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You’ll write better if you engage with contemporary fiction. Even if you react strongly against certain contemporary trends, your reaction will be part of the conversation that literature has to have with itself.

Harry Bingham is currently writing a crime series, featuring a young Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths. The series has sold to publishers in the UK (Orion), the US (Bantam Dell), as well as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. The TV rights have been optioned to Bonafide Films. Harry is also the author of two books on writing and getting published. Both books are published by Bloomsbury as companion volumes to the internationally famous Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. Harry founded the Writers’ Workshop in 2006 and is the bestselling author of a number of other books; his novels have sold in the US, Japan, Germany and numerous other territories. Harry is also a part-time human being who does human-things, like eating, sleeping and reading books while stuck between two walls. He is married, lives in Oxfordshire and has a variable number of dogs.

Web site:

Read more by and about Harry:

Novel: Talking to the Dead
Book: How to Write
Writer’s Workshop

How Harry Bingham 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 Harry for saying yes!

1.     Why did you want to become a writer?

I honestly don’t know. I used to read a lot as a kid. I know that when I was ten or eleven, I used to come home from school and bash a ‘novel’ out on my mother’s old manual typewriter. (I don’t have that novel any more, to my relief.) If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said ‘writer’ from a fairly young age.

Things didn’t in fact work out that way: I spent ten years working in finance for some reason. But I’ve ended up where I belong. I can’t imagine doing any other job. Indeed, that’s the wrong way to put it. I don’t have a job. I have an occupation which I enjoy and that occupation mixes more or less seamlessly into the rest of my life. So there’s nothing unusual for me about writing while I’m on holiday or even on Christmas Day. Writing makes those things better; it almost never feels like a chore.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

Um – I wrote a book.

The longer version of that answer is that I was working as a banker, my wife became ill, I gave up work to look after her and, while sitting at her bedside in a darkened room, started to bash out a novel on my laptop. That novel was a monster (180,000 words), but it was good enough to get me an agent, then sold at a contested auction to HarperCollins. I’ve never really looked back.

The deeper answer, I suppose, is that I had an urge to tell a story. A story entered my head and wouldn’t release me till I set it down. Then when I had set it down – in an ugly, first draft sort of way – the inadequacies of that telling niggled at me until I edited into shape. And at that point, it seemed stupid not to send it to an agent, so I did. But my motivation to write was not in the first instance commercial: it was to get that damn story told.

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

That’s a curious question, for me. It’s a question that expects a certain sort of answer: an Oscar-style list of thank yous. But the truth is that I wrote that first novel pretty much solo. My wife (who contributed a lot to some of my later work) was at that stage in no condition to read, let alone give thoughtful editorial feedback. My agent too, though she was terrific about making the sale and guiding my early steps in publication, offered very little by way of editorial advice. She just said the novel was ready to sell, and sold it.

Harry Bingham reading.

So I guess my real debts go way further back. To my family, where books were sacred and the TV nothing but a (small, black-and-white) annoyance. To those teachers, too, who shoved books into my hand and taught me to read broadly, not narrowly. To those indie bookshops of yore that found ways to help you encounter books that weren’t just the latest things to fall off some conglomerate publisher’s production line. It was an old-fashioned sort of reading childhood mine, and all the better for it.

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

Two writers really: Raymond Chandler and John Le Carre. Both men were basically literary writers who happened to write genre fiction. They were also both alcoholic. Both educated at English public schools. (Bet you didn’t know that about Raymond Chandler.) Both had difficult home backgrounds. Both came to writing after real careers in other things.

More to the point, I think, both men made art out of the world that lay around them. They were willing to grapple with the dirty, not just the beautiful. To deal with the political. To use protagonists who were tough, not mere Flaubertian flaneurs.

I rate these two writers extraordinarily highly in the literary pantheon. Chandler I rate higher than Hemingway, and Le Carre higher than pretty much any post-war British author. If that sounds crass, just read the books without prejudice. Ask yourself whose literary style had more poetry: Chandler or Hemingway. Ask yourself whose stories are more complete, more truthful about the society and mores they depict.

