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no longer living, existing, or functioning

Defunct: A Resurrection is a book of my paintings and mini-essays about all things defunct, from my vintage Polaroid camera to my Ellis Island ancestors. It is being letterpress printed and hand bound in a limited run of 60 copies by the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. It will be released this Friday, April 12, 2019 as part of their Interrobang festival!

The prototype of the book with the awesome “word Coptic” binding. Rachel reported spending 2.5 hours making this binding!

Who remembers typing on a typewriter? Watching filmstrips in school? Dialing a rotary phone?

There are objects that become such a part of our daily lives that they are embedded into our memories through sensory experience long after they’ve been replaced with the latest technology. And seeing, touching, or hearing the object again seems to transport us back in time.

Printing presses are a link to our past. When I was invited to give a reading at Ball State University in fall 2017, one of my first questions was, “Can I visit the Book Arts Collaborative while I’m there?” I’d read about it online and, having taken a letterpress workshop in NYC, was eager to see this makers’ space for book arts and letterpress printing. I was smitten from the start. A few months later when Prof. Rai Peterson asked if the students could make a book of my writing and paintings, I could barely contain my excitement.

I wasn’t originally sure what the focus of the book would be, but when I looked back at my daily paintings, I realized how often I returned to a particular subject: the vintage objects I keep in my home. My 1940s phone, 1950s camera, 1960s pencil sharpener, 1970s globe. These once-functional items don’t serve much of a purpose anymore; they are defunct. But they are alive to me. They carry messages from the past: reminders that things can be beautifully designed and well made; warnings that we are making and consuming too rapidly.

And what better mode of publication for a book celebrating defunct people, places, and things than letterpress?

The title page and epigraph after they were printed and before the students “killed the chase” (returned the letters to the cases).

In both content and form, this book is a meditation on materiality and ephemerality; on the objects we love and the stories we tell. It is a celebration of the handmade, the skilled trade, the human touch.

Book Arts Collaborative and Rob and Kim at Tribune Showprint Posters have resurrected defunct letterpress machines, salvaged them, and made them functional again.

One of the greatest aspects of this whole experience is that I feel like an honorary member of Book Arts Collaborative! I have loved spending time with Rai and the students, and witnessing the students’ excitement and pride as they learn new skills and old techniques, make amazing books and journals by hand, and work together to run a business.

They have all devoted hours and hours to this book, and have given my paintings and words the most beautiful home I could imagine. I can’t wait to celebrate with them at Interrobang this week!

Here are the students working on a Saturday! They’re almost finished!

First, I tried to get someone else to make my book trailer.

When that didn’t work, I got other people to HELP me make my book trailer. As I writer, I don’t often get to collaborate on creative projects, and it turned out to be a blast.

But you should watch it first:

Now that you have seen the trailer and know that The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is about a Czech fairy tale writer, you will understand why it is important that I happened to be in Prague this summer taking students on a study abroad trip. I was accompanied by my gentleman friend, whom I dragged around the city with a camera, and he helped me film moving shots of still statues (check out the opening pan up), and still shots of moving statues (Kafka’s swiveling head at minute 1:05!). We got footage on trams and of trams, on bridges and of them. We got a lot of footage.

Next, I wrote a script. Then rewrote it a few more times.

In the meantime, I contacted the Indiana University South Bend Instructional Media team and asked, “Can somebody please help me make a book trailer?” And they were like, “Sure, we can do it.”

Joel laid the ground rules. Joe would record the voices. Sky went to work on sorting through the video footage.

But we still didn’t have any background music to set the tone.

One night my gentleman friend and I watched a weird German movie, The Strange Little Cat, and we loved the music. So I did what you do: I googled the band and emailed the record company asking permission to use the music in my trailer. No answer. I wrote again. This time I got a response from Kim at Monotreme Records: “Yes, that should work!”

A few more email exchanges, a small fee, and the next thing I knew I had the rights to that hauntingly awesome music that plays throughout: “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows.

Meanwhile, we recorded the voices, which include my daughter (the first and last voice), my gentleman friend, and me. Sky was making great progress on the video editing, and the next thing I knew it was almost done. We just needed some audio for the credits.

