Andrew Cowan is a British writer, a creative writing teacher and the director of this programme at the University of East Anglia. His debut novel, Pig (1994), was also translated in Romanian, in 2009, by Leda Publishing House. He won many literary prizes and distinctions for Pig: Betty Trask Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, The Authors” Club First Novel Award, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Ruth Hadden Memorial Award. His most recent book was published last year and it is called Worthless men.
Andrew Cowan was in Romania two times: the first time at the International Literature Festival from Bucharest, in 2012; and the second time, also as a guest writer, at the International Literature and Translation Festival from Iași, in 2013. I spoke with him last year in Iași. We had interesting conversations about teaching and writing creative writing books, advice that he gives to young writers, about writing from your own experience, influences, authors that he likes, his first and his last novels, choosing jobs, literary events, prizes and many more.
You were talking with my colleague, Silvia, in a previous interview, about the Creative Writing programme at University of East Anglia. But you have also published a book, The art of writing fiction, in 2011. How difficult is it for a writer to write about writing?
It”s a lot easier to write about writing than to do writing. It”s easier for me to teach writing than to write. Writing is very hard, it”s a vacation in misery, in failure. Every time I sit down at the desk and I write, writing defeats me. But when I go into a classroom, I find I could speak about writing with authority and suddenly I don”t feel like a failure, I see that the students listen to me, they do the exercises, they read what I give them to read. And it”s a success. I see it and hear it, which is not the case when I”m writing – when I put something down on the page, it doesn”t speak back to me; it always seems that it sounds bad. So when I wrote my book on how to write, I was adopting the voice of the teacher, I was speaking in the voice of the classroom and it”s the easiest thing I”ve ever written.
Why did you write it? What were your motivations?
One of the motivations was that, in the classroom, at University of East Anglia, where I teach, there wasn”t a curriculum for the first year, so I wrote one. In order to write it, I had to read a lot of creative writing books and they were often very disappointing, often written by people who had no published book themselves, they were just teachers, recycling clichés and stereotypes, very tiring exercises – I saw some exercises again and again, same advice again and again. And I wanted to write something more authentic, something written from the experience of being a writer, which could be honest about how difficult it was. So it”s partly a book with creative writing exercises, it”s partly a book with creative writing advice, but also partly a memoir, it describes how I came to be a writer.
You said that Angela Carter told you to write about what you know. Can somebody write only about the things that he or she knows? Isn”t it restrictive, doesn”t he or she become repetitive?
I address that issue in my book, where I describe my own understanding of what it means to write about what you know. I think that all of us knows how is it like to be four years old, we know how is it to be ten or fifteen years old. We all know how is it to feel longing, loss, grief, anger, love, desire and other things. We know how it”s like to go out in a sunny day, to stay underneath rain clouds, to be afraid, we know how it”s like to be in the company of people we never met before, to take a risk and to succed, to fail and to hate ourselves. And so many other things… So let”s give them to a character! We invent a character who can live on a green planet, 2000 light years away and it can experience the emotions that we know about. Our characters have our DNA, but it”s not biographical, in the strict sense.
What advice do you give to your students?
I give them lots of advice (laughs).
The best advice about writing that I came across recently is given by a chick lit author, Jenny Colgan. Did you hear about her?
Yes, I did, but I didn”t read her.
Me neither (laughs).
But this is great advice: if you want to be a writer, the first rule is to read a lot. Number two: write a lot. Number three: repeat steps one and two as required. Number four: get lucky. Number five: stay lucky. And then you will have a writing career. Seriously, if you want to be a writer, you must read a lot, you must swim in the waters of language; if you don”t know what writing comes before you, you don”t know what writing surrounds you, then you won”t write anything interesting.
Before being a writer, you were a postman, a dishwasher, an oral historian, a cleaner in a cake factory and a school librarian, according to your website. A diversity of jobs. Why did you do them? Do we find your experiences in your books, in a way or another?
I”m not really sure why I did those jobs except the fact that I didn”t know what to do with my life. I come from a place where people didn”t read books. And the idea of becoming a writer was as unlikely as the idea of becoming a professor at the university. I became both of these things and it”s a mystery, in a way, how that happened. But in the meantime, before I discovered myself, I drifted, I made lots of mistakes, I filled my time with lots of inappropriate jobs. Sometimes I would take a crap job because I wanted to be a writer and I didn”t want to distract myself. Other times I took a job like that because I didn”t have other options. And I think that the person who is uncertain about the place where he fits, the person who makes mistakes in his choices, that person is in my writing.
