My spiritual transformation took place inNorwich; it was there that, like an emerging butterfly, I was first conscious of my wings.
Leo Colston, the young narrator of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between
In January 2005, exactly ten years since I had been a student on the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, I returned to Norwich as Writing Fellow, teaching on the undergraduate writing course, and acting as a resource to those on the MA who wanted their work read and discussed by a published novelist.
There was a certain symmetry to returning after a decade away. Ten years before, our class of twelve – seven men, five women – had played a parlour game night after night. Who, we wondered, ten years hence, would be a full-time working novelist? Going on past statistics we settled on four with an assured literary future, a mere third of our number, but who those four might be changed with each different story or fragment of a novel submitted to class.
After settling into my flat on campus the night of my return – it was snowing, I remember, heavily – I headed to the Grad Bar to enjoy a pint of beer at cheap student rates once again. I carried with me an advance copy of another graduate’s new novel, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and thought about the other eleven students with whomI had spent a chaotic year during 1994 and 1995, wishing that they were there with me too, and wondering where they all were now.
We had been right about our statistics; a decade along, Richard Beard, Janette Jenkins, Toby Litt and I had published fourteen novels, two collections of short stories and a work of non-fiction between us. But many of the other eight were missing in action – this was pre-Facebook days, of course – and whether or not they were even still writing was open to conjecture.
I felt sad to be there without my old crew, nostalgic even. That year, my twenty-third, when I had first come to Norwich had been a turning point in my life. I arrived brimming over with self-confidence, a cocky kid who’d published a few short stories in magazines or newspapers, and left with a conviction that although writing mattered to me more than ever, I had no idea what type of writer I really was. I arrived young and naive – I’d never lived outside Dublin before – and left, horrified to be returning to my boring life in Ireland. I arrived with a plan to write short stories and left with perhaps no more than half a dozen, and they weren’t very good anyway. Oh, and I arrived straight and left gay – thanks, UEA!
I remember my interview for a place on the course. I flew to London, took a train to Norwich and a bus from Thorpe Station to the campus. I remember the bus turning a corner and a brief glimpse of the university between the trees. I remember Jon Cook and Rose Tremain asking me questions about what I wrote, and why I wrote, and what I wanted to write, and feeling a growing certainty that I was making a mess of the whole thing, that every word coming out of my mouth was utter nonsense. I’d read Restoration and Sacred Country and liked them very much; Rose was the first real writer I had ever had a conversation with and I felt a little overawed. I remember walking to the lake after the interview and sitting there for a while, cursing myself for not being more articulate, only realising then how much I wanted to attend UEA, how much I wanted to be part of this course. I remember swearing to myself that I’d have another go next year and I’d be ready then. I’d know what to say. I remember walking past the English department on my way to catch the bus back to the station and Rose sweeping down the stairs in a red coat.
‘Oh, I’ll put you out of your misery,’ she told me. ‘You got in.’
I could have kissed her. I probably should have.
My memory of our classes leaves me feeling bewildered and embarrassed. We met every Wednesday afternoon, sitting in a horseshoe formation around Malcolm Bradbury, who was due to retire once he was finished with us. He seemed almost bemused to find us there every Wednesday, waiting for him, as if he couldn’t quite believe that this whole Creative Writing lark, initiated by him twenty-four years ago, had thrived for so long. Occasionally, he would even remember our names. One student made sure to arrive first every week, just so he could sit on Malcolm’s right hand and whisper sweet nothings in his ear. Malcolm looked at him with wry amusement, as if he had encountered his type on twenty-four previous occasions.
At first we were all polite, treating each other’s work with kindness and consideration. We were deeply moved all the time, or profoundly affected, or professed ourselves startled by the depth of such a vivid imagination. I remember commenting that a certain story was filled with a wonderfully energetic energy, which made Malcolm close his eyes and clench his jaw, as if I’d just dragged my nails across the blackboard. If we found a flaw we simply wondered whether it might not be reconsidered, although we admitted that we were probably wrong to even suggest it, that such remarks merely testified to our own shortcomings, rather than those of the nascent genius whose work we were discussing.
Such politeness lasted about a month, and then the knives came out.