Luckily, back in Prague, when I filmed Božena’s grave at the National Cemetery, I recorded the church bells as they rang and rang throughout the cemetery.

Did you watch all the way to the end? The bells are so beautiful.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is now available for pre-order at Rose Metal Press. Free shipping!



FullSizeRenderBožena Němcová is the subject of my next book, forthcoming in 2016 from Rose Metal Press. She was a Czech fairy tale writer from the 19th century and I’ve been stalking her for most of the 21st century. I got lost in her hometown and site of her famous book, Babička (The Grandmother). I go to her grave every time I’m in Prague. I take pictures of her statues and former homes. And I make journal pages like the one above, which includes her, her name on her grave, a few of the birds one might find on a visit to Granny’s Valley in Ratiborice, and a bird made out of human bones pecking the eye socket of a human skull (as photographed at the Ossuary in Kutna Hora, CZ).

Němcová died at age 42 on 21 ledna 1862. In Czech, leden is January, the month of ice.

Yesterday was her birthday: 4 února 1820. In Czech, únor is February, the month of exhaustion. Which is the only way to describe February.

I was a kid from a small town who felt lost in college. Lucy [Gabbard] taught Modern Drama, and she was the first teacher who made me feel that I might have something to offer. When I left school for two years to work in factories, it was the thought of not disappointing her that eventually brought me back to school. Sometimes it only takes one teacher to believe in a student and to invite that student to believe, too.

Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including Break the Skin. His other books are the novels, River of Heaven and Quakertown; the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Web site:

Read more by and about Lee:

Pulitzer Prize Finalist Novel: The Bright Forever

Memoir: Such a Life

Novel: Break the Skin

Memoir: From Our House

How Lee Martin Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Lee for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

At an early age, I was drawn to storytelling. I spent a good deal of time on front porches, in kitchens, at barber shops and pool halls, listening to my father and other men swap tales. I grew up in rural southeastern Illinois, and I quickly learned that stories could be currency. Whoever told a good story got the respect of his listeners in return, either in the way of laughter, or amazement, or the stone-cold silence that followed a story so remarkable, no one dared say a thing in response. My mother was a grade school teacher, and because of her, there were books in our house. Again, I was in love with the stories they told, but I was also in love with my mother and her thoughtful nature. Through her, I learned that words mattered. Somewhere along the line, I got the sense that a life could be made from what my parents offered me, and it could be a good life involving entertaining people and making them feel and think, all through the magic of words arranged just so between the covers of books.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I started writing. When I was a teenager, I wrote a lot of really horrible angst-driven poetry. Then I took my first creative writing class as an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University, and I was hooked on narrative. I said goodbye to poetry and started writing stories and plays. I didn’t stop writing even after I graduated and had a nine-to-five job. I always wrote. Then, three years after graduation, I was accepted into the MFA Program at the University of Arkansas. That marked the beginning of my serious study of craft. I stopped writing plays and concentrated solely on fiction. I just kept writing, and I read a lot of stories and novels, and also craft essays, and I learned to read the way a writer must with an eye toward how a thing is made through a series of artistic choices that create specific effects. I wrote and wrote, and finally I had my first story accepted for publication by a literary journal, and I just kept writing.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I had a number of excellent teachers who gave me some short-cuts in my development of my craft, but before those teachers, there was one who made all the difference in everything I’ve accomplished. Her name was Lucy Gabbard, and she was the first teacher to believe in me. I was a kid from a small town who felt lost in college. Lucy taught Modern Drama, and she was the first teacher who made me feel that I might have something to offer. When I left school for two years to work in factories, it was the thought of not disappointing her that eventually brought me back to school. Sometimes it only takes one teacher to believe in a student and to invite that student to believe, too.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’ve always found Tobias Wolff’s story, documented so artfully in his memoir, This Boy’s Life, to be an inspiring one. The story of how he escaped a dead-in life by reinventing himself (granted, through devious means such as forging transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.), is remarkable. His escape from a brutal stepfather, his triumph over all that threatened him, the odds he had to overcome to become the magnificent writer he is, pleases me. I like stories of underdogs, those folks who aren’t supposed to amount to much, rising up and following their dreams. We can take control of our lives. Stories like Wolff’s prove it time and time again.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be sure that you want to do this. If writing gives you pleasure, and if the identity it gives you connects to the way you want to see yourself in this world, then throw yourself into it with all your passion. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Have patience. There will be times when you’ll want to stop—times when you’ll think you’ll never publish, times when you’ll be envious of others who have had more success than you. None of these things matter. The journey is the thing. If you take the advice of Isak Dinesen to write a little every day, without hope and without despair, you’ll stay true to what you love about the process—the music that language makes on the page—and eventually the journey will take you where you’re meant to be.