If we were talking about influences, what authors do you like?
The key authors, the ones that encouraged me to become a writer, are James Joyce and Thomas Hardy. And that”s because I studied them at an impressionable age, when I was eighteen years old. They are in my blood stream. Then I went to Art School. In an art supply shop, where I went to buy some paints, I saw a carousel of paperback books and they had very pretty and sexy books. I was interested, so I bought some – for example, Ian McEwan. I followed McEwan”s style and books. He was very important for me, at the beginning. When I started to try to find my own voice as a writer I began to read a lot of English writers from the 1960-1970 – one that matters very much for me is David Storey -, and also American writers. Mostly men, I notice now.
You”ve been an invited speaker to many literature festivals, conferences etc., both in England and abroad, including recently in Bucharest, Romania. What opinion do you have about the audience that attends these literary events?
It”s an interesting thing about going to literature festivals and conferences abroad, naming that the people are much more concerned about writing and writers. In England, I often feel a certain apathy about writing. In the last year, I”ve been to Greece, to India, to Bulgaria, to Japan, last year to China. And in each of these places the audiences tend to be young, engaged and enthusiastic. If I go to a literary event in UK, the audience tends to be middle-aged rather than young. It”s a very interesting phenomenon. Nevertheless, in UK there are creative writing courses everywhere, but not in every other countries. Possibly that explains it. In England, if you”re interested in writing, you do a course. In others countries, if you”re interested in writing, you have to come to literary events like this to feed your interest.
In my case, they saved me, because my book was rejected by many agents and publishers. I couldn”t get it published. But then it won a prize in manuscript and, because of that, I found a publisher. I got lucky. Once it got published, it won other prizes. And that meant I could publish another book afterwards. It launched me on a career. I have neither a high profile career nor an obscure one, I am somewhere in the middle. And I keep thinking: if only I could win another prize, then I could leave teaching and live from my own writing (laughs).
Do you want to quit teaching?
Well, there”s no secret. My job at the University is full time and I”m director of the programme which has hundreds of students and it”s very, very tiring. It doesn”t leave me with much energy for writing books. So I wouldn”t want to leave teaching, but full time academia. If I could do some teaching and not have to go to meetings, not have to be in charge of things, it would be perfect.
Loss is a main theme in your novels. How much does it consume you?
In a way, I write to repair a sense of loss, I write in order to retrieve something that it is missing. The thing is that I don”t know what”s missing or what I”ve lost. I just have a feeling of absence which is with me, existentially. I write to address it. It doesn”t cure me, it focuses me, it gives me something to focus on, it gives me a place to be.
Your most recent book, Worthless men, is set during the First World War. I didn”t have a chance to read it yet. So what is it about? Will it be translated in Romanian?
I don”t know if it will be translated, I wish I knew…
Worthless men it”s about the First World War, but not as you would imagine: it”s about the way in which people at home were affected by the experience of war. It”s also about a current of thoughts, respectable at that time, but it is not respectable anymore and that”s eugenics. Several of the characters subscribe to eugenical ideas, and one of the ideas frequent in 1916 was this: war affects a necessary purge of the social residuum. The people who didn”t fit in were unproductive, perhaps mentally or physically disable, the people who were at the bottom of society. It was believed that they were at the bottom of the society because it was something wrong genetically, something that predisposed poverty.
Obviously that now this idea is no longer respectable, nobody believes it anymore. The First World War is what proved it wrong. So a lot of people died, but it was killing on an industrial scale and it didn”t cleanse the gene pool, it didn”t purge the undesirables from society. It proved that they were often the bravest and that the people who occupied the highest rank of society could be the most stupid and the most cowardly.
This is at the heart of the novel. I wanted to write about a time that I didn”t live through, that I didn”t experience, but reading and hearing about it, it struck me as wonderfully uncanny.
What do you listen to when you write?
I listen to the sound of the blood in my ears (laughs). Sometimes, I wear ear plugs so that I don”t hear anything while I”m writing, except the things inside of my head.
Credit photo for the main picture