Early bird catches the writing bug

July 7, 2006

Name : Penny Smith (pseudonym Penny Sumner) Age: Middle!

Job : Programme leader, MA in creative writing, Northumbria University.

Salary : About £38,000.

Education : BA in English from the University of Queensland. I came from Australia on a Commonwealth scholarship and did a DPhil at Oxford on the novels of John Cowper Powys. My supervisor was John Bayley; he and Iris Murdoch were good at encouraging students to write. I attempted my first novel while doing postdoctoral research on Powys's unpublished manuscripts at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. The novel was (deservedly) unpublished, but it was the first step.

Working hours and conditions : I have a full-time post, so I have to use whatever other time I have for writing. I finished my last novel, Tree of Angels, by getting up at 5am every weekday and writing until 7am. I took a sabbatical to work on my current novel.

Number of students you teach : Creative writing classes at undergraduate and postgraduate level might have up to 30 students. I also teach undergraduate literature modules (on Australian and postcolonial literature) and lecture to up to 200 students.

Biggest bugbear this year : Administration.

How you solved it : Items marked "urgent" become less so after they've been sitting in the in-tray for a while.

Worst moment in university life : Seeing a student's work not being published when you believe it is good enough. You can work closely with someone on their novel and know how much effort they've put in. It's disappointing when a good book keeps being sent back by agents because it's simply not quite the right thing at quite the right time, or it hasn't landed on the right person's desk.

What is your office like? Small. The MA involves a lot of one-to-one tutorial teaching and giving such tutorials would be impossible in a shared space. Tutorial discussions about a novel would sound completely barmy to someone else: "You can't leave the body there, it would be discovered too soon! Why don't you hide it in the car park?"

How do you cope with the most difficult people you deal with? Students can get upset when their writing is criticised. I point out that even an experienced writer goes through it every time their novel is edited or gets a bad review, so it's better to get used to it. But there's always the "ouch" factor.

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