By November we were deeply disappointed by stories that seemed derivative of the work of famous writers. The dialogue sounded like nothing we ever heard in real life. The characters were clichéd and overwritten. And really, must we go on reading these endless tracts about the stupidity of religion, or the defiant spirit among the women gathered on Greenwich Common, or the traumas of young girlhood in Brooklyn? Wasn’t life really too short for all this tedious nonsense? A suggestion was made to one student that she might be better off pursuing another career choice, needlework perhaps. Or taking the veil. There were tears, walkouts. Threats. And then afterwards, back in the arms of our most faithful attendant – the Grad Bar – we would make up, friends again for another seven days.
We invented strange games that both amused us and made a mockery of what we were there to do. The men began wearing suits and ties to class. We submitted work with photographs printed on the title pages showing each of us as babies. We competed to see who had slept the least the night before class, who had vomited that morning out of anxiety, who had considered throwing all their clothes off and drowning themselves in the lake, rather than face the vindictive criticisms of their classmates.
Once, a fellow student and I hastened to another’s flat, fully convinced that we would find him hanging from a light bulb. He wasn’t. In fact, he welcomed us in and offered us tea. Then, if I remember correctly, a row ensued.
And yet, despite all our nonsense, some good work was produced. Two students received offers from publishing houses while still on the course. Others were taken on by agents after Malcolm’s annual house party, an evening of naked ambition, where agents and editors descended upon Norwich and where we, the current crop, would target a Person Known To Be Someone Useful and engage them in conversation about the novel we were writing and whether or not the Person Known To Be Someone Useful might like to take a look at it, just a few chapters perhaps, the first one even, a couple of scenes if time was of the essence. We weren’t there just to write, after all; we wanted to begin our careers. We wanted someone to tell us that we might have careers.
I had been writing since the age of about fourteen, fascinated by the art of storytelling, the complexity and elasticity of words. I’m forty now and have published seven novels, plus two more for children, and around seventy short stories. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t write. (‘Every day,’ Malcolm would insist. ‘Even Christmas Day.’) But the only time over the last quarter century when I didn’t write was in the year immediately following my graduation from the course. For when I left, despite having come to understand that there was no limit to the amount of things I could write about, and despite having been awarded the Curtis Brown Prize towards the end of the year, I felt that the course had only taught me a few things that really mattered: that you cannot be a writer unless you have found your own distinctive voice, that you cannot tell a story unless you have a reason to tell it, and that you cannot write a novel unless you understand the power that novels have in the first place.
And so I stopped. I went home to Dublin. I worked in a bookshop. And I read and I read and I read. And then, sometime during 1997, I had an idea for a novel that would become my first book, The Thief of Time. And I started to write it. And I’ve been writing ever since.
Every day. Even Christmas Day.
In some ways, the hardest part of doing the course was leaving the course. There was a protective atmosphere to UEA; we were encouraged to write, in fact we had to write as we had deadlines, submission dates, a clear schedule to follow. We were writers because people called us writers and because we were writing. We were a collective. A gang of twelve. And then it was all over. And we were out.
But now it was 2005 and here I was in Norwich again. The Thief of Time had been published. So had The Congress of Rough Riders. And Crippen. Next of Kin was due out in a few months time. I was writing full time. I was a novelist; I didn’t have any other job. There were copies of some of my books published in languages that I couldn’t read. I had cracked America, and even Robbie Williams didn’t seem able to do that. I wasn’t selling very many books, but it seemed churlish to expect commercial success. Being allowed to publish was surely enough. It was certainly enough for me. I set myself a few tasks when I arrived at UEA the second time around. I wanted to be a good teacher. I could remember what it was like to feel intimidated by the pressures of the course, and to feel lost among students who seemed so much more confident and literary than me. I wanted to find the students who were struggling and encourage them; the quieter voices, in my experience, were usually the most interesting ones. And one other thing: I had a manuscript in my bag which had just been accepted by my publisher, but which was still a bit of a mess and needed a lot of editing and re-writing during the months ahead.
The novel in question was a short, 50,000-word book, written for children – the first time I had ever written for children – about a nine-year-old German boy whose family move away from their Berlin home to a concentration camp, where the boy’s father is taking up the position of Commandant. The boy – Bruno – would meet another boy there – Shmuel – and the novel centred around their growing friendship and their gradual discovery of what was really taking place around them.
It was called The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
I laid the pages out on my desk and resolved to make this book as good as it could possibly be over the following months. And then I got to work.
