Francesca Haig: fire forged

Since her debut novel sparked a bidding war, the lecturer in creative writing has been writing full-time. But, she tells Emma Rees, she does miss teaching

February 26, 2015

Source: Andrew North

Core strength: ‘those who dismiss creative writing degrees are often unaware of how central a critical, analytical aspect is. Some assume it’s all a self-indulgent circle jerk’

I used to be pleased if people praised my writing as ‘literary’. Now I find myself asking what that really means, and why we see it as aspirational

Almost a year ago, Times Higher Education ran a piece by De Montfort University’s Will Buckingham that excoriated the comments of one very successful novelist about teaching creative writing. “Hanif Kureishi is at it again,” he wrote in a commentary that adroitly dismissed the spiteful assertions of the author of The Buddha of Suburbia that an undergraduate degree in creative writing is “totally worthless”, and that “‘probably 99.9 per cent’ of creative writing students are entirely lacking in talent”.

The novelist and academic Francesca Haig has no time for the negativity of Kureishi and his ilk. Until recently, Haig was a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Chester. She’s bemused by the criticism that creative writing courses sometimes receive because “it’s not a criticism that tends to be levelled at other creative pursuits. You don’t read op-eds bemoaning the uselessness of teaching fine arts, or music.” She’s also quick to emphasise how rigorous the teaching of creative writing needs to be: “I think people who dismiss creative writing degrees are often unaware of how central to them a critical, analytical aspect is. Some of the misconceptions are based on the assumption that it’s all a kind of self-indulgent circle jerk where we sit around exhorting our students just to ‘express’ themselves. Informed, critical reading and analysis develop them as writers.”

And she should know. Her novel The Fire Sermon, the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy, is published today by HarperVoyager in the UK and Australia, Haig’s native country, and next month by Simon & Schuster in the US. Film rights were quickly optioned by DreamWorks. Industry journal The Bookseller reported how Haig’s agent, Juliet Mushens, spotted The Fire Sermon in her slush pile, cutting a six-figure deal with HarperVoyager “after fighting off five other publishers in a hotly contested auction”.

It was that deal that enabled Haig to leave her university post to write full-time. But she is surprised when I ask if this was a “great escape” for her. She acknowledges that she’s “tremendously lucky to be able to write full-time”, but also shares what she calls the “embarrassing truth” that she misses academia.

The online buzz around The Fire Sermon means that it has already been compared to a range of books, including Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian tour de force, The Road, one of Haig’s favourite novels (and one that, when he read it, led a much-loved colleague to stock up on tinned goods “just in case”). Some book bloggers, however, especially since the DreamWorks deal was announced, seem determined to categorise The Fire Sermon with the Hunger Games trilogy as “young adult” fiction.

“Genres and age categories are slippery things,” says Haig. “They can function as a useful shorthand, but inevitably they’re reductive and limiting. I think marketers and booksellers tend to be much more preoccupied with such labels than writers and readers are.”

Mindful of Haig’s distrust of literary labels, I’m loath to call The Fire Sermon a fantasy novel because I’m profoundly cynical about the genre. If I pick up a book that includes a map with consonantal, calligraphic place names carefully filled in, or if there’s so much as a whiff of a sigil, I will not read on. This probably means I’m culturally poorer for having turned down imaginary journeys to various Mordors, Ankh-Morporks or Casterly Rocks, but I can live with that. (I did read one novel by George R. R. Martin and spent most of it consumed by bitterness at the number of other books I could have spent the time reading instead.)

I have read Haig’s novel, however. I started it out of courtesy to my colleague and friend, but then I read on out of a hunger to know what was going to happen to characters whose stories quickly absorbed me. There were meditations on family, love, loyalty and survival. To categorise The Fire Sermon as a young adult book is to do it a disservice: it doesn’t fit many of the characteristics of the genre (the heroine is in her early twenties, for one thing).

“It contains elements of fantasy and sci-fi,” Haig tells me, “but it’s also been described as having quite a literary sensibility. But ‘literary’ is the most puzzling of all the labels; it’s so ideologically loaded and amorphous. I used to be pleased if people praised my writing as ‘literary’. Now I find myself asking what on earth that adjective really means, and why we necessarily see it as aspirational.”

There were certainly one or two raised eyebrows in the department of English when Haig’s novel started being described as young adult. “There’s still a lingering sense in some corners of academia that these things are a bit infra dig,” she concedes. “But the overall sense has been one of real excitement. Several of my Chester colleagues will be in London for the launch, and quite a few former students, which makes me so happy.”

Haig is living proof that hard graft pays off. She wrote in those precious interstices of academic life – evenings, weekends, “vacations” – and her students never felt short-changed. This is in part due to the fact that she doesn’t see a division between “critical” and “creative” writing. “It’s a false dichotomy,” she says. “Obviously there are differences – I relish the fact that there’s no faffing around with footnotes and bibliographies in a novel, for example – but both forms of writing require creativity, critical thinking, and clarity and freshness of expression.

“People might think that writers have a glamorous existence,” she goes on, “but the reality is that it’s me in my tracksuit pants, tapping away at my laptop and drinking too much tea.” She hesitates for a moment, before adding: “Well, we call them ‘tracksuit pants’ in Australia, but what on earth do you call them here? ‘Tracksuit bottoms’? ‘Bottoms’ sounds much ruder than ‘pants’!” Haig’s naturally mischievous humour is enhanced by her native Tasmanian intonation.

In the late 1980s, the student magazine at my alma mater, the University of East Anglia, invited suggestions for festive gifts for faculty members. The competition was won by a wag who proposed buying a campus map for Malcolm Bradbury, “because he needs reminding that ‘here be students’”. It wasn’t a fair criticism – Bradbury was as committed to his students’ well-being as any of his colleagues – but it made the point: success as a novelist left him with diminishing opportunities to work directly with them.

It’s unlikely that any of Haig’s students will be clubbing together to buy her a campus map any time soon. She’s stayed on at the University of Chester as a visiting writing fellow, and such is her commitment to the role that just a day after sending off the draft of her second novel, instead of collapsing into a heap of unwashed clothes, unopened emails and gallons of pinot grigio (which, let’s face it, is what many of us do after completing a major task), she travelled straight to Chester from her London home “in a tremendous act of nerdishness, to teach a couple of sessions. I find teaching to be quite a creative process, and I thrive on the contact with students and colleagues.”

We finish our conversation as I have to go and talk about Hamlet with a group of 18 undergraduates, and she has to go and write. “I make myself write every day. I’m ruthless about that. The idea of writer’s block has always felt like a form of self-indulgence. You don’t hear people moaning about ‘engineer’s block’ or ‘accountant’s block’, so I just knuckle down and do my daily 1,000 words. Some days they’re rubbish, and I might salvage only 50 of them for the final draft; but if I don’t put in the hours, I won’t have even that 50.”

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