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Q&A with Martyn Bedford

Posted by. Esther Dreher
Posted on 31 March 2017

blogs, blogs:Humanities

As part of the Creative Writing ​MA at Leeds Trinity, all students complete a module on 'Writing as a Profession', giving them an insight into the publishing industry through a series of talks by visiting writers and professionals. Esther Dreher, a current student on the programme, is sharing what she's learning from the guest lectures in a series of blog posts. In today's post, Esther speaks to Leeds Trinity's very own Martyn Bedford about his success as an author. 

Over to Esther:  ​​

Martyn Bedford, is an internationally renowned novelist and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He has written five novels for adults and more recently Martyn has been writing for teenage and young adult readers. His debut novel in the genre, Flip, was published to critical acclaim in 2011 by Walker Books in the UK and by Wendy Lamb Books (an imprint of Random House) in the U.S. It was also published in Canada and, in translation, in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, China and Thailand. Flip won four regional prizes in the UK and was shortlisted for the prestigious Costa Book Awards. His second teen/YA novel, Never Ending, was published in 2014 in the UK, U.S., Canada, Germany and Poland and was nominated for the 2015 Carnegie Medal. His recently published teen/YA novel, 20 Questions for Gloria, (January 2016) won the 13+ 'Simply the Book' category in the 2017 Coventry Inspiration Book Awards. Martyn has also had numerous short stories published in anthologies, newspapers and magazines and broadcast on radio and the internet. Before becoming a writer and teacher, he worked for 12 years as a journalist in regional newspapers.

What do you regard as your greatest achievement so far?  

Writers, as a species, aren't given to blowing their own trumpet. But, since you're asking, I would say that the achievement of which I'm most proud is that of sustaining a professional writing career for more than 20 years – with eight novels, published in sixteen languages – in a period when it's tougher than ever to be, and remain, published. I was also very chuffed to be shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards with my debut YA novel, Flip.

What are your goals for 2017?

I don't tend to think of 'goals' but, rather, 'stuff I'm doing next'. Currently, I have an idea for a new young-adult novel which needs some thinking through and planning before I'm ready to start writing it. That book will take up the rest of 2017 and part of 2018. I hope to have a first draft completed by Christmas and to get the novel into shape to send to my agent by next Easter.

How do you manage to juggle your writing with your teaching commitments?

With difficulty, is the flippant answer. In term-time, I work three days a week at Leeds Trinity, so I have two weekdays which I try to keep clear for writing. I write in the mornings at weekends, as well, before my wife and daughters surface. (From their beds, that is – I don't keep them under water until I've finished writing.) I also write during the academic vacations, although the Christmas and Easter breaks are busy with marking and, over the summer, I supervise MA dissertations. So, again, it's a tricky juggling act.

Do you write primarily for yourself or for others?

I write for myself, primarily. I write stories, create characters and explore themes that interest me; that's always been the basis for every novel and short story I've ever written. But, obviously, as writing is my job – and that means my books have to find a publisher and readers – I have to hope that my stories appeal to them as well. To that extent, I am conscious of writing with an anticipated audience in mind. But that's not the same as writing for them.

What are the main obstacles you have had to overcome on your path to becoming a successful writer?

I received around 40 rejection letters from literary agents for the first two novels I wrote, back in my twenties/early thirties, and they remain unpublished to this day. Since I've been published, I have also had one novel for adults and one for teenagers turned down by my agents. In each case, I eventually came to the conclusion that the books deserved to be rejected and were beyond salvage, and that my only option was to start work on the next one. That's all you can do, as a writer, when a book is rejected and can't be made to work: write the next one. Or give up altogether.

Have you experienced any of the pressures that Linda Green talked to us about, e.g. that your publishers want you to stick to a 'winning formula'?

Thankfully, no. But Linda writes for quite specific genres – romantic fiction, for much of her career, and now psychological drama – and the commercial and creative pressure on genre writers is much greater than it is on the rest of us, when it comes to giving publishers what they want (or what their readers expect).

What is the most important piece of advice you wish you could have been given when you were starting out?

Don't assume the first novel you write will be published. Or even the second. And, when your third attempt at a novel is published, don't assume you've 'made it' as a writer.

Certain novels I have read and loved leave me feeling a little deflated, as I feel I could never write anything as good as that. Haruki Murakami's 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle', in its originality and imaginativeness, would be a key example for me. Are there any books that have left you feeling like that, and what is your approach to coming up with original ideas?

How curious, because if I were to list books which have made me feel I could never write anything as good, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would be among the top three. Depending what mood I'm in, novels as brilliant as this can make me think 'why bother?' or they can remind me why I loved writing in the first place and send me back to my keyboard inspired (even in the knowledge that I am no Murakami, nor ever will be). As for coming up with original ideas, I don't have 'an approach'. Can one approach originality? For me, it comes (from somewhere), or it doesn't. All I can do is hope that I recognise an original idea when I have one . . . and figure out what to do with it.

