Have you got a book in you?
Nell Stevens taught herself the art of loneliness in order to learn the art of writing.
Have you got a book in you? A novel, perhaps? Do you tell yourself that the only thing coming between you and the bestseller list is the lack of time and the need for a quiet room of your own? Nell Stevens was convinced that she needed total isolation in order to write and thanks to a fellowship from Boston University, she travelled to Bleaker Island in The Falklands. (Official population: two). She set herself a daily goal of 2,500 words. The result? Bleaker House. Not a novel, but a book about learning how to write. I’ve just read it and it’s compelling and moving and also very funny. Nell will be at David’s Bookshop on Thurs 14 Sept, to talk about how to write and how to get published as part of David’s September mini literary festival. She’ll be talking to Alysoun Owen, editor of the bible for every budding author, The Writers’ + Artists’ Yearbook 2017. I chat to Nell ahead of the event.
Nell, have you recovered from your self-imposed exile?
For the most part, yes! I still have slightly panicky dreams in which I arrive on a remote island and realise I don’t have my phone/clothes/food with me.
Would you repeat the experience?
Not such an extreme version, no. When I set off for the Falklands, I had this sense of needing to prove myself, and a belief that depriving myself (be it of company, a balanced diet, alcohol, or the internet) was inherently useful. I don’t think that now. It is harder and more valuable to learn how to live in a balanced way, and to incorporate writing into a life that isn’t all about absolutes and the denial of small pleasures. That’s the only way that writing can be a sustainable pursuit. I do still feel attracted, occasionally, to the idea of remoteness, but if I were to take myself off to an island again I’d prefer it to be, at very least, somewhere warm.
Where do you live now and where do you write?
I live in Peckham, south-east London, which often feels like the polar opposite of Bleaker Island: there is always something happening, my neighbours are loud and seem to have a lot of drama in their lives, there is a plentiful supply of food and coffee. I do a lot of writing in a café/bar near my house called the Peckham Pelican: the members of staff there are fastidious about ignoring their customers and I love them for it. I work at home quite often too, because it means I don’t have to get dressed; I do all my best writing unwashed in my pyjamas.
Do you think that knowing yourself is key to writing a book?
I had a conversation about Bleaker House with Julia Felsenthal, a writer for US Vogue, in which she suggested that the most interesting books are borne of “writing into uncertainty”. I have thought about that a lot since, and I think she is right. When I was on Bleaker Island trying to write my novel, I clung to the idea that there was a formula for good writing; I think, now, that as much as there can ever be one, “write into uncertainty” is the most helpful. So I don’t think that knowing yourself is key to writing a book; it is more exciting, and ultimately more rewarding, to explore what you do not or cannot know.
Many people dream of a publishing deal. Would you say that it’s harder to succeed now than it’s ever been?
Yes and no. Yes in that the number of manuscripts being written and submitted is vast, and the economics of publishing means that only a tiny fraction will ever make it into print. But no in that, for a horrendously long time, BAME and working-class voices have been ignored and marginalised, and I think that is beginning to change. There is a growing interest in hearing from writers from diverse backgrounds, and that means that a lot of people who have been shut out of publishing may, at long last, be finding a way in.
At David’s Bookshop we have a creative writing group that meets once a month. What do you think about writing groups?
I owe so much to the group of writers I met in my fiction workshop at Boston University. We continued to read and respond to each other’s work long after we graduated and the experience taught me which of my instincts as a writer worked, and which didn’t. It is impossible to see your own writing clearly: you view it from the inside out, rather than from the reader’s perspective of the outside in. A writing group that can help you understand how your work comes across, guide you, support you, and laugh at you when you deserve it, is invaluable.
You were at the Edinburgh Festival this year. As a published author today, it is important to be good at performing as well as writing?
I have thought about this a lot; it’s a really interesting question. In many ways, it is odd that we ask writers, who naturally spend a lot of time alone with their work, to become public speakers and performers. It doesn’t seem like an easy skillset to master. I am impressed and inspired by writers who have the ability to light up stages at festivals and express themselves as fluently in person as they do on the page. Jeanette Winterson, for example, is such a compelling performer; the times I have seen her speak have stayed with me as vividly as her prose does.
In the eighteen months between selling Bleaker House to Picador and its publication, I had a lot of time to think and worry about how I would handle public speaking. I started taking improv classes; I did some acting courses too and even enrolled in a drama school (I only lasted a few weeks – it was intense). I worked with a voice coach in preparation for recording the Bleaker House audiobook. All of this was interesting in its own right, and helped me with events and interviews after the book was published, but it was also, surprisingly, useful to my writing. Performance and writing struck me, originally, as distinct skills, but all of the work I did to become a better performer—especially improv and voice work—made me a better writer too. It’s all about how you choose to convey ideas, express emotion, and make yourself heard.
David’s Bookshop has a packed programme of events in September. Do you know any of these writers? Perhaps you bumped into them in Edinburgh? John Connolly (He); Cressida Cowell (The Wizards of Once); Claire Tomalin (A Life of My Own), AN Wilson (Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker).
I haven’t met any of these writers, though of course I would love to. I admire Claire Tomalin in particular: she has this extraordinary combination of breadth of knowledge and eye for detail in her writing. I’m so intrigued to see how she applies that to her own life in A Life of My Own.
Have you carried through any of the discipline that you practised on Bleaker? Army exercises, counting out raisins…
Fortunately, I’ve given up the raising-counting. A lot of the “discipline” I clung to on the island was a coping-mechanism, an attempt to feel in control of an experience that alarmed me. That said, I have worked really hard to retain an ability to concentrate, especially on reading, without getting distracted by my phone. I was permanently scatter-brained before I went to Bleaker, and concentration was one of the most valuable skills I re-learned while I was there. Being without an easy internet connection helped me to focus on what I was doing. In general I am warier of the internet now than I was before. After taking myself away from a constant connection, I didn’t feel a need to plug myself back in quite so completely when I got back from the Falklands.
Bleaker House by Nell Stevens is published by Picador (£12.99)
Nell will be at the Writing and Publishing evening at David’s Bookshop together with Alysoun Owen, editor of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, on Thurs 14 September at 7.30pm.
Other September literary events at David’s Bookshop:
Monday 11 September, AN Wilson will be discussing his book Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker at the Spirella Ballroom, 7.30pm.
Wednesday 13 September, Claire Tomalin will discuss and sign her memoir, A Life of My Own at the Spirella Ballroom, 7.30pm.
Wednesday 20 September, Cressida Cowell will discuss her new children’s novel, The Wizards of Once, St Francis’ College, 4.30pm.