense? How did you manage your time around your job?
I’m one of those people that works best when I put myself under pressure. I was really organised during the course because I had to be. I do work 9am-5pm Mon- Fri, but my partner works a 6day week, so I basically managed the course by using Saturday as I working day. I’d sit down and work 9-5 like a working day and I also used my lunchtimes and evening at the pressure points, like when essays are due. To be honest I didn’t find it to intense. It was challenging, but not unmanageable. The only time it got a little much was in the very last term when I had a module and had started my dissertation/project, but that was only because I had to take a break from the dissertation, which I was really immersed in, to write the essay for the other module. I think it just depends on how you work best.
You had just published your first novel, Life Without, as you began the MA. Tell us a little bit about it and where we can buy it.
The book is a romance about a London boy who has a high flying job, some great mates and good looks. He seems to have it all, but he’s just divorced his university sweetheart and he’s down. It quickly becomes apparent that, like a lot of young people, he’s actually floating along feeling a little lost. In an effort to get some excitement back in his life he quits his job and starts a high risk project with an unstable artist. As the project takes a twist, throwing him back into his ex’s life, he finds his money, relationships and sanity pushed to the brink. It’s a great holiday-type read, really based entirely on the characters. Anyone interested can pick it up on Amazon as a paperback or kindle copy.
You decided to self-publish the first novel. What has that experience been like?
It’s been really exciting and it’s gone a lot better than I hoped. It isn’t an easy process. You have to push and learn to become your own marketing team. If you stop marketing, or even pause you see the effect in your sales. It’s been hard to balance how much I market the book I have out and how much I stop and go about writing something new. But through doing it I’ve got genuine feedback from readers and developed a readership, which has been amazing. So far I’ve sold about 1000 copies. If you include the free promotions, which I’ve done to get the book noticed, there’s about 5000 copies out there in 8 different countries. It’s mad. My book is far better travelled than I am!
How has taking the MA changed your approach to your writing?
When I started I was all about storytelling. I didn’t think the writing was that important as long as the structure was good, the characters were strong and the story tied together. Now I’ve done the course I’ve learnt how much atmosphere and feeling you can lend through the language you use and how the voice, tone, pace, etc., can really enhance a scene. I used to write in all sorts of formats; short stories, film scripts, novels, plays. I’ve definitely fallen more in love with the written word and I think I’ll be sticking with books for a fair while.
What are the best things about taking an MA in Creative Writing at York St John?
I loved so many parts of this course. You look at technique, structure, but you also do things like reflecting on your own approach to writing, which really helped me ground the sort of writer I am and then move forward with a much better sense of ownership over what I was doing. If I had to pick a favourite part it would be the work shopping. Getting to listen to so many different takes on an exercise and receiving direct feedback on my work was brilliant.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently doing a couple of things. I’m acting as a script doctor for an independent film that is being written and directed by the Amoeba art collective; I’ve written a short story which will be published at Christmas, in a collection called Christmas Lites (it’s an anthology released every year and proceeds go to victims of domestic violence); I’ve written a 2 minute short film, which is currently being worked on by a small production company in Kent and I’m helping a friend to develop a TV series idea.
My main project is my second book, which is going to be very different to Life Without. It’s a thriller and I’m hoping I can get it picked up by a literary agent and publish through more mainstream channels. If that doesn’t work I will self-publish again, as I’ve really enjoyed the process.
What advice do you have for someone thinking of taking the MA?
I would say that you’ve really got to know that you love writing and that this is what you want to do. I couldn’t have committed to the course the way I did if it wasn’t in a subject I love. Make sure that you really want it, then go and get it! :]
First novel ‘Life Without’ out now.