Most every writer I admire has been persistent; it’s best not let the bastards get you down and one should continue to plow ahead.


Photo credit: South Bend Tribune/GREG SWIERCZ

WILLIAM O’ROURKE is the author of The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left (1972), Signs of the Literary Times: Essays, Reviews, Profiles (1993), and On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir (2006), as well as the novels The Meekness of Isaac (1974), Idle Hands (1981), Criminal Tendencies (1987), and Notts (1996).  He is the editor of On the Job: Fiction About Work by Contemporary American Writers (1977) and co-editor of Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years (2009). His book, Campaign America  ‘96: The View From the Couch, first published in 1997, was reissued in paperback with a new, updated epilogue in 2000. A sequel, Campaign America 2000: The View From the Couch, was published in 2001. He has been awarded two NEAs and a New York State Council on the Arts CAPS grant.  He was the first James Thurber Writer-in-Residence at the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio and is a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and was the founding director of its graduate creative writing program. He wrote a weekly political column for the Chicago Sun-Times from 2001 till 2005. Two books appeared in 2012.  From Indiana University Press, Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer; and from the Notre Dame Press, a 40th anniversary edition of The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, with a new Afterword.

Web site:

9780253001818_medRead more by and about William:

Book of Essays: Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

40th Anniversary Reissue: The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left

Memoir: On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir

Audio link: William O’Rourke discusses Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

Articles at Huffington Post

How William O’Rourke Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to William for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Because I didn’t do anything else as well.  I got it into my head in my early teens that I was a good writer.  In the grammar school I went to the nuns made a fuss over my writing.  I wrote an essay in the sixth grade and looked for it on a bulletin board and couldn’t find it.  The nun had arranged them in best to worst order and I finally found it in the first row at the front, not the place I had been looking.  And I’ve always been a strange sort of introvert; I figured my writing would speak for me and I wouldn’t have to put myself forward.

41Ea14q8AdL2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

Another thing I liked about writing when I was young was that it didn’t require much equipment.  A pencil.  A pen.  Paper.  When I got to highschool the only female teacher I had (it was an all boys’ school) was the first class in the morning freshman year, typing.  She taught a room full of boys how to type.  I became a very fast typist.  And, then, I managed to badger my father to bring me an old typewriter from the company he worked for to use. It was an old Royal, long gone now.  I wrote for the highschool student newspaper, which taught me a number of things, especially not to plagiarize inferior, only superior, writers.  By college – I went to a local streetcar university in Kansas City, Mo., my home town – I had turned myself into a post-Beat generation arty kid, becoming involved in theater, painting, writing, a mix of all the arts, given there was so little to sample locally in just one.  And, by and by, I met two “real” writers during that time, Edward Dahlberg and Winfield Townley Scott, the former in Kansas City when he taught at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and the latter, in Santa Fe, NM, when I worked at the Santa Fe Opera for two summers.  Then it was off to New York City when I got accepted to Columbia University’s new graduate creative writing program, where Dahlberg taught for a year before he was fired for a variety of reasons.  His recommendation for me, I’m sure, got me in.  It was short.  I was told it said that I was the only intelligent person he had met in the Midwest.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

