What is your current role?
I'm, well, now the only Professor in the English Creative Writing and American Studies department. I run a Masters programme in writing for children which was when Masters programmes in creative writing were first getting set up I decided to go down the writing for children route for two reasons. One is that I wrote for children and two is that nobody else in the country was doing it at the time and it seemed like it was a good opportunity.
I set the MA up way back in 1995 and I've been running with it every since, it's been running for 13 years now so.
So how long have you been in your current position?
As professor? Oh two and a half years maybe. Something like that. And I mean I've been very fortunate having started as an associate lecturer in 1995 I then I got promoted to – I got a foot in lectureship and then two years later I was promoted to senior lecturer. Then two years after I was promoted to principle lecturer. And then I became a professor about two and a half years after that, but I've got a very big CV so that kind of helps.
In terms of what your current role is, can you tell me what your responsibilities are?
Yeah I'm director of the MA in Writing for Children which is a high recruiting MA in the university. It has been for the last 13 years. And I teach mostly at Masters level, but I teach a couple of undergraduate modules as well, by choice as well. I like to teach undergraduates so I have a fairly relaxed life I'm afraid it sounds – but I do you know, I do very little else. I'm on the research committee and the research and knowledge transfer committee. I don't do many committees or things either.
What does that involve?
Just people who are applying for research funding and that kind of thing, just give them some guidance or approve for research or approve their applications for funding. These kind of things.
Can you say a little bit about what knowledge transfer is?
Yes, knowledge transfer is essentially that which can't be quantified as publishable research sometimes, for example in the Faculty of Arts we have dancers and performers in performance and that kind of thing. Because I work in creative writing for example, part of my knowledge transfer is that I made 15 films and how do you quantify that. Occasionally I'll write an article about it but writing an article isn't the same as having 15 films, you know, which were screened on Christmas Day and these kind of things, so it's a different kind of knowledge transfer, its not a piece of written research that's in the book or its in a journal or anything like that but its in the same way that lots of creative writing programmes get I don't know various writers to come one is Professor of Creative Writing in Manchester. But he hasn't got any academic credentials as such, he's just a good writer so that kind of knowledge transfer is transferring desirable skills, if you like, in a university environment.
So what does your job involve, to explain a typical day or a typical week, what kind of activities?
Well at the moment I'm marking dissertations, creative writing dissertations at the moment. Half an hour ago I had a student in here who's embarking on a creative writing dissertation and we had a 40 minute meeting on what she should be reading, who she should be reading over the summer. What kind of research she should be doing. What kind of plans and what kind of planning she should be organising. So that takes most of the time this time of year. Last Friday was my last teaching day, I was teaching a module called 'special study fiction' which was teaching third years to move beyond thinking about themselves as undergraduates, to thinking about themselves as going in the world of writing. And to write better fiction and how to place it and how to publish it and how to think about it and these kind of things. And how to publish a novel on line, which we did last week, which was a lot of fun. The Monday prior to that we were teaching a module called textual intervention in which these students intervene in a text with the Gothic theme for example so we get them to understand and read better. You know to understand how Gothic works and then you get them to read Freud and think much more philosophically about writing in the depths and the philosophy and creativity rather than just the kind of surface words on the page. And then getting them to write an intervening piece with a critical rationale on why they came to this – why they came to write what they wrote and to think about writing, to think about you know why they're writing or how they're writing. So that's a fairly common teaching day.
Other responsibilities? Well I'm instructed to write creatively myself so I'm 9,000 words into another novel which is great fun. That's part of my brief as well - to continue creative writing. But having said that I made a full early submission, I've published chapters and on writing and reading and so I can balance it out between writing creative writing and then doing critical research so that critical methodology works with the creative side so we get this kind of ontological balance where one informs the other constantly. At the same time though I've got five PhD students and one of them's going through his viva tomorrow which is why I'm here today cos I'm taking him out to dinner tonight to calm him down. And I have a couple of research students – I have five, six now just taken a new one on – PhD students and I'll supervise their PhD work as well. So days are busy – filling the obligatory forms like research assessments and all these kinds of things that we have to do, so.
How much admin would you have to do?
Oh not much, about 20%. 15/20%. I've got a very light admin load I have to confess. But that's just how I would (……) anyway here. I can do too many other useful things really.
And as far as you – will you tell me a bit about what a PhD in creative writing is like?
Yeah, it can be many things I mean the one that's being viva'd tomorrow is the beginnings of an epic poem. And it has something around 35,000 word critical philosophical rationale on the adopted persona of the poet and the philosophical underpinning of the poetry from looking at people like Nietzsche and Hegel and these kind of things as well but normally the easy answer for the PhD in creative writing would be something around 40,000, 50,000 words. Normally with a 20,000 word critical exegesis on why decisions were made and their critical underpinning. And I'm supervising one at the moment on the kind of representation of drugs, alcohol and sex in teenage or young adult fiction. And she's writing a young adult novel to go with the research but if you search around there isn't a great deal on young adult fiction that's been written academically. So she's kind of between two stones at the moment. It's kind of ground breaking in that she's having to do a lot of research on people like Gilly Burchell, Melanie Burgess and people who are writing in that kind of vein. And at the same time with the kind of broad sociological understanding of teenagers. And teenage culture and you know the kind of debates that are going on at the moment about gangs and knives and sex and people trying to understand these things, where she said, what you have to understand is the culture; there's no point in saying knives are bad for you, everybody knows that. But you have to understand the culture of why people carry them or why people take drugs and these kinds of things as well.
