Why I... am returning to university teaching despite two blockbuster novels

October 9, 1998

James Hawes, Author and lecturer at University College, Swansea

I wrote my first bestseller, A White Merc with Fins, while I was teaching. It came out in January 1996, sold well and created a buzz. My son was born a week before the launch and I had a lot of publicity things to look after. It occurred to me then there were four things to do: write, teach, childcare and research. In the short term, one had to go.

There is nothing incompatible about writing and teaching, but there is between writing, teaching and the sleep deprivation of thirtysomething parenthood. It was either Prozac or a sabbatical. I took the latter.

Now, though, I am glad to be coming back. There is a positive feedback on fiction from teaching. In White Merc there are various shadows lurking about from stuff I taught in German literature. I think novelists should have a day job. Otherwise you might end up having nothing to write about but writing. That way lies the deconstructive ravings of academia.

I have switched at Swansea University to the English department. One attraction there is the creative writing element. Any academic will tell you that they teach students who have little previous knowledge of literature. A levels ain't what they used to be. So if you are going to teach fairly complex concepts you should try to make them accessible. I have always tried to avoid jargon. I am convinced you can describe Nietzsche's philosophy without ever using a latinate word. In a sense, with a novel, I am trying to show that you can have as many ideas as you want and not have the linguistic apparatus of "high art".

My second book, Rancid Aluminium, is about a man who becomes involved with Russian gangsters. The research came out of a European-funded quasi-academic trip. For White Merc I sold the film rights. With Rancid Aluminium I am working with an independent film company and have written the script. Filming starts in November.

It's a great corrective to lecture on Kafka, Thomas Mann or Conrad and Joyce. It doesn's half put your writing in perspective. You know writers who, in their day, regarded themselves as a great success, but even academics have never heard of them now.

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