The first morning I entered my undergraduate classroom, I think I felt more nervous than any of the students. There were about fifteen of them, all aged around nineteen, and I began by asking each one in turn what they were reading at the moment.
‘I’m working on a thesis,’ said one. ‘I can’t read right now.’
‘Most of my time is spent with my band,’ said another. ‘I haven’t read a book in ages. I’m more of a writer than a reader, to be honest.’
‘Stephen King,’ said a third.
‘I see,’ I said, surprised that they did not seem more engaged with contemporary fiction. ‘So how many of you are actually reading a novel right now?’
Three hands went up.
‘And how many of you, ten years from now, would like to be published novelists?’
The number of hands increased five-fold.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I think we have a lot of work to do here.’
As time went on, to my relief, I found that the students in my class were actually a highly literate and rather creative group. They experimented in their writing, didn’t care if they fell flat on their faces, and were thoughtful and encouraging to each other in their weekly criticisms. I grew fond of them and believed that at least three or four had the potential to be writers. Real writers, I mean. Writers who wouldn’t throw in the towel if the literary world didn’t embrace them instantly.
And then I met the MA group.
Of course they were older. Of course they were a little more self-conscious about the fact that they were this year’s group of Chosen Ones, with one eye on the prize and another on the statistics. (Those statistics never go away; they just change slightly with each passing year.) They also seemed to be deciding whether or not they approved of me. A few made it a point of principle to let me know that they had never heard of me or any of my books.
‘Who publishes you?’ one asked me that first evening as we sat in the Grad Bar and they gathered around, silently judging me.
‘Random House,’ I said.
‘Too commercial,’ came the immediate reply.
‘What are you working on at the moment?’ asked another.
‘A children’s book,’ I said, brightening up, for that children’s book might have been a long way from finished, but I felt that I was on to something special with it.
‘I’m sorry, did you say a children’s book?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
She looked around at the other students, who seemed equally perplexed. It was as if I had just admitted an unhealthy interest in children, rather than in simply writing for them.
‘Yes, well,’ she replied, opening her mouth, realising she had nothing further to add and so, sensibly, closing it again.
‘Why, what are you working on?’ I asked in reply, trying to salvage the situation.
‘Oh, that’s an awful question, don’t you think?’ she said, making me feel seedy and voyeuristic for having the vulgarity to ask it. ‘I can’t explain in just a few trite sentences. It’s rather complex. Rather personal. It’s quite…’ (and here it came; I knew the word would appear at some point over the course of the evening) ‘…organic. I’d rather not talk about it.’
‘But you asked me,’ I pointed out.
‘Yes, well,’ she repeated. ‘It’s just because I’d never heard of you, that’s all.’
Not a good start.
But then, as the months passed, they would knock on my door and offer a story or a few chapters from a novel, and I discovered that they, too, were a rather talented bunch after all. (The interview process might not always work perfectly, but it does dig up a few gems along the way.) And in reading their work, I began to analyse my own anew; in recognising flaws that devalued the piece as a whole I could see where I might fall victim to similar errors. I’ve always found that the teaching of Creative Writing classes can be just as instructive and helpful for the teacher as it is for the student, and that was certainly true of my experiences in both roles.
During much of 2005 I worked and re-worked The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. While in Norwich I took part in a public reading with a couple of other novelists and decided to read from the work-in-progress, something I never do, but I was anxious to see how an audience would respond to the material. I read for about ten minutes at the theatre in UEA and afterwards, during the question-and-answer session, a hand was raised and a point made regarding the merits of historical fiction. One of the novelists on the panel with me was withering in his contempt for novels set in the past, stating that there was nothing to be gained by looking towards history, as if contemporary themes could not be explored in a novel that wasn’t set in the present day.
Tell that to William Golding, I muttered. Or Robert Graves. Or Kazuo Ishiguro.
My work, more by chance than design, has been almost entirely set in the past, but I have tried to bring a sense of the contemporary into the novels, both through theme and character. In writing about the Holocaust, as I was in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I was exploring one of the most difficult and emotive topics in history, and doing so from an unusual perspective: I’m not Jewish, after all, and nor was my central character. Would readers feel that in directing sympathy towards the plight of the young German boy in the novel I was somehow detracting from that of the Jewish characters? (Many would, in fact, and would tell me so in no uncertain terms at public events over the years that followed. I can’t be responsible for how you feel, was my standard reply. And besides, you should feel sympathy for Bruno. He hasn’t done anything wrong, after all; he doesn’t deserve the fate that awaits him.)