What's easier/more enjoyable for you as a writer - Young Adult or Adult literature?

Both are equally difficult, in my experience. Both are equally enjoyable, too. At the moment, I'm focusing on writing YA because my ideas for novels seem to have been more suited to that readership in recent years. I haven't written a novel for adults (or had a viable idea for one) in ten years, although I have written several short stories for adults in that period. The creative challenges and constraints are broadly similar, I find, and I'm not conscious of making concessions to YA readers or of writing differently – beyond being aware that you need to keep the plot ticking over. But, then, my adult fiction has always been quite plot-driven anyway.

Ra Page of Comma Press is an admirer and publisher of your Short Story fiction. When did you start writing in this form and what do you enjoy about it?

I wrote short stories before I attempted a novel, so since my late teens and early to mid-twenties. Arrogantly, and ignorantly, I initially thought of short fiction as a kind of training camp for longer fiction. It took me some years to realise that the short story is a form unto itself, not a novel in miniature or a warm-up exercise for a long narrative. As a writer, I love the way a short story imposes formal constraints on me, requiring a concision and distillation of an idea and its expression that you just don't have when writing a novel. I also, it must be said, like working on something that is likely to be finished in a matter of days or weeks rather than a year or two.

One story I particularly loved writing was "Here's a little baby: one, two three", which I wrote last year and which will be published in my first solo collection, Letters Home (due out from Comma Press in summer 2017). I got the idea from a TV nature documentary about bee eaters – birds which nest in tunnels in mud cliffs. The nests are at the end of the tunnel, where the young will jostle for pole-position when the adult female returns with food. The stronger, more aggressive chick gets fatter and fatter while its siblings slowly starve. In this case, the weakest of the three chicks died and a second was facing a similar fate, until the alpha-chick ventured too close to the mouth of the tunnel in its determination to be first in line for feeding . . . and was snatched by a sparrowhawk, leaving the one remaining chick to survive and thrive. In my story, I adapt the scenario for a human mother and her triplets. As you might imagine, it's a somewhat dark and macabre story (the plot of which I've pretty much ruined for you). What attracted me to it, as a fictional premise, was the deceptive simplicity of the theme and the compactness of the 'plot' – not to mention the fact that the outline of the story was effectively ready-made.

Having got to know you a little as a tutor at Leeds Trinity University, I must admit I before I read any of your books, I was expecting you to be something of a Nick Hornby (and that is a compliment, of course). However, a lot of your books seem quite serious in tone. Is that an accurate description, and why have you avoided the humour genre?

As I think you might be alluding to, I am hilariously funny in person. There are times when it's almost impossible for me to teach because my students are rolling around on the floor, weeping with laughter at some brilliant witticism of mine. It crops up in my annual appraisal, as you can imagine. And yet, as you rightly identify, my fiction is consistently dark and serious in its subject matter, tone and themes. As my mother-in-law once remarked, "Why does such a nice chap write such horrible books?" I don't know, is the short answer. That's just the way the stories emerge and evolve. In fact, my YA fiction is more humorous than my adult fiction, even while exploring dark issues. It tends to manifest itself in banterish dialogue between characters (e.g. Alex and Teri, Phillip's sister, in Flip; Shiv and her brother Declan, in Never Ending; Gloria and Uman, in Twenty Questions for Gloria.) In contradiction to something I said earlier about writing no differently for teenagers, perhaps – unconsciously, at least – I've felt the need to include more humour in my YA novels to provide some light relief for a younger readership. But I don't like humour as a genre, either as writer or as a reader. If a novel has 'this book will make you laugh out loud' on the cover, my invariable response is, 'I bet it bloody won't.' Nearly always, it doesn't.​

Read an excerpt from Martyn's novel Flip here.​

Do you start out a novel with a particular style of language/writing in mind and do you ever have trouble sticking to it?

With my fiction, the style, tone or idiom is determined by the voice of whichever character's narrative viewpoint I'm using. Naturally, this will vary from novel to novel – and within a novel, if there are multiple viewpoints. The difficulty is in keeping the voice credible and consistent, in character, not least when your narrator is a teenage girl and you're a 57-year-old man.  

Read a review of Twenty Questions for Gloria here.

Are you working on anything for this year's Leeds Trinity University Portmanteaux anthology?

With a bit of luck, I'll come up with an idea for a portmanteau story over brunch.

Finally, what do you think it takes to become a successful author?

A writer needs talent and application. To be successful, well, that depends how you define success. Chance can play its part, there, because your success (if we measure it in sales, prizes, earnings, longevity of your publishing career, literary reputation etc.) is largely beyond your control.

Although Martyn brings years of knowledge and expertise to his teaching at Leeds Trinity University, he does so in an encouraging and nurturing manner that builds confidence in his students. I would thoroughly recommend the MA Creative Writing course for anyone wishing to develop their writing skills to a publishable standard. The course is engaging in content and the learning environment is fun, inspiring and never dull.