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

Gosh, how short is short? If I’m allowed 250,000 words in total, I guess I’d scribble a postcard then include a copy of my How to Write and my Getting Published. Is that cheating? OK. But I don’t really think you can say all that you need to in a short letter. If you want just three points, however, they’d be these.

One, understand the market. That doesn’t mean you should write cynically: you should do nothing of the sort. But you do need to engage with fiction as it is, not fiction as it once was or as you imagine it ought to be. You’ll write better if you engage with contemporary fiction. Even if you react strongly against certain contemporary trends, your reaction will be part of the conversation that literature has to have with itself.

Second, be perfectionist. If you write a competent novel, then you have (if you want it commercially published) wasted your time. Competent is not enough. It needs to be dazzling, daring. It needs to offer something unique. That means you will need to be obsessive and perfectionist in every aspect of your work. If you don’t like the sound of that, don’t become a writer.

Third, find a hook. There are too many novels which are fine, but which don’t distinguish themselves in any real way from everything else which is out there. And that novel is not going to get picked up by an agent. It won’t be bought by a publisher. The unique is hard to find, but it’s intensely precious when you do find it. I’ve found it, perhaps only truly once in my career, with Talking to the Dead. That book has been the most enjoyable book I’ve ever written. I think, thanks to that little diamond chip of uniqueness, it’ll be my most successful novel too.

One thing about blogging about writers and writing is that you encounter a lot of good writers and good writing. The comments all of you posted on the giveaway are a great example. The comments had all the elements of good writing: fresh ideas, fun phrasing, unique styles, distinct voices, and an overall delight in language.

I’m a strong believer that good writing transcends your chosen form (fiction, poetry, essays, etc.). Good writing shines through in your emails, your holiday cards, your business proposals, the notes you sign in a yearbook (do people still do that?), your texts and tweets, your blog posts, and yes, even your blog comments. In other words, even if the form itself is not known for being interesting, you make it interesting.

For example, Darrin Doyle is an awesome fiction writer. But he’s not only an awesome fiction writer, he’s an awesome blurb writer. He wrote the blurb that my publisher put on the cover of my book, and that I put on the cover of my web page:

The stories in Kelcey Parker’s For Sale By Owner are gorgeous, sinister dreams that sweep us into the unsettled lives of women – wives, mothers, lovers, friends – straining against the bonds of expectation.

What a beautiful sentence! I told Darrin his blurb was so awesome that I wanted to blurb his blurb: “Darrin Doyle’s blurbs are exquisite carafes of words…” – or something.

Then last fall I gave a reading at Central Michigan University, hosted by Darrin. Before the reading Darrin gave the most elegant and engaging introduction to me and my work. It went far beyond the call of boring biography, and I just kept thinking, “This guy is such a great writer.” [For more evidence of his writerly awesomeness, check out my interview with him here.]

So, that’s a long way of saying, I loved reading your comments on the book giveaway and I think you all are awesome writers: a sloth! an okapi! a lion with a huge mane and glorious roar! And the reasons for your choices were equally delightful.

Here then are the lucky winners of Jennifer Perrine’s awesomely written poetry collections:

Winners of In the Human Zoo, Comment #4
(who loves free books and poetry!)

Ben Hoffman, Comment #13
(whose body would be a toaster, and who would be a seal)

Winners of The Body Is No Machine

lazarusdodge, Comment #14
(who has a cool blog, you should visit)

petrujviljoen, Comment #8
(who would be a horse, or a long-crested eagle)

[Note: WordPress doesn’t allow for Random Number Generators to be coded onto their blog posts, so I’ve taken screenshots of the winning results.]

I’ll contact each of you individually about getting your mailing information. Or you can send me your info directly through the CONTACT widget on the right-hand side of the blog. It comes directly to my email address.

Congratulations to the winners, and thanks again to everyone who entered! A new interview posts this weekend…

We lived in a split-level and I’d hide on the stairs below the living room and listen as they smoked cigarettes, drank scotch or gin-and-tonics, and gossiped, joked, and confessed to each other in hushed tones. I learned everything a writer ever needs to know about love, friendship, and heartbreak from my mother’s friends, and if I close my eyes right now I can picture those women as they were and hear the cadence of their voices.