P01500Well, obviously, Dahlberg helped me.  And Scott, who led an entirely different sort of artistic life than Dahlberg did, rich in Santa Fe, whereas Dahlberg was poor, living in a tenement on Rivington Street in NYC’s lower east side.  Both of them helped by the example of their lives, opposite in kind as they were.  They are both writers now largely unknown by what passes for the literate readers of today. And a visiting professor at UMKC, one who took an interest in me, Lois Gordon, helped, too.  She and her husband returned to New York City the year I arrived there and, coincidently, moved into a large apartment around the corner from me on West End Avenue, when I was living on West 76th St., in one room.  The conjunction of New York City and Columbia University provided a great boost to my career, though I never thought of it then as a career.  My two years there led me to Provincetown where the Fine Arts Work Center was just coming into being.  Stanley Kunitz taught at Columbia and was one of the founders of the FAWC. The early 70s were, oddly, a good time for artists.  Reverence for the rich hadn’t settled in back then and there was a spirit of equality flowing across the land.  And it was while I was in Provincetown that I met Diane Schulder, one of the lawyers for the Harrisburg 7, who brought me into their world and prompted my first book, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, which came out in 1972 when I was 26.  I had never thought my first book would have been nonfiction and certainly wouldn’t have predicted it would have had the word Catholic in the title.

George Orwell

4. Can you tell me about an artist or writer whose biography inspires you?

In addition to those above, I was taken, as many are, by the example of George Orwell.  And by Normal Mailer, because both of them seemed to be the sort of writer I wanted to be, insofar as they wrote across the genres.  My latest book, Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer, has an epigraph from Orwell at its start and I didn’t realize till later he is probably mentioned, one way or another, in all my books.  He, certainly, figures prominently in a novel of mine about the last great strike, the NUM strike in Britain in 1984-85, during the Thatcher reign, called Notts, which came out in 1996.  Mailer, who I had the good fortune to meet a couple of times, made an impression, too.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Strange you would ask.  A decade or two ago I was asked to write a short piece just about that subject.  For a book by many hands; I received a contract and all, but the volume never appeared.  I have the ms. somewhere, but it was written right before everyone switched over to computers, so I can’t put my hand on it.  And I don’t remember what I actually said, though I have thought for a long time that persistence pays off in this culture, so I would recommend persistence.  Most every writer I admire has been persistent; it’s best not let the bastards get you down and one should continue to plow ahead.  Believe in yourself. Of course, it always helps if you have something to say.

I started out by writing fantasy and science fiction
(two genres which I still love, but no longer write in), and ended up writing a memoir, much to my surprise. . . There is, I gradually discovered, nothing so bizarre, grotesque, science-fictional or fantastic as reality.

Photo credit: (c)

Jonathan Taylor is author of the novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt, October 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007). His poetry collection, provisionally entitled Musicolepsy,  will be published by Shoestring Press in early 2013, his short-story collection, Kontakte and Other Stories, by Roman Books in mid-2013. He is editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, November 2012). He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University in the UK, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators ( He lives in Leicestershire in the UK with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters. His website is

Read more by and about Jonathan:

Novel: Entertaining Strangers

Memoir: Take Me Home

Poem: Black Hole in B-Flat

Edited Stories: Overheard

How Jonathan Taylor Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jonathan for saying yes!

 1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Like so many writers, as a child, I loved books, especially old ‘important-looking’ books by ‘important-sounding’ people like Shakespeare and Dickens and someone called ‘Encyclopedia.’ I loved the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. I just couldn’t read them. They were mysterious, alien hieroglyphics to me, because – unlike my clever elder siblings – I couldn’t read until relatively late, and was seen as the ‘backward’ one (my father’s term, not mine). I was a slow learner (still am, in many ways) and couldn’t read or write till I was seven or eight – and this made reading and writing seem all the more strange, desirable, fascinating, like a secret code.

