ON THE COUCH ... Sarah BUTLER & Jeremy SHELDON
Learning and excelling in the craft of writing
SARAH BUTLER and Jeremy Sheldon are two prolific writers from the United Kingdom who were in Kuala Lumpur recently to facilitate City of Stories, a series of creative writing workshops. Both of them have backgrounds in writing about cities and places, as well as MAs in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
Butler is a writer and freelance project manager with a particular interest in the relationship between writing and place. In 2006 she set up her consultancy, UrbanWords, supported by Arts Council England, to explore the area of creative writing and regeneration. This successfully led to the launch of A Place for Words, an online resource which provides practical advice to people who want to work in this field, and also brings together case studies of existing projects. She is currently writer-in-residence for a project called Almost an Island? based on the Greenwich Peninsula.
Sheldon is the author of The Comfort Zone and The Smiling Affair, both published by Jonathan Cape. He is a tutor on the MA in Creative Writing Programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and at Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. He has led fiction workshops for the Arvon Foundation and Spread the Word in the United Kingdom and has taught internationally for organisations such as the Geneva Writers Conference and the British Council. In addition to this, he continues to work as a script editor and development consultant for scriptwriters and film production companies.
Tan May Lee spoke to both Sarah Butler and Jeremy Sheldon on books and writing, among other things:
Sarah, you set up your own consultancy, UrbanWords, to explore the area of creative writing and regeneration of cities. What got you interested in people, relationships and places?
Butler: I’ve always been interested in place. Maybe I was influenced by the fact my father is a town planner and my family are also keen walkers. I grew up walking in the countryside most weekends and going on holidays in the Lake District and Scotland, and at the same time having a real interest in cities and urban life.
People and the relationships between them are just endlessly fascinating—I think any writer would echo that. Sometimes I feel like a magpie, collecting characters and stories as I go about my everyday life—there are an incredible amount of stories out there if you take the time to look and listen.
Jeremy, I couldn’t find much information about you online! So tell us something interesting about your writing life.
Sheldon: How flattering to think that there might be something “interesting” about my writing life! There’s a line in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” This seems to me the perfect description of the process of writing fiction. At the moment (by which I really mean for the last 17 years), it tends to feel mechanical, save for the occasional moment of loin-churning astonishment that it’s “actually working.” It didn’t always feel this way and I’m sure that it won’t always feel this way in the future. I’m not surprised that Haruki Murakami likens writing to long-distance running.
One part of my writing process that I adore is the research. Recent writing projects have led me to investigate subjects as diverse and absorbing as “Rural Life in Edwardian Devon,” “The Turkish War of Independence,” “Napoleonic Warfare,” “Multiple Sclerosis” and “The History of the Romantic Comedy.” What an interesting planet we live on! The part of my “writing life” that sees me tutoring other writers is also full of astonishing revelations. I can never tell what someone is going to come up with next. Watching the students with whom I work gain confidence in their own imaginative potential is also pretty exciting.
I’m quite impressed by the covers of The Comfort Zone and The Smiling Affair. Can you tell us a little more about them? Who’s the haunting woman on the cover The Smiling Affair? Did you have much say over the cover design, especially for the details on The Comfort Zone’s cover?
Sheldon: When The Comfort Zone was being prepared for publication, I asked if it would be possible to use a detail from a mesmerising Andreas Gursky photograph, Untitled V, one that presents the viewer with 204 wondrously lit sneakers. That request fell through, which was a shame as I think the image would have been perfect.
When we came to publishing The Smiling Affair, my editor and I asked the designers at Jonathan Cape to think about the concept of the “Hitchcock Blonde.” While I was writing The Smiling Affair, I kept a haunting photograph of Grace Kelly open on my desktop and so it seemed like the natural direction in which to travel. I think the final result is fantastic in many senses of the word. The woman in the picture feels as if she could belong to one of the many generations of smiling women featured in the story, and the shadow on the wall behind her is in keeping with the general atmosphere of the piece.
I’m going to focus my attention here on The Comfort Zone because we’re on a roll with short stories (with the MPH-Alliance Bank National Short Story Prize 2009 and the newly published anthology, Urban Odysseys). It appears that you have captured the ‘bizarre’ in modern life in The Comfort Zone. What made you decide to create such characters?
