ripping pages interview
17 June 2009
Isabella Clarke interviews Judith Allnatt.
What made you wish to write in the first place? At what age?
When I was eight or nine I used to write poems and stories and lots of first chapters of novels that never got any further. When I was sent outside to play I used to smuggle out a notebook and go and sit on the swing, or in our makeshift tree-house, watch the clouds for a while until ideas came and then write.
When did you first define or describe yourself as a writer, and how did that come about?
I met Jonathan Gash, the writer who wrote the TV series ‘Lovejoy’ and admitted that my ambition was to write. He asked me if I actually did write or just dreamed about it. When I said that, actually I couldn’t not write, he said, ‘Then you’re a writer and you should call yourself one.’
Do you still have another ‘real’ job? It might surprise people that, despite genuine success as a writer, there remains the need and/or desire to continue working in other fields.
I’ve taught Creative Writing for various universities: currently for the University of Leicester. I’ve also run courses and workshops for libraries, Arts Council projects, writers’ groups, schools and the mental health charity ‘Mind’. It's very rewarding to help people to find their material and shape it.
What was the first thing you sent off – with real hope – to a competition? And what happened?
I remember sending a story called ‘Songbird’ to a competition run by Northamptonshire libraries. It won a prize and I was thrilled to hear it read by an actress and to find that an audience was willing to sit and listen to my stuff.
What was the first thing you sent off – with real hope – to a publisher? And what happened?
I sent some poems to a small press magazine. The editor didn’t take them but was kind enough to send a list of magazines that he thought might be interested. This was my first brush with the idea of doing market research before wasting a stamp.
What is your view of courses in Creative Writing? Can the skill be taught? How do you choose a course? Is it necessary?
I do believe that the mechanics of writing can be taught, for example: encouraging writers to experiment with different viewpoints, or explaining how to manipulate pace and tone and how to improve work by editing. However, I think that you can go further than this and teach people techniques that help them to be more creative: to draw on and transform memories, for instance, or to make links and associations between ideas more freely. I teach these techniques regularly and it’s very rewarding to see people surprising themselves with the ideas they come up with.
How much use have you made and do you still make of a writer’s notebook?
I carry a notebook with me always; you never know when an idea will strike you or you simply observe something interesting and need to note it down to make sure you don’t forget it. I have bedside-table size, handbag size and jeans- pocket size notebooks.
Who has most inspired you and how?
Many years ago I went on my first course run by the Arvon Foundation and the tutor, Rose Tremain, gave me a lot of encouragement. She told me that I should have confidence in my work and start sending out poems and short stories for competitions.
If there’s one thing you wish that you had done or known in your writing life, but didn’t, what is it?
I wish I’d been brave enough to tackle a novel earlier.
Do you have a quote about writing that keeps you on target?
I think my current favourite is a quotation that’s a great antidote for procrastination. It’s by Goethe:
‘Whatever you dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.’