Forrest Anderson teaches creative writing and composition at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He has a PhD from Florida State University, where he worked for two years as an archivist and assistant for Robert Olen Butler. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, the Fiction Writers Review, The Southeast Review, Blackbird, the South Carolina Review, and elsewhere.

Read more by and about Forrest:

Story: “Hey Bubba” at Blackbird
Blogging about Books: Read Salisbury
Interview with Juliana Baggott: Narrative

How Forrest Anderson Became a Writer

This is the latest installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Thanks to Forrest for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I never had much interest in writing until after I graduated from college. I loved to read as a kid, but by high school I’d pretty much stopped. It was shortly after Ms. Bell assigned Ethan Frome, I think. I do feel like I robbed myself whenever I read interviews with other writers who talk about reading comic books and writing five-hundred page science fiction novels as ten-year olds. I wish I’d been reading and practicing the craft for that long.

That said, however, I was exposed to fantastic storytellers growing up in a small town in eastern North Carolina. My mother was (and still is) active in a variety of social clubs—La Coterie, Junior Guild, Duplicate Bridge Clubs, Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, and on and on—as well as the center of her group of friends. Most everyday of the week, I’d come home from school to a house full of women. We lived in a split-level and I’d hide on the stairs below the living room and listen as they smoked cigarettes, drank scotch or gin-and-tonics, and gossiped, joked, and confessed to each other in hushed tones. I learned everything a writer ever needs to know about love, friendship, and heartbreak from my mother’s friends, and if I close my eyes right now I can picture those women as they were and hear the cadence of their voices.

I spent the weekends with my dad hunting dove, deer, or duck—depending on the season—on farms and swamps in Whitakers, Leggett, Tarboro, Roxobel, Ahoskie, Colerain, and Mann’s Harbor. I learned about the woods sure, but I learned even more by sitting in blinds with my dad and his friends (men from all walks of life) during the early mornings and late afternoons and listening to them bullshit in hunting cabins at night. I earned their trust by keeping quiet and not complaining about cleaning the deer and washing the dinner dishes while they drank. I liked the work because it kept me close to them while they talked and told dirty jokes. Occasionally, before telling one of their wilder stories, they’d remember that I was in the room and remind me not to repeat what they said.

I became a writer because I lacked discretion.

Allan Gurganus

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

Let me tell you how lucky I’ve been. Well, I’m terribly unlucky in life—just this summer my son fell on the last day of school and needed stitches in his forehead, our basement was invaded by snakes and our attic by bats, and my wife was bitten by a stray dog and we thought she might be rabid. In writing, though, I’m lucky. I grew up in the same town as Allan Gurganus. He went to high school with my mother’s sister, but he doesn’t know me from Adam. When I wrote my first short story, I put it in an envelope and mailed it to him for advice. It was as bad as a first story can be (much worse if I’m being honest)—a town floods, a power plant explodes, and a woman dies abandoned in a nursing home… I remember killing her dog, too, to heighten the emotional tension. To be honest, I can’t believe I was presumptuous enough to mail him that story. I’m even more surprised that Allan sent back a two-page handwritten letter offering detailed criticism. After that, I was up and running and two years later he wrote a recommendation letter for me for graduate school (he still has no idea who I am).

At the University of South Carolina, the first fiction workshop I took was with Ron Rash. He asked me to write a case study on Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. I fell in love with the book. Rash encouraged me to sign up for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference where Butler was teaching. I hit it off with Butler and he invited me to apply to the PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University where I ended up becoming his assistant and archivist…

I have dozens of stories like this… every writer you know has stories like this. The writing world is a small one and, for the most part, writers are nice people and are willing to help you out. All you have to do is work hard and put yourself in a position to ask. Another teacher, Mark Winegardner, puts it this way: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. He’s right. And, oh, if a writer is ever a jerk about your work, then count yourself lucky. That’s some great ammunition to write on those days when the sentences aren’t coming so easily.