Sheldon: Thank you. I don’t think you could have offered a more encouraging response to The Comfort Zone. I didn’t plan to be deliberately “experimental.” To put this in another way, I wasn’t trying to be shocking or clever by choosing to write about eccentric situations. For me, the process of writing about what might be labelled “bizarre” or “experimental” originates in a desire to capture something about my characters’ emotional experiences. I’ve learned slowly that I’m interested in characters with obsessions of various kinds. Even the protagonist of The Smiling Affair, Jay, is obsessed with a variety of things (including sandwiches!). Perhaps the force of these various obsessions drives the characters in question into an emotional territory that feels “bizarre.”
How many short stories have you written, Sarah? I noticed a lot of emotional conflict in your stories—a lot of modern-day struggles, like the concept of marriage, family ties and urban poverty. What inspires your stories?
Butler: I’m not sure I’ve counted—lots! I love short stories because they take a lot less time to finish than novels! I use them to try out ideas and characters, to capture the kind of story that’s not quite weighty enough for a novel. I often write stories in response to stories other people have told me, or overheard conversations on the bus—those little sparks that stay with you and bother you until you’ve written them down.
Sarah, what’s the difference between writing short stories and novels?
Butler: Short stories are moments, crystallisations of the world. They give you a lot less space than a novel does, so you have to use broad brushstrokes. With a short story, you have to create people and landscapes very quickly and concisely, and it that way they can be more difficult, sometimes, than novels, which allow you a bit of meandering.
Jeremy, you also do some screenwriting. How different is screenwriting from writing short stories and novels?
Sheldon: Screenplay-writing has a huge affinity with short stories and traditionally identifies and explores an opportunity in a character’s life to change and there is only room to explore one remnant of potential change in a short story. Screenplays focus on that climatic moment of change, which is set up by various scenes. In a sense it’s still a very compressed set-up. In a novel, thankfully there’s much room for greater digression.
There are so many powerful films that have been adapted from short stories—“Shawshank Redemption,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and so on. One of the writers I work with is John Bishop, a screenwriter. He was a career English teacher and he says he feels the screenplay is most like a sonnet. Three sections and then a conclusion, although a sonnet does that in 14 lines. And I love that idea. It’s the perfect example of how things are compressed—it’s a tight storytelling mechanism. Perhaps short-story writers should read more sonnets.
Do you read a lot of short-story collections?
Sheldon: Every now and then. The writer I enjoyed the most in the last five to 10 years is George Saunders, the American short-story writer, who I think is superb. He’s clever, funny, does social commentary and yet none of it feels very wooden and portentous. He also manages to present the reader with sentimental characters and yet it doesn’t feel self-pity. When their lives go so wrong, when they react and feel sorry, we realise we follow them on their journey, and I think very few writers can show characters feeling sorry for themselves and get away with it. I recently came across Michael Sherborne’s stories. His novels are very well known now and Wonderboys has been adapted.
Butler: Georgianna Hammock, Jackie Kay, Ali Smith. Short stories are interesting. In America, you can hold your head up and say you’re a short-story writer, but not in the UK. Everyone says there isn’t a market for them in the UK. There are a lot of short-story competitions, and they’re quite effective with big cash prizes. A lot of journals and magazines, but in terms of collections, they’re hard to sell. In a weird way, they build your career and it’s easy to get individual stories published than novels. And if you get your stories published, you have more of a chance to get your book published. They’re kind of useful in terms of building your profile as a writer.
I don’t know enough about publishing to make a judgement, but it’s a really tough market in the UK at the moment. Maybe it’s partly to do with economics, but publishers aren’t taking risks and decisions are made more by marketing departments than by editors. It’s very difficult as a first-time novelist because publishers are taking a risk, and you have to fit into a box. With my second novel manuscript, I had an agent, but it kind of fell between literary and popular fiction and she wasn’t sure how to package it.
Sarah, your first two novels are still awaiting publication. The publishing scene in the U.K. can be difficult to penetrate for first-time writers, and competition is keen! Any thoughts?
Butler: It is really frustrating. With my first novel I got to the point of being signed up by an agent and having it sent out to publishers. The rejections were very complimentary, but they were still rejections. I am repeatedly told that my second novel doesn’t fit into a neat category and therefore agents are nervous about trying to sell it.
