We’ve been picking the brains of Toby Litt. Toby is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck College, London. He has published three collections of stories and eight novels and also writes the comic Dead Boy Detectives.
Photo: Kate Cooke
Have you always been interested in writing? Did you write stories from a young age?
For a long time, I was much more interested in TV and films than in writing. I realize now that I turned to books because of what you might call a sci-fi drought. Once I’d seen Star Wars, I wanted more – but there weren’t that many more decent SF films. (And there were a whole slew of godawful ones.) So I turned to Frank Herbert’s Dune, to E.E.Doc Smith, to whatever I could find with a spaceship on the cover. I was an addict – it was desperation.
I wrote the stories I was required to, by English teachers. But I started writing poetry in little orange notebooks I bought from the stationer’s over the road from my house. This went along with liking Salvador Dali’s paintings – and Magritte’s. I wanted to be a surrealist. But I was much more into painting than writing.
This one could be difficult for your modesty, but when did you realise that you were good at writing? Has it always felt natural, or have you had to train yourself and your craft to feel confident in the process?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently. I am writing a non-fiction book called Wrestliana about my great-great-great grandfather, who was a champion Cumberland & Westmoreland wrestler and a brandy smuggler but also a poet and a novelist. He was called William Litt, born in 1785. As I wrote about him, and the little I knew about his schooldays, I found myself writing about myself and my school days. I believe that, from the age of about five upwards , I was in quest of a vocation – I was in quest of a quest. It certainly didn’t seem like writing had anything to do with that. My school stories were awful. I did ‘and it was all a dream’ at least three times. But then I wrote more and more poems. One of them – done when I was fifteen-ish – was about Francis Bacon, the painter. I showed it to my English teacher, Mrs Hetherington, and she said it was ‘superb’. I respected her opinion.
How does your approach change depending on whether you’re working on short fiction or a novel? Do the forms pose different challenges, and which do you prefer to write?
A novel is a grind; a short story – if you’re lucky – is a gift. Gifts are generally more pleasant than grinds. They are immensely different forms. I can only say that I feel novels bring with them more responsibilities than short stories do. Novels require you to be more courteous to the reader, or they’ll likely depart. Short stories can be more extremely idiolectic.
How did you learn how to write?
By writing and rewriting and reading and rereading and doing all this under the sign of self-hatred.
What’s your writing schedule/process like?
No schedule/process. If it was a process, I wouldn’t do it. If it had a schedule, I’d dodge it. Any language that comes close to that of business efficiency/productivity is deeply offputting to me. I play truant to the rest of life. When I don’t absolutely have to do the rest of life, I write.
You’ve written that the Creative Writing course can offer writers ‘permission’ to write, as young writers may find it tricky to dedicate the required time to their writing. How did you manage to find a balance between your writing, work and social life when you were starting out as a writer?
Short answer – I was selfish. I isolated myself, by moving to Glasgow, somewhere I didn’t know many people. I didn’t have enough money to do anything but keep the heat on, make veggie stew and write. Then I lived in Prague for three years. After that, I was lucky enough to fall in love with someone who was prepared to support me whilst I wrote more novels that didn’t get published. All pure selfishness. It wasn’t balanced at all.
You were named on Granta’s 2003 list of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. On that list, and the lists in 1983, 1993, and 2013, Granta have named 76 authors, and 38 of those were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. Do you think this merely reflects the excellence of Oxbridge graduates, or should we be concerned about a lack of diversity in our literary culture?
I’ll come at this this way – the kind of people who go to Oxford and Cambridge aren’t just quite bright (generally), they are also extremely driven. They also have stable enough lives to do the studying required to get into an Oxbridge college. Writing a novel is quite like revising for finals and very like doing an extended essay. In order to get published, you need to be extremely driven, have a stable enough life to complete the novel, etcetera. In other words, Oxbridge is a better training for creating a novel-shaped thing than leaving school at fifteen and working on a farm. I went to Oxford because it was where writers went, in order to become writers. If I’d got the impression when I was fourteen that writers became writers by working on farms, I’d have gone and worked on a farm. Of course, now I think that might have been a better thing to do, and I might have written better books. But books come from books, not from fields and sheep. To write well you need to have read a vast amount. The easiest way to that is to do an English literature degree. If you want to make it difficult, work an eight or twelve hour day and fit your reading around that. For non-Oxbridge people to become really good at writing, they need to find that time to put in. Having lots of time is a vast privilege. It’s unsurprising that vastly privileged people write lots of novels.
There are other issues here, to do with who runs publishing, who comes across well at literary festivals, etc.
Unless you actively prevent them, Oxbridge types will push their way into all high-status spheres.
You wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian about your Grandmother’s experience at the start of the First World War. At age 14, her diary of the German invasion of Belgium was published all over the world. Did your Grandmother help to shape your literary aspirations? Have you ever considered writing about her and/or her experience?
Thank you. I’m glad you liked that piece. I put everything I have to say about my grandmother into it. I have been writing more about my family in Wrestliana.
Can you name any writers that people wouldn’t expect to be influential to you?
Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marianne Moore.
What are you reading at the moment?
A lot of books about sport. I’m rereading William Litt’s novel, Henry & Mary. László Krasznahorkai Seiobo There Below.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
The anxiety of influence.
What’s the easiest thing about writing?
Shopping for pens.
Hanif Kureishi claimed that 99.9% of his Creative Writing students are ‘untalented’ and said that writing a story is “a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”
What is your stance on the ongoing argument that ‘writing can’t be taught’?
I would like to end this forever. I invite anyone who doesn’t believe creative writing can be taught to read the work of three creative writing students from the Birkbeck MA. First, to read the work they submit when they apply, and then to read those same students’ final dissertations. You will see what attending a creative writing MA has taught them. You will find their work has got a lot better. If you want to, you can also compare their progress, over the same period, to the writing of someone who was accepted onto the MA but wasn’t able to take up their place. This is a serious, open invitation.
Did Kureishi’s views irritate you, as an academic and writing tutor?
No. His views irritate me as being those of a writing tutor who used to take a lot of care with his work but who is now deliberately sloppy. If he wants to be a good teacher, he should begin by setting a better example. Putting out shoddy books suggests to student writers that it’s okay to put out shoddy books. It’s not.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
Shakespeare’s plays. Because I would like to be Shakespeare, because I would like to see what it’s like to be Shakespeare as Shakespeare is writing Shakespeare.
We are a creative writing advice platform, so it would be criminal not to ask you for some sage advice on writing. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Try not to be vain. Self-love is what stops most writing being any good.
Name your top 3 all-time favourite works of fiction.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (trans Moncrieff)
Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen, Ill Said
We’d like to thank Toby for sharing his thoughts with us. We also wish him the best of luck with the new Wrestliana, which is sure to be a fascinating read once finished!