An interview with author and creative writing teacher, Andrew Crumey
Crumey is a Scottish novelist and scientist with eight published novels, his latest being The Great Chain Of Unbeing. He graduated holds a PHD in theoretical physics but currently teaches creative writing at Northumbria University
His first novel, Music in a Foreign Language, was published in 1994. In 2006 he became the 5th recipient of the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award. His work combines history, philosophy, science and humour, and have been translated into fourteen languages.
How difficult was it to get your first novel, Music in a Foreign Language, published and has it had an effect on the way you write today?
After I wrote my novel, I got the Writer’s and Artists’ Yearbook and followed the advice there. I looked at the sort of novels and novelists who I thought were in some way similar to me, and checked who published them. I also checked out the list of agents to see if they specified the sort of thing they handled (since my novel was literary fiction rather than genre). I put together a synopsis, covering letter and sample and sent it to some agents. One said it was terrible, another said it was brilliant but they were about to retire, most gave a polite no. I then tried publishers: three big ones (I think it was Faber, Cape and Secker) and one small independent (Dedalus). The big ones didn’t reply — when I phoned they knew nothing about it, the manuscript having disappeared in their slush pile. Dedalus came back and asked for the whole novel, which they published, and it won a prize. So in terms of the number of agents/publishers I tried, I suppose I’d have to say it wasn’t very difficult for me to get published. But I did put in the effort of approaching the right sort of people in the right sort of way, and of course the effort of writing a publishable book in the first place.
As to effect: I’d say the most important thing for any serious writer is to think about the reader. Your writing will never appeal to everyone but it has to appeal to someone. The critical success of my first novel gave me the assurance that there are indeed a few people out there who like the sort of stuff I write.
Is there a particular method you follow when it comes to planning and writing a novel, or does it depend on the story?
I never know when I’ve started a novel: things emerge gradually out of little bits and pieces. Some pieces might become short stories or stay tucked away as fragments on my computer. Others begin to stick together, and then I start to find structure and plot, which happens over several drafts. The beginning, though, is always a setting with people in it. Once they start doing things I find out what they’re like as characters. Plot comes last. As to big themes or ideas — I let those things take care of themselves.
Out of all of your published novels, which one was the most enjoyable to write and which one was the hardest?
I think Sputnik Caledonia gave me most pleasure, though it was also the hardest. In some ways it’s my most autobiographical — family members recognised themselves portrayed in it. That made it fun to write but also made me nervous about the outcome. Fortunately everyone seemed happy.
Are you working on anything at the moment, and if so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
I have two projects: a non-fiction book and a novel. The first is what might be called a literary history of astronomy. The second is about an opera that Beethoven never wrote. That’s as much as I’m saying for now!
You have a PhD in theoretical physics, so what drove you to become an author and teach creative writing rather than physics?
As a kid I loved making up stories and thinking about space. When I was about thirteen or fourteen I told my English teacher that I’d be a physicist until I was thirty and then be a writer. And that’s pretty much how it turned out. I did teach maths and physics in a school for a bit when I was starting out in writing; then I was a book reviewer and newspaper literary editor, and after that I began teaching creative writing in universities. I like teaching because it makes me think about what I do, and how and why I do it. I also like working with people who are starting out, and have energy and enthusiasm. And I’ve always felt at home in a university environment — far more so than when I was a journalist or schooltecher (or care worker, which I also did along the way).
As a university lecturer, what is it like to teach creative writing? Would you say it’s a difficult subject to teach?
I’d say that maths is the easiest subject to teach and the hardest to learn; creative writing is easier to learn and harder to teach. That’s why I like teaching it. I constantly ask myself what it is that I’m actually teaching.
As a teacher of creative writing you must read a lot of stories, so what are the most common tropes your students write about?
I see a lot of nameless people (possibly dead) in featureless, horrifying situations. A lot of stories that begin with something like, “It was a perfectly ordinary day — she had no idea what lay in store”. A lot of first-person musing. A lot of stories inspired by the latest hit TV series. Also a lot of good stuff, and some that’s really excellent.
Are there any up and coming writers that you think are worth looking out for?
I give a shout-out to Guy Mankowski, Alex Lockwood and John Schoneboom — all former PhD students of mine! And Shaun Wilson, a current MA student who has a publication on the way and shows tremendous promise.