The youngest survivors of the Holocaust – boys and girls who were Bruno and Shmuel’s age – are now nearing the end of their lives. Society makes sure to keep their voices heard – organisations such as the Shoah Foundation, based at the University of Southern California, have been scrupulously collecting the testimonies of survivors for many years – but fiction writers are often less comfortable with dramatising these events. Adults are well represented in the literature; when it comes to the stories of the children, however, there are fewer records available to us.
Truthfully, it’s a difficult subject for any novelist to approach. It’s presumptuous to assume that from today’s perspective one can really understand the horrors of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, although it’s the responsibility of any writer who chooses to base a narrative in such places to uncover as much emotional truth within that desperate landscape as he or she possibly can. In doing so, one looks for the best way to tell the story, and I felt my themes could best be explored through the eyes of a child.
The slow but determined breakdown of society has always been fertile ground for novelists, and by focussing on the involvement of very young children at such times, either as victims or perpetrators, participants or bystanders, I had the opportunity to focus directly on specific aspects of these moments, while ignoring certain issues which, from a purely technical point of view, were surplus to requirements. William Golding famously made the young protagonists of Lord of the Flies pre-pubescent, as the scourges of adolescent sexuality were not the concern of that novel and could therefore be jettisoned in a way which would have been impossible had it been a group of adults left alone on that island.
I remember being tremendously moved as a child by Ian Serailler’s The Silver Sword, one of the few children’s novels to which I returned as an adult, when I was surprised to discover how much I had missed in my original reading. I recalled a story of great friendship between four children, and the heroics of their leader Jan in particular; what I discovered was a brutally effective tale of innocents left to survive in a Poland torn apart by the war. However, the fact that I didn’t know much (as a ten year old) about concentration camps or genocide didn’t detract from the story for me originally; if anything, it kept it alive in my head and made me want to rediscover it at a later date, aware that there were many things in there that I wanted to know more about.
Perhaps this is a good aim for a novelist writing a book for young people about difficult subjects. I’ve been asked many times whether The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a suitable book for children to read and my answer is that, while there will certainly be some elements of the story which they will not understand as much as others, my hope is that they will reach the end of the book sufficiently moved by the narrative, and sufficiently identifying with both Bruno and Shmuel that they will be left asking questions, wanting to know more, needing to keep the subject alive.
It goes without saying that the issue of writing about the Holocaust in a children’s book is a contentious one, and any novelist who tackles it had better be sure about their intentions before they begin. For me, it seemed the only respectful way to deal with such a subject was through innocence, using the point of view of a rather naive young boy who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors of what he was caught up in to tell the story. For, after all, that naivety is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that time and place. Why am I here? Bruno wonders in his head. What happens in this place? Why are there so many people on the other side of the fence? Simple questions, perhaps, but at a basic level, aren’t these the questions we still ask? A simple Why? And perhaps that’s the job for any writer, to keep looking for answers, to make sure those questions continue, so that no one forgets why they needed to be raised in the first place.
I spent much of my second-time-around at the University of East Anglia sitting at my desk overlooking the rabbit-filled hills, playing with every sentence of that novel, asking myself questions about them, deleting some, editing, adding more. I completed the novel there and handed it over to its new life, which at times seemed to grow in an unexpected and – yes! – even organic way.
But it was a joyful time. Norwich and the University of East Anglia stay with me; a city I think about often, a campus I always long to revisit. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when I next explored the subject of war in fiction, this time the First World War in my most recent novel The Absolutist, I decided to set half that story in the city itself. A young man and woman in 1919 – one a traumatised veteran of the trenches, the other the sister of a young soldier who has been shot as a conscientious objector – wandering the streets over the course of a day, describing their lives to each other in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral, recalling their relationships with his friend, her brother, as they sit over meat pies and pints of ale in the Murderers Public House, reliving the trauma of war and the devastation of a loved one’s death as they cross a bridge over the Yare and make their way towards the central market.
It was a pleasure to be in Norwich again, even if this time it was just in the pages of a novel. But then it was the pages of novels, the desire to write them myself, that had brought me to the city in the first place, fifteen years earlier. It was fiction that led me to the University of East Anglia, where, like Leo Colston, I was first conscious of my wings. I have a lot to thank it for.
Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).