Start writing fiction: characters and stories
Start writing fiction: characters and stories

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Start writing fiction: characters and stories

1.3 Why writers write

Figure 5

There are all sorts of reasons why people start to write. Throughout this course you will listen to established writers speaking about their work.

Here are a number of novelists talking about how they began to write. You will hear Alex Garland, Michèle Roberts, Tim Pears, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Monique Roffey and Louis de Bernières.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: ou_fiction_aud_1000_why_writers_write.mp3
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There are all sorts of reasons why people start to write. Throughout this course you’ll listen to established writers speaking about their work. Here are a number of novelists talking about how they began to write. You’ll hear Alex Garland, Michèle Roberts, Tim Pears, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Monique Roffey and Louis de Bernières.
I got into writing really through drawing comic strips. My Dad’s a cartoonist and I grew up around comic books, I was always reading them and I, he draws so, you know, as a kid I was copying him and did drawings and um, I always thought that would be how I’d make my living really. At a certain point I think I was about 21, two things happened. One is I began to realise that I wasn’t as good at drawing as I needed to be in order to really make this work and I also began to get frustrated I think by how long it took to tell a story because you’d write it and then you’d draw it and the drawing which wasn’t that good would take me ages and ages and ages, and eventually what I did was, I just ditched the pictures pretty much and stuck with the words.
I think I began writing, and of course this is a story I’ve made up in adulthood looking back, and it’s a story that changes I think probably every 10 years as I go through my life – I think I began writing to invent some kind of cultural identity for myself, because of being half French and half English, that was the major conflict in my life. I think being a Catholic was very important to me. Partly in a positive sense because it gave me lots of stories – Catholicism is a source ofwhat we might call magical realism – mad, crazy things the saints get up to – miracles, and so on and so forth. Catholicism was also a very bad place for a young woman growing up. It’s a very misogynistic religion – I think it’s founded on the fear of the body and in particular the female body. I felt completely crushed by it. And also crushed by the practice of sitting in church listening to a priest who was very angry and particularly with young people, rant on Sunday after Sunday about our sins and our evil and our inequities. And I think as a very angry young woman I just began to start talking in my head and as soon as I could, I left the Church and read voraciously and lived a free life and began to write down all the angry things in my head and they turned into stories. So in a sense I think, I always had the love of language, because growing up in a bilingual household with a story-telling English grandmother and a father who’d wanted to write stories about his war time experience, a mother who taught French literature, I was surrounded by story-telling and books, and poetry and recipes and people quarrelling and using language very powerfully and I think that I began to find that subjects arrived. And nowadays when people ask me what I write about, I say – food, sex and God. And that just about sums it up. TIM PEARS: I always wanted to be a writer from when I was very young, I think it came from being somewhat unhappy as a child. In my second book, In the Land of Plenty the main character in it, the middle son of a family, Freeman family about whom the book’s, that follows their fortunes he’s a sort of semi-autobiographical character, he’s a photographer who takes photographs, partly to try and understand the world by looking through the lens of the camera, and partly to have something to hide behind, and I think really, that’s, for me writing has been that, or was that, that’s why I became a writer. Because, I was perplexed by, by life and by people and, grown-ups and the world, and writing was an attempt to understand it, but also, something to, to hide behind.
Why I’m not sure, I guess why’s one of those things that happens as you’re doing it, but how is more like a stumbling into it more than, you know, having some kind of ambition at a certain age and saying – I know what I’m going to do, starting to write, rather than wanting to. And the starting for me happened with coming to England. I mean I used to write before, like at school, write the odd thing and so on, but it was only kind of playing, doing it for your friends and that kind of thing. Not what we mean when we say ‘a writer’. But it was after coming to England and kind of thinking about what it means to have left home, to have left people you know, to have come here, coming to grips with the things that were happening, not all of which were nice things. And it was during that process of thinking about things, understanding your position in relation to where you are that I started to write things, just things, and then after a while the things you think, well can I do something with these things. And you gradually realise that you’ve got something that is developing or that is growing and then get silly and say I could write a book! You know, that’s how it began really.
I think it was, um, just a sensibility I’ve been writing from a very young age even as a child and in the same way that some people are naturally very musical or interested in insects or good at tennis or you know, crazy about trains or whatever it is, I mean from a very young age I’ve been writing diaries and journals and I just think it just progressed. I was a journalist for a while and um you know I was always writing something else, a screenplay or a comedy script or a tele this or a, you know, something. I think eventually when you’re old enough, you know, and you want to take yourself a bit more seriously I just woke up one day and said right – I’m going to make the next step and I’m gonna write a novel, I’m gonna have a go. So it’s been something that I’ve always done, there was never a conscious decision.
I always knew that I was going to be a writer. My father wrote poetry so in our house it was quite normal to want to do that sort of thing. And I knew it from a very early age, I suppose from about the age 12. And um I had a couple of fantastically good English teachers, I think about three all together who were a definite inspiration and a guide. Then all through my teenage years I wrote poetry mostly the sort of embarrassing soppy love poetry that one does write about ‘Why don’t you love me?’ and ‘I’m going to kill myself’, that sort of thing. And then um in, in my 20s I actually forgot that I was going to be a writer because I thought I was going to be a rock star and I wrote songs and things instead. But I did carry on writing things from time to time and then when I was 35 I had a motorcycle crash that put me in plaster for six months and during that time I really couldn’t go out much, so I wrote my first novel to keep myself entertained.
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As you are listening, consider:

  • How did these writers come to write?
  • Why did they start to write?
  • Were there any similarities in their respective journeys towards writing?

You’ll reflect on your thoughts in the next section.


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