When I did finally crack the code (with Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham), I retained that early sense of strangeness and fascination with, but also, and crucially, alienation from, the written word. I’ve since come to believe that most writers are, in some ways, alienated from the written word, and it this sense of alienation that makes people want to write. Of course, the commonsensical view is precisely the opposite: that writers are people who have some kind of innate facility with language, people for whom language comes easily. I don’t think this is true; and nor did Thomas Mann, who famously claimed that: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ This is why, I think, so many writers are dyslexic, and also why so many writers stand outside, or at an angle to the dominant language in some way – as in, for example, the many successful authors who write in a second language, or from a post-colonial perspective. To write well, a writer needs to have an uncomfortable relationship with language, and especially written language. By contrast, those entirely inside the dominant language, those for whom language comes all too easily, often don’t make good writers, but rather slick politicians or bargain-basement journalists.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I wrote, and I wrote a huge amount, over many years – including poems, stories, scripts, even two novels by the time I was eighteen. Of course, it was all unpublishable and, by common standards, rubbish. I carried on writing huge amounts of unpublishable material into my early twenties, and then gradually started getting a few stories published here and there – but it was slow progress. I think I suffered from ludicrous levels of perseverance, to the point of absurdity, and just carried on, even though I was continually being rejected. And gradually, over years, the writing did improve, bit by bit. A couple of university Creative Writing courses which I took helped, as did my Ph.D. Although it was an academic, literary-critical Ph.D., my supervisor, the critic and novelist John Schad, was incredibly patient and taught me (rather belatedly) how to write a decent sentence.

For all of these reasons, I firmly believe that writing is a learnt process, and hence can be taught. People who claim otherwise, who say that writing is an innate, natural talent, are guilty of an unwitting élitism – they are saying some people have it, some don’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I do not believe that at all – after all, what’s so ‘natural’ about writing? No: writing is primarily a matter of nurture, and this makes it a democratic art which anyone can learn. This was certainly the case for me – I learnt how to write (and am still, of course, learning) over years through sheer persistence, as I say, to the point of absurdity, or at least O.C.D.

Incidentally, the process of becoming a writer, of learning how to write, was also a process of turning inwards. In that way, my writing follows a similar trajectory to Garp in John Irving’s bizarre but wonderful novel, The World According to Garp, whereby Garp’s writing starts as pseudo-fantasy and ends up all-too-close to horrific and grotesque reality. The implication of the novel is that this journey from imaginative pseudo-fantasy to pseudo-memoir is degenerative, and the quality of Garp’s writing suffers for it. For me, this was the opposite: I started out by writing fantasy and science fiction (two genres which I still love, but no longer write in), and ended up writing a memoir, much to my surprise. It wasn’t a genre I’d ever considered, but ‘reality’ (whatever that is) took over – reality crept up on me, and gradually infiltrated my writing. There is, I gradually discovered, nothing so bizarre, grotesque, science-fictional or fantastic as reality. And I’ve continued drawing from ‘reality’ in the poetry and novels I’ve written since 2007 and the publication of the memoir.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Well, as I say, I was lucky with some of my mentors, including John Schad and, further back, the wonderful poet David Morley. In their different ways, they both made me realise the centrality of style in writing. Before then, I’d always had plenty of ideas and plots – these had never been a problem – but I’d thought of style as merely the vehicle for those ideas and plots. In fact, having taught Creative Writing for many years now, I think that’s a common assumption among budding writers, that style is somehow secondary to content. Most people start university courses thinking that they can write sentences, that style is not a problem: they learnt ‘how to read and write’ at primary school, and are now looking for something more sophisticated – inspiration, perhaps, the key to success, perhaps. But there is nothing more sophisticated than style. There is nothing more important, and learning ‘how to read and write’ never ends; good writers are always learning how to do these strange and infinitely-intricate things. Nowadays, I believe the reverse of the notion that style is secondary to content; nowadays, I believe that you can write about almost anything, just as long as the writing itself is elegant, engaging, new.

Many others helped my writing style along the way: my wife, Maria Taylor, who’s a poet and also an honest critic, for one. It’s crucial, obviously, to have someone who’ll read your work and give an honest reaction – but this also needs to be someone whose opinion matters to you, whose opinion you respect. I’ve been lucky in that regard, in that I’ve also come across some excellent editors, who changed my work, radically improved it. I firmly believe in the role of the editor, and in incisive and interventionist editing: a writer’s work can always be made better, and a writer should not be precious about their own work. Ian Jack, who was my editor at Granta, persuaded me to make massive cuts in the original draft of my memoir (and we are talking massive); and he also went through the book with me sentence by sentence. That kind of old-fashioned editing, which isn’t as readily available as it used to be, the publishing industry being what it is, made the book infinitely better. Of course, it means that books like mine are really collaborations. Most books are.