Can you tell me what your work environment is like?
My work environment? Well we're sitting in my room at the moment and it's raining outside and the sun never shines in this room. But I don't work in this room very often. I come to this room – I mean I come to this room as an academic and to meet students and to attend meetings and that kind of thing. So this is a base for me to keep the books and the kind of stuff I don't want to keep at home. But if you called me this morning I would have been at my desk in my house at six o'clock this morning and sending e-mails and getting ready for the day and writing 500 words of a novel before breakfast or something like that. So I spend a lot of time at home and really because university conditions allow us to do this. In fact the Vice Chancellor before this Vice Chancellor once said to me 'what are you doing in today? Wednesday afternoon, no students in' because they're all out doing sports and stuff. And I said 'well I've got some bits and pieces' he said 'you've got meetings or something to go to?' and I said 'no' so 'why aren't you at home? I don't want you here, I don't want you sitting in your office, you could have been at home, and you'd get much more work done without having to think about travelling, and travelling back' and you'll be doing an hour's work when you're here, picking up your mail or something like that. So we organise life here in such a way that we try to get as much work as we can done elsewhere. Some people come into their office every single day and they find it productive. I come onto campus Mondays and Fridays at the moment because all my teaching's on a Monday, and all my teaching's on a Friday. And it means Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday I can stay at home and if anybody needs me usually we have research meetings on a Wednesday morning once a month or something so I come in Wednesday morning. But unless anybody needs me they come, they can call me at home, they can e-mail me, I always have my e-mails on constantly at home. So you can immediately respond to the needs.
I was away for a couple of days, I came back to about seven e-mails from students who have got final statements to be handed in … I dealt with them last night at about 10 o'clock. Nobody needed to come and see me. Nobody needed to sit and talk but they were encouraged to do so. I said to everybody else I'm coming in today if anybody had any last minute conversations or chats or anything like that. But we have office hours as well and the student I've just seen who's working on her finals dissertation came to see me for three quarters of an hour. And what she will do is she will send me 1000 words once a month or something and I will read it and then she'll come and see me for 15, 20 minutes during my office hours. So it works out fairly well.
Do you do your own creative writing, you say you do 500 before breakfast – is that usual?
It's normal for me. It's normal for me. I have two school children so I get up first thing in the morning and when you get to my advanced years Jessica then one of these days you'll realise that you need less sleep than you used to and you're awake by five and its summer and the birds are singing and its five thirty in the morning. You know you're awake. And most people think well I'll just go and have another hour or something whereas I get up and pour myself some Earl Grey tea and start working.
Sounds like a lovely life.
Well it is. (laughs) it's a lovely life, it is I mean it is yeah. And I don't live in […..] I live in another town so I'm not tied to the campus where you know, I have to drive here and it can take me a couple of hours to drive so yeah it is a lovely life. I get the kids off to school and then I don't see them again till three thirty so after breakfast when you're washed up and you've done all the work displacement stuff like the wiped the tops, hoovered the carpets and I go back to work by 10 o'clock. And I can spend another three or four hours writing, finishing off reports, marking, set up my day. And I can do that on the days I'm not teaching and the days I'm teaching I have different business.
The days I'm teaching in the university, meetings I have meetings tonight up till about nine o'clock cos we have lots of part-time students so you know I say 'well I'm going to be here, you come down at eight o'clock' and they're very grateful because pupils go to see (…) and families stuff. So no, no eight o'clock's fine if you want to come down and have a meeting for 20 minutes and stuff, so you can work it out really.
Do you feel that your PhD experiences equipped you to do the job you're doing now? And how does it?
Well the main thing is that my PhD has absolutely nothing to do with what I teach any more. I used to teach through 19th century literature in the English Department and I came as an English tutor. English in creative writing, not solely Creative Writing. If they had a slot and said 'look could you pick up 19th century fictions for us' I would say yes I could do that. Except that they don't ask me to do this any more. But when I was here and we started the MA in Creative Writing then they wanted us to go down the route of opening Creative Writing Art and so I'm now considered to be one of the Creative Writing bods although I'm still part of the English department.
But the one thing it has taught me – the biggest thing – that the great thing about a PhD as well is you have to be systematic and you have to get up in the morning and you have to say 'I've got another 2,000 words in my PhD to write' and so you get into the system of thinking it's just like a job. You get up, you have your breakfast, you get on the bus, you turn up at work at nine o'clock and you start and you don't finish until one o'clock when you have your lunch. And PhD was like that. I used to spend every single Friday in the British Library but you know some people would spend every day in the British Library and you think 'how can he be productive to spend every single day, five days a week, six days a week in the British Library'. But I get up, (…) get up the British Library for nine o'clock in the morning, spend an entire day in the British Library and the spend three or four days writing it up