Interviews with creative writers

Creative Writing Interview: Shane Strachan

Shane Strachan is a writer based in Aberdeen, Scotland. Much of his work is inspired by the folk, language and landscape of the Northeast of Scotland, with his prose and drama often incorporating Northeast Scots (Doric). Many of his stories and poems have been published nationally, and he has also had theatre work staged in Aberdeen, including in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Granite production. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen.

What is your connection with Aberdeen?

I’ve been in Aberdeen for over ten years now. I moved here from my hometown of Fraserburgh to study literature at Aberdeen University. It was the nearest city growing up, but I didn’t quite appreciate its cultural scene until I’d been living here for a couple of years. Culture in the city has changed a fair bit of late too, with more creative activities and opportunities than ever before, so I’m really glad I’ve chosen to continue living here beyond graduation.

How did you get into writing?

From a young age, writing was something I was excited about, but it wasn’t until I was studying Scottish literature at university that I realised that other folk might be interested in the kinds of stories I wanted to tell and in the voice I wanted to tell them in. So around the age of 19 I began writing about the fishing towns I grew up in and began using Doric; it was then that being a writer became not so much a possibility, but a necessity.

Describe a typical working week.

No one week is ever quite the same, which is something I love about being a creative as I quickly get bored of routine. A good writing week is usually the result of a quieter diary: it will entail a few hours here and there getting on with writing prose or drama at home or in a café. Most weeks, however, are busy with work, which I can’t really complain about as I’ve found that having the sense of only having limited time to write is a good way to actually make sure I do it. Having endless stretches of time didn’t always help me get work done during my PhD, so as much as it might appear a hindrance, having a time pressure can be really helpful.

When did feel confident telling people you were a writer, and why?

There must have been a period where I switched from saying ‘I do some writing’ to saying ‘I’m a writer’, but there’s not an exact moment I remember. I guess it just happens when the time is right, although I don’t think anyone should have to feel validated by success or other people’s views to say what they are. If you write, then you’re a writer.

What projects are you most proud of in your career?

I’m proud of the stories I wrote for my PhD in Creative Writing as the majority of them have now been published in national magazines, which I didn’t expect since they’re quite focused on the Northeast and use a fair amount of Doric dialect. I also loved being the Script Editor for the 2014 Aberdeen Student Show, Wullie Wonkie and the Fine Piece Factory, which raised £80,000 for local charities after a week at HMT. Outwith my own writing, a couple of international creative projects I’ve been involved with have been some of the most exciting work I’ve been part of. I founded and led a project with Aberdeen’s German twin city called ‘Write Aberdeen – Write Regensburg’ which encouraged and published new writing in both cities. I was also commissioned to write a play about maternal health for a global research group called Immpact, which proved popular at the 2015 May Festival; this project has led to me visiting Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to work with creatives to bring art into two maternity hospitals there, which has been a fantastic experience.

How do you make a living and sustain your practice?

Very few people make a living from creative writing except for a few anomalies who write in particularly popular genres, such as crime or children’s fiction. Most writers of literature make a living from all the other things they do besides publishing their work. For me, that’s working two part-time jobs which gives me a regular salary, alongside the more infrequent creative opportunities, such as teaching writing workshops, being part of community projects, and some commissioned work. I’ve also sought bursaries, residencies and other sources of support to sustain and develop my practice, such as the ‘Made in Aberdeen’ award (now known as ‘Creative Funding’) which I used to attend writing retreats at Moniack Mhor creative writing centre.

What would you say has been the most important thing that has kept you going?

Having mentorship from professional writers who work in the city has been the main thing that has kept me going as they’ve made me realise that a successful writing career takes time and that overnight success is something of a myth. Being part of writing groups has also been important as it’s great to have a community of other writers to share your work with and to get through any of the tougher periods of rejection or writer’s block.

Are there any resources that you’ve found particularly helpful?

The Scottish Book Trust website has always been a great source of information, as well as a very encouraging and exciting organisation. I’ve also received support and advice from various creative organisations in the city, such as Aberdeen Performing Arts, Creative Learning and Twinning Aberdeen, as well as the University of Aberdeen’s support during and after my studies there.

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given so far?

Write the stories, poems or plays that you want to read. They’re likely to be the things you’ll be best at and it also stops you from worrying about what’s en vogue and bending to other styles and genres that simply aren’t you, which your reader will sense. In terms of practical advice, holding onto drafts of my work has been a great way to track my development, and keeping a record of where and when I’ve sent out my work to magazines and publishers in an Excel file has been really useful as this gets harder to keep track of this over time.