Frederick Douglass [image from Wikipedia]

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Bourgeois, capitalist culture maintains the illusion that writing and art in general are superstructural decorations, comforts, frills, add-ons to civilisation. The writers and musicians who inspire me, though, undermine or even destroy this illusion, demonstrating how writing and art might matter, if only on a local or personal scale. The writers, musicians and artists who inspire me create from some kind of imperative. There are a whole spectrum of such imperatives: at one end of the spectrum are those whose art really is a matter of life and death, such as, in their very different ways, Frederick Douglass, Dimitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, Primo Levi, Alma Rosé; at another place on the spectrum are those artists who create out of a social or political imperative, such as Dickens, Carlyle, Orwell, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Coe, W. G. Sebald, Blake Morrison; at another point in the spectrum are those artists who create out of a personal or emotional imperative, such as Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Poe, Larkin and Blake Morrison again. There has to be some kind of imperative – however small-scale, personal or local – for writing, storytelling, poetry, art, music to mean anything. Obviously, most of us do not (thank God) live in Douglass’s, Shostakovich’s or Levi’s world, where we are creating art on the edges of existence; but there are other kinds of imperative behind writing as well as life-and-death. Terror, horror, fantasy, evil, love, illness, grief and disaster exist in everyone’s lives, whether they live in mid-twentieth-century Russia, or, in very different ways, provincial suburbia – and these are the kinds of emotional imperatives which create good writing. They don’t necessarily make easy, comfortable or pleasant living – but that’s a different matter. Being a writer isn’t about living a pleasant life, or positive thinking. The point is that, as a writer, you have to find your subject, your imperative – it has to be important, if only in a personal way. It can’t just be ‘frills’ or X-Factor rubbish.

I first found my own imperative for writing in my father’s illness, and my experience of caring for him – and since then in other subjects similarly close to home. Or, rather, I found my own imperative after my father’s illness, for writing is often retrospective, a bearing witness in hindsight: whilst the initiating experience or trauma is actually taking place, it is often difficult to write, or write well about a subject. It is only after something has finished that one gains a perspective on it, a sense of the overall narrative. That’s why most spontaneous love poetry is trash, and it’s also why many memoirs are written about people who are dead.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Well, firstly I’d make myself hugely unpopular by saying that you’ve got to learn how to structure sentences, how to punctuate, paragraph, spell, use apostrophes. You’ve got to learn your grammar. There are no excuses: there are plenty of books out there about it. If you can’t be bothered to learn the basics of your own craft, then why should anyone bother to read your work? You’ve got to care about the mechanical aspects of your craft, because these absolutely determine how successful a piece of work is. A good poet knows this: that the placing of every single comma is of fundamental importance. Unfortunately, the novelist also has to care about the placing of every single comma, even though he or she is writing on a much bigger canvas. In that sense, writing is an incurable form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, whereby good writers will endlessly agonise over tiny details. If you can write a sentence, get the punctuation right, put apostrophes in the correct places, and so on, you’ll instantly raise yourself above about 90% of other people submitting to magazines or publishers. There’s no mystery to writing – or, at least, I don’t think there is. It’s a matter of mechanics. Inspiration, genius, talent, all of these things may or may not exist; but what is clear is that they’re of no value whatsoever unless the writer can actually string a sentence together.

And you don’t just learn these things and then apply them: learning how to write a good sentence is an everlasting process. It’s something writers are doing all the time, just as writers are continually making the same stylistic mistakes at all points in their careers. Learning the basics of the craft is a never-ending process, and, like all learning, it’s as much circular as it is linear. In a sense, all writing is a starting from the beginning: there is no such thing as an ‘advanced’ writing class, because writers are always making the same mistakes and learning from them. So there’s another piece of advice: don’t expect a linear career or professional trajectory, don’t expect to get better and better and finally die lauded and great, expect circles, ellipses, fractals rather than the straight (and dull) lines of progress.

Oh, and the last thing I’d say in a letter to an aspiring writer: don’t feel you have to believe anything I say. It’s your job as a writer, in fact, to disbelieve, mistrust, interrogate, question and dissect everything anyone says or writes, including me.