3. How long has the journey been so far, and what were a few important moments along the way?

Eleven years. I’ve been feeling discouraged lately. I have a lot to show for those years, but not as much as I would like. It’s hard for me to remember that the best moments in writing are the ones that nobody sees, the ones that your mom can’t put on the refrigerator, the ones that you can’t point to as proof to your wife that it’s worth it for the alarm to go off at 5:30AM six days a week. The best moments are the ones where you discover something about writing or the story that you’re writing. That’s what should keep you working, not the promise of a published poem or story (because to be honest that’s rarely the high that you expect it to be). It’s hard to keep that straight in your head. It’s hard for me to keep that straight in my head. More often than not, I find myself wanting the book or the fancy prize to hold up in front of the naysayers of the world and say, “In your face!”

That’s probably not all that helpful so let me tell you about a moment where I feel like I really learned something about writing. Like I said, I didn’t read much at all in high school or college. Because of that, I felt like I was at a real disadvantage when I started my MFA program. I tried to make up for it all at once and it turned out to be one of the best moves I made as a writer.

In pretty much every workshop I had at USC, the students were asked to pick a story collection or novel and write a case study on it. Each week, one of the students would present their story collection or novel to the class. What I did was find out what books my classmates were reading, order them from, and read the book. That meant during graduate school I was reading a story collection or novel a week (it worked out to about twelve books a semester). It was a baptism by fire type of reading experience and it did wonders for my writing.

George Singleton

George Singleton, who visited during my last semester in my MFA, offered a piece of advice that really helped me perfect what I was doing. He suggested that I keep a reader-based response notebook. For each story I read, I would write a one-page response where I talked about how the story worked, what I might steal from that writer, or what sort of memory it made me think of from my own personal experience that might make a good story. Basically, it was a modeling exercise using good stories as templates. That’s one of those important moments in my writing life, a moment where I really started to understand the possibilities of fiction.

4. What writer’s biography has inspired you or might inspire others?

I love this question. I used to worry nonstop over writer’s biographies when I was starting out. I’m not talking about long-form biographies. I’m talking about the little write-ups in the backs of literary journals. The bios that always worried me were the ones along the lines of, “After ten years digging freshwater wells in east Africa, Fancy Writer, spent six years working as an attorney in New Orleans, four years lobbying for clean air in Washington, DC, and then retired to follow Phish and box professionally. He had a record of 42-3-1.”

I married pretty young. I focused on working and finishing school. I didn’t have exciting jobs either. I worked at a bank first as a teller and then as a loan officer. Later, I worked as a project manager at two failed dot-coms. Did this mean that since I hadn’t knocked out forty-two boxers that I’d never make it as a writer? Also, I was dismayed by the number of writers who’d been drunks and married multiple times. I didn’t want that for my life.

I know this makes me sound nutty and earnest and boring, but I really did question whether I had the right type of background to be a writer. It wasn’t until I came across an interview where a writer—I think it was Tim Gautreaux, but I’m not able to back this up—said that he lived a pretty boring life because he woke up at seven and then worked bankers’ hours on his stories and novels. I felt like that gave me permission to be a writer. I guess I’m most inspired by the biographies of writers who are faithful to their spouses and good parents to their children and manage to write like people possessed.

5. What do you know now that you wish you’d know then? Or, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I don’t feel like I’m in any position to offer advice. Yet, I’m a teacher so I end up getting asked for advice all the time. A couple of days ago, for example, a student pointed out that I was quite a bit older than him and, therefore, more experienced in the world before asking if it would be okay to return a pair of flip-flops to the store after wearing them for only one day. I told him, “My advice is: stop crying. Look you need to pick yourself up. Man up, aight. You will win this in the end. It’s all about heart. And character. Be your best self.” I didn’t tell him that I stolen that from Darryl on The Office.

Here’s another piece of advice that I say to my students all the time. I pretend like I thought of it, but it’s also stolen. This is from Conan O’Brien, “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”