Creative Writing Interview: Iain Maloney

Iain Maloney is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and has been published in journals and anthologies around the world. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His first novel First Time Solo, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. His most recent novel is The Waves Burn Bright: set over 32 years in Aberdeen and around the world, it is the story of Carrie Fraser, a world-renowned volcanologist and her father, Marcus, who survives Piper Alpha but struggles to deal with the trauma. His first collection of poetry, Fractures, was published in December 2016.

What is your connection with Aberdeen?

I was born in Inverurie and grew up in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. I went to school here and attended the University of Aberdeen where I studied English Literature.

How did you get into writing? Was there a particular moment where you decided this was for you and did anything help you take those steps?

I first started writing songs, and still do a little, but I have a pretty bad singing voice so my lyrics turned into poems and then stories. At Aberdeen University I was lucky enough to be tutored by Alan Spence and Sheena Blackhall, both of whom really helped me when I was finding my way. I joined the Aberdeen University Creative Writing Society and meeting people who shared the same passion for literature and writing was an important step towards becoming a writer. It’s a solitary profession, sitting at your desk imagining other worlds and lives, but there is a strong community of writers in Aberdeen and in Scotland.

Can you describe a typical working month for you?

I teach in the afternoon and evening, so I tend to get up at about 7am and write until lunchtime. I do that five days a week and try to do a little on the weekends as well, but I also make sure I take at least one day a week away from my novel – it’s very easy to get lost inside your book and it’s important to reconnect with reality once in a while.

When did you feel confident telling people you were a writer and why?

When I got one of my first poems published, I had to write a short biography for the anthology and I wrote ‘… is an aspiring writer.’ Sheen Blackhall told me to delete the word ‘aspiring’. She said, ‘You write, therefore you’re a writer.’ I still think that’s very good advice.

What have been the high points of your career so far?

Seeing my debut novel, First Time Solo, published was an amazing feeling. I’d been writing for about fifteen years at that point, with some success, but to be able to walk into a bookshop and see your book on the shelf, that’ll take some beating.

What would you say have been the biggest challenges in doing what you do and what has helped you through?

Writing is a solitary job and the set backs, the rejections, the attacks on your self-confidence are tough. You need a good community of writers around you so you can support each other. First Time Solo was the first book I had published but it was the third novel I wrote. Doing all that work, spending years on something that ultimately goes in a drawer takes a lot of motivation and a lot of perseverance. Without friends who are honest and encouraging, it’s easy to get lost and despair.

How do you sustain your practice? What has worked for you?

A day job. It can’t be said enough: this isn’t something you do to make money, it’s something you do for the love of it. I teach English and work as a freelance journalist and use that income to make space so I can write. The chances of having success like J. K. Rowling are so many millions to one it’s not even worth calculating. There is still money in the publishing industry, despite their claims of poverty, but it all goes to celebrity memoirs and a handful of big-name authors. What little is left is spread very thinly over an enormous group of writers. The same is true of self-publishing: for every E. L. James there are millions who make nothing from their writing.

What do you love most about what you do? Why do you do what you do?

Why? I do this because I couldn’t not. Being published is amazing, but I wrote for fifteen years and if I’d never had a book out, I’d still be writing. The urge to try and make sense of the world by telling stories is an ancient one, it’s part of what it means to be human. Whether that’s making your mates laugh down the pub or blogging or writing Crime and Punishment, it’s the same impulse. I love the blank page and the opening idea. Novels are a journey of discovery as much for the writer as for the reader.

Are there any resources that you’ve found particularly helpful?

Writers’ groups are a wonderful source of support, friendship, advice and criticism. Everywhere I go I seek out the local writing group – there always is one – and join. Reading your work to others and having it criticised, giving feedback yourself, learning what works and what doesn’t is a vital part of development as a writer, and the friendship will help you through the rejection letters and rewrites.

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given so far?

‘Just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.’ Occasionally as a writer people ask you to write things that are outside your comfort zone. Most people’s – me included – instinct is to say no. Some of the best, most enjoyable things I’ve written have been because someone pushed me in a different direction, a terrifying direction. Embrace challenges, always try and do something new.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting writing and to those just starting out?

These obstacles are real and need to be dealt with, but they’re not the most important thing: get writing. As Sheena Blackhall said to me, ‘You write, therefore you’re a writer’. Equally, you’re not a writer until you write. Writing is a craft like any other art. You wouldn’t pick up a paintbrush and expect to produce a canvas like Monet, so don’t pick up a pen and expect to write like Shakespeare straight off. It takes time, it takes mistakes, you’ll write hundreds of truly awful things that you’ll be too embarrassed to show anyone. Good, that’s what everyone does. That’s the process of learning, improving, perfecting. Confidence comes with practice, with trying, with experimenting. Every story, every poem, every sentence is an improvement on the last one; if you don’t write, you don’t improve.