I think the thing to do is just keep going. I am currently writing my third novel and loving it. I am making a real effort to write short fiction and send them out to magazines, competitions, etc. I have had several successes recently, with stories published in literary journals and anthologies. This not only helps to build my publishing profile, but keeps my motivation and enthusiasm going too.
It’s all very well plugging away on your own, but it is great—and important—to be read and get feedback on your work. My feeling with my novels is that maybe they aren’t right for the publishing world now, but they might be in the future. And if they aren’t, then I am still writing, and every novel I write is better than the one before because I am more practised, more confident, more skilled. So one day it will happen—it’s a matter of time, and patience and perseverance.
Both of you did an MA in Creative Writing at the “overlord of all MA in Creative Writing courses”—University of East Anglia. Could you tell me about your experiences in UEA?
Sheldon: When I started the MA back in 1995, it was the only established MA programme in the UK. Merely being selected to attend the UEA course constituted a huge boost to one’s confidence. The situation now is of course very different. A broadsheet newspaper article in 2004 counted 85 such courses in the UK and it seems likely that several have been established since. I’m not sure that the same thrill automatically accompanies doing an MA now as it’s become more commonplace.
Having said this, I notice tremendous anticipation in the students on the Birkbeck MA Creative Writing programme. Each year, my colleagues and I brace ourselves for the arrival of yet another cohort of intelligent, driven individuals.
Butler: It was an amazing year. Invigorating, inspiring, traumatic! I gave up my job, moved to Norwich, and just wrote for an entire year, which was a real treat. This was about six years ago, when I had only just started to write seriously. It came at a good time for me—I learnt the discipline of writing everyday, and I got a lot better at taking feedback and at getting rid of things that weren’t working. I remember one afternoon I deleted 20,000 words of my novel and managed to feel good about it!
The experience of working with my fellow students was also fantastic—you learn so much about your own writing by reading and commenting on other people’s work. A writer who used to teach on the UEA course told me that in her opinion the most significant thing the MA there achieved was to speed you up by five years. Having done the course, I agree with her. Spending that intensive period of time writing, being criticised and giving feedback, fast-forwards you, if you like. It doesn’t necessarily teach you how to write better, but it provides an environment in which you can find your own voice and develop your work.
Would you recommend aspiring writers to do a Masters in Creative Writing?
Sheldon: Ultimately, yes. The majority of one’s writing life is spent alone, guessing and second-guessing if one’s creative instincts are going in the right direction. Given this, perhaps it’s useful for a developing writer to work in a collaborative atmosphere for a year at some early stage of their writing life. Perhaps it’s also useful for such a writer to receive the gentle encouragement of a benign tutor for a short period.
Butler: I think it depends on where you are with your writing; courses can be really useful at turning points in your career I think, to boost your confidence, to give you the structure to finish a novel, to try something new. But I don’t think they’re essential, not at all. I think it’s important to recognise that an MA can offer time, structure, that possibility for ‘speeding up,’ but it won’t make you magically better or more talented, and I don’t think it teaches you anything you couldn’t find out on your own. There are other ways of developing your writing, too, if you don’t have the time or the money to take an MA. Creative writing groups with writers at a similar stage to you can be really helpful.
Jeremy, as you are professionally a creative-writing tutor, how do you identify talent in your students’ writing?
Sheldon: I’m lucky that I’m mainly concerned with helping my students with structure. Structure is something that can be analysed; analysing how emotions work is a lot harder. I find that writers already have a sense of what’s working and not working in their piece. It’s more about helping them identify it for themselves because writers are stubborn people. They deliberately choose a long-winded format to express themselves. In filmmaking, filmmakers come across these scripts which they think have 60 per cent potential. What they hope is that writers will rewrite it so that they get to 80 and then to 100 per cent. And this correlates with a lot of script editors who knows what could be improved in this draft to achieve what the producer wants to see.
What about the differences between reclusive writers versus dynamic, aggressive writers?
Sheldon: It’s easier to schmooze journalists, to be remembered at publishing parties if that’s what you’re interested in doing. It’s important in the UK all the time and some writers are really good at raising their profile or they have that special A-class personality. It’s nothing wrong with having confidence in yourself but I don’t think it’s going to improve the work on the page. Expecting a writer to be interesting because you like their work is like expecting a duck to be interesting because you like pâté.
Butler: Haha, well, I’m not very good. I’ve been involved in some writing development in the UK and sometimes organisations will get writers to work with voice coaches or actors to train. It’s a skill you can acquire and if you’ve reached a stage where you’re giving readings, and it’s a real weakness of yours, then it makes a difference if you care about people coming to your readings and wanting to buy your works. In terms of voicing opinions and being able to discuss writings, in order to develop as a writer it really helps to work with other writers, to learn how to critique, and it’s quite an important skill. Not in a personal way but a way to analyse what does and doesn’t work.
How much do you already know about Malaysia? Have you been to Kuala Lumpur before this?
Sheldon: My mother is Chinese. Born in Hong Kong, she spent many of her childhood years growing up in Brunei before returning to Hong Kong. This side of her life is not well-known to me, and I’m a little unconnected with my Asian heritage more generally. This being the case, it’s a fantastic experience for me to visit this part of the world and experience the diversity and specific details of Asian landscapes and cultures first-hand. This has been the case when I’ve visited relatives in Hong Kong and was the case, indeed, when I led a week of writing workshops in Singapore last December. It feels as if some dormant part of me is silently but forcefully activated.
Butler: I spent a day in Kuala Lumpur two years ago but felt I didn’t really get a grip on it! It felt like a very big city, and not that set up for walking in. This is one of the reasons I’m so excited to be working with writers based in KL and running workshops which take the city as a starting point for writing. What better way to really get under the skin of a new place?
Sarah, now that you’re in KL again, what are your thoughts on the city this time round?
Butler: I really like KL. It’s hot. Yesterday I went for a walk outside—I usually walk everywhere but it’s kind of hard to walk in KL. But I feel safe here; people are friendly and open. I love the fact that it’s so built-up, urban, and concrete, but the jungle is also there near the KL Tower. The greenery and jungle could just come and take over if you weren’t paying attention. I’m going to Sabah for a week to get my greenery.
Lastly, what are you currently reading? Any genres you’re into?
Sheldon: I’m interested in a variety of genres and actively tried to reflect this in The Comfort Zone. There was a conscious effort on my part to write in as many modes as possible: the science fiction of “The Project,” the fantasy of “Higher Society,” the contemporary realism of “Endgame,” the abstract nihilism of “The Trail” and so on. In the case of The Smiling Affair, the process of blending genres was less conscious. I had a strong urge to write a ghost story, and I had a strong urge to write about a Londoner exiled in America. The mixture of ideas that followed (borrowed variously from film noir and contemporary fiction, from Alfred Hitchcock and F. Scott Fitzgerald but also from the 1980s’ Hollywood and Gothic literature) assembled itself as I went along.
The genre of fiction I’m enjoying the most at the moment is the Historical Military Adventure story. I’ve only got three more Flashman novels left to read, and I’m not rushing to get to them, if only to prolong the pleasure of reading each of them for the first time. The film genre I most admire at the moment is the romantic comedy. It’s a much maligned genre, unfairly so in my opinion. What subject could be more relevant to our everyday lives than the difficult nature of romantic relationships? I accept that the mainstream of the genre tends to the stylised, but this fact in itself doesn’t feel like it deserves the lazy damnation it often receives. I can’t think of many successful mainstream feature films that aren’t stylised in their own way to a similar extent.
Butler: I’ve just bought Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory. I like reading novels that are related to the countries I’m visiting. I’ve also got a book of essays about writing by Margaret Atwood called Negotiating with the Dead, which is on the list.
From February 11-20, 2009, British Council Malaysia, MPH and London-based Spread the Word organised City of Stories, a series of creative-writing workshops for aspiring and developing local writers. Sarah Butler and Jeremy Sheldon facilitated these workshops. City of Stories encourages participants to derive inspiration from their surroundings for the production of written work. The writers’ skills are developed through innovative activities that creatively and sensitively engage the writers with their cities and with the people who inhabit these spaces. Visit britishcouncil.org.my for more details.
TAN MAY LEE graduated from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where she was awarded the Bonamy Dobree Scholarship for International Students to do her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She also trained as a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Linguistic Programming. She is the editor of Quill magazine.