Diana Evans, the latest literary sensation from the University of East Anglia's MA in creative writing, thinks talent can't be taught, says Sara Wajid
The novel 26a is painfully sexy in publishing terms. It is the first work of fiction by Diana Evans, a beautiful black West London writer - a description that immediately conjures up urban coolness, particularly in the notoriously fuddy-duddy literary world.
But in fact, getting a £100,000 two-book deal with Chatto and Windus (which has hailed her as "the new literary voice of multicultural Britain") is probably the uncoolest thing Evans has ever done - and deliberately so.
The knee-jerk habit of casting young black literary talent as cool, regardless of subject matter or literary style, is wearing very thin. But the irony is that Evans is actually very cool, and has been as long as I've known her, since we were undergraduates together at Sussex University in 1991. Not cool "for a writer", not cool in a "geek-chic" way, just plain old intrinsically cool, by universally recognised criteria - cool dresser, cool dancer, cool music collection, cool London DJ mates - proper effortless cool. She was especially so when dancing with her equally elegant and beautiful identical twin sister, Paula, in the clubs on Brighton seafront.
But Paula (to whom 26a is dedicated) committed suicide in 1998 after a struggle with depression. Evans explains: "When Paula died, it was so huge, so cataclysmic in my life, it stopped me in my tracks and made me think where I was and what I was doing, and that you can't waste time. I felt I had to do something big to acknowledge that when something like that happens, life doesn't just go on, you have to stop and do something."
Chucking in her career in music and arts journalism to write a novel based on Paula's story was that something. Literature offered an escape from the incessant mind-numbing imperative towards "cool" purveyed by the media.
Before embarking on the book, which tells the story of twins Georgia and Bessie growing up in Neasden, London, Evans was a well-established arts journalist, working for several years as an arts editor for the black women's magazine Pride . "But," she explains, "book publishing is a very different world from magazines. When you're writing, you're in a bubble, thinking of the craft of what you're doing - then there's the whole other world that opens up when you get an agent and get published. Then you start to think about readership and grasp the concept that the book isn't yours alone anymore, it belongs to your editor and agent, too: it's a product. When you're sitting in a room writing, you don't think of it as a commodity."
It was on the prestigious MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia that Evans got an introduction to the business of books.
"The knowledge I got there about the publishing world and agents was really invaluable. That was the main thing I got from the course (apart from finishing the book). There was a publishing module and, each week, different members of the publishing industry came in to talk about editing, freelancing and agents. Before then I hadn't thought about the publishing side; my mission was just to get this book written. There was an agents' tea party in spring 2004; loads of agents came from all over the country, so I ended up with a lot of contacts and business cards. If you've been on the course, agents take slightly more notice of you than they would others who are just on the slush pile, although, ultimately, you're still on that slush pile."
Evans began 26a before doing her MA, while she was living in London, but she finished it in Norwich on the course. The environment there offered a chance to escape the pressures of the capital.
"It was not only about being away, but being in a place with other writers in a university atmosphere that would be conducive to working. Being in Norwich helped so much that I worked harder than I expected to and gained momentum. I made a lot of friends, as we were all working intensely on our writing - the kind of friends you could call up in the middle of the day if you were stuck, which was great because when you're living your life in London and working, it's hard sometimes to maintain the idea that writing is important.
"The book changed a lot over the course of the MA, but it wasn't because of anything I learnt on the course about narrative; there wasn't much tuition.
When I got there, it was just writers' workshops and writers commenting on one another's work generally, and I thought, 'God, is this it?' I was a bit disappointed because I was expecting a lot more directive tuition, but there really wasn't much of that. It was simply about sitting down and writing seven hours a day."
The UEA course is one of the most well-known creative writing courses in the country, due to famous former students such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan, but the specialism has been in the spotlight of late: the Open University recently announced that it was expanding its creative writing course due to unprecedented demand, and new journals have been springing up, such as New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing , which seek to open a debate about how the subject is taught and where it is going.
Evans, though, is sceptical. "I don't think you can teach creative writing. Those in the business of nurturing new writers have to approach it in a really relaxed and lackadaisical way. As a writer, it's better to view a creative writing MA as a kind of retreat. If you go there wanting to learn how to write, you're not going to come out knowing how to write. But it does make a lot of difference when an established writer is studying your text intensely and taking it seriously."
Evans feels black writers tend to be pushed into writing about race, so her book, in that sense, is unusual.
"Death is still a taboo in literature, at least grief is," she says. "Characters die all the time and death is a good dramatic tool, but the implications of it for the living are rarely addressed. And in black writing in particular, there's been a real thematic limitation in terms of race and urban life. Often, as black writers, we're published because we're talking about race, and that creates a burden of responsibility to cover race issues."
But it would be a mistake to read 26a as autobiography or as some kind of tool in the grieving process; it's an accomplished and deeply literary novel. "I'm used to the idea of its being out. I'm getting my head around it, but it is nerve-racking because it's based on autobiographical material. But it's not a memoir, it's a piece of fiction based on reality."
Sara Wajid is project director (development) of Salidaa, the South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive. 26a is published by Chatto and Windus on March 31, £12.99.