Dr Abi Curtis, Head of Creative Writing, caught up with MA graduate Miles Salter. Miles has written three books. These are a novel for teenagers, A Song For Nicky Moon (shortlisted for The Times / Chicken House children’s writing award 2010), and two poetry collections: The Border (Valley Press, 2011) and Animals (Valley Press 2013). He also organises the York Literature Festival. He completed the MA in 2013.
Hi Miles – when did you take the MA here at YSJ, and what made you choose this MA?
I started the course in October 2011 and finished it in July 2013. I have a family in York and it made sense to do something locally, plus I’ve studied at York St John previously and felt a bit of loyalty to the University. Partly, I wanted to extend my academic qualifications, but I also wanted to get some incisive comments on writing. Being part of a group of people who are writing can be very helpful. Writing is a lonely business sometimes and having that sociable aspect is valuable. I’m still in touch with several people who were in my study group. I was lucky that it was a nice group, everybody worked hard and they were pretty easy to get on with. The tutors were very good, too.
You already had success as a published writer, what did you feel the MA could add to that?
Success is very relative. I don’t feel I’ve been very successful, so far, in the scheme of things. But in 2011 I was at a point when I was taking my writing more seriously and wanted to develop. Dr Barrie Sherwood (who was then one of the tutors) asked us early on what we wanted to achieve by the end of the course. I said I wanted to get an agent, which I did in February 2013. This may have happened whether or not I’d been on the course, but again, it’s part of a mind-set I think. You need a bit of creative pressure sometimes, as well as a creative atmosphere around you.
How did you feel about sharing your work with other writers on the course?
It was fine for me, as I’d been part of a creative writing group in Hull where we’d all offered feedback to each other. If you’re serious about writing you need to look for the wisdom that other writers can offer you – especially people who are more experienced or older than you. It’s so important to get a ‘critical friend’ when you’re developing your work. The M.A. group were pretty good at feedback – we listened to each other. I’ve still got some of their comments in a file somewhere!
You’re very busy, especially being involved with the York Literature Festival – how did you juggle your other commitments, including family life, around the MA?
The evening classes were good – once a week for 2 hours isn’t too onerous, and worked well for me as I had family commitments. I was fairly disciplined at doing the academic work, and found it very constructive. The Part-time option allowed more time to think things through. I was glad I took that route. I do wish there were more hours in the day sometimes. Trying to find time to write in a disciplined way can be a challenge.
You run the York Literature Festival, which has a close relationship with York St John. What are the benefits of this relationship. Can you tell us more about the festival?
The festival started in 2007. The first one I ran was in 2008 and I’ve been involved since then. It’s great to see the festival develop – nearly 5000 people came to festival events in 2015. I think it’s great for York. We work with York St John and it’s a fantastic partnership. Abi and JT and others help by programming events, and this means we get a more interesting and diverse programme. This year there were a lot of events that were done with some sort of partnership, and I thought it went really well. The agents event had people from all over the north of England attending, and the 24 Hour Play, Quick Fictions, Emerging Writers and others were all good. I’m proud of the link between the festival and the University because I did my B.A. at York St John in the early 1990s and had a brilliant team of Literature tutors. They really inspired me to read more after I left in 1994. So it feels like the staff there inspired the festival, in a way.
You won the prize for the highest MA mark the year you graduated. How did that feel, and how did you achieve that over the course of your studies?
I was pleased to get the prize. I wanted my written work to be good, although the final dissertation took a lot of re-writing before it was presentable!
How did the MA make you think differently about your writing?
Being asked to read a diverse range of texts was fantastic – writers need to read as widely as possible, and the MA requirements here were great. A wonderful mixture, from Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ to Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’ and from ‘Madame Bovary’ to ‘Lolita’ and ‘Riddley Walker’. The first time I read ‘Scorpion’ by Jo Shapcott was on the M.A. and it was inspiring to see a text that was so challenging and different.
I thought a lot about poetry during the M.A. and my dissertation in 2013 co-incided with my second book of poems called ‘Animals’. I tried with that book to push the boundaries of what I was writing, and the way I was presenting my work. I’d read lots of poetry from the last 15 years or so, and the studying was very constructive because it made me think critically about post-modernism, how to write a voice, and why modern poetry is so often ambiguous. It helped me clarify a few things.
What are you up to now with your writing?
I’ve written a children’s book which my agent is presenting to publishers. It’s an attempt to write something that has commercial potential. I’m currently working on a novel for Young Adults, and writing poems every so often. I also write bits of journalism once in a while. Everything takes an age. I wish I was faster!
What advice would you give budding writers?
If you’re serious about being a writer, I’d suggest tough love. Remove the scales from your eyes and learn to see clearly. It’s very, very hard to get published. Even if your book is published by a main stream publisher, it could vanish without trace. For every Kate Atkinson or Robert Harris, there are thousands of writers who struggle. At the agent event at this year’s York Literature Festival, Jo Unwin (a literary agent) said she gets 5000 submissions in a year, and will maybe take on a handful of those writers. Lots of people turn to self-publishing, and although some amazing people have self-published (including Virginia Woolf), a lot of it is mediocre of worse. Set your sights high but be willing to work long and hard to achieve your goals. Writing is a wonderful activity but it’s very hard to do it well.
Also, I’d advise people to read as widely as you can – fiction, poetry, journalism, biography – anything. Be a bookworm. Start early – if you’re in your early 20s, now is the time to read and write often – every day for an hour, if possible. Write poetry for a year or two – the discipline of producing a strong poem is invaluable to your skills as a prose writer. As I said earlier, get a critical friend. Learn to spot your own failings, and challenge yourself. Spend several years getting better before you send anything out. Writing well is a life’s work. You have to be very patient with yourself, and the whole industry of writing. It can take an age. In the meantime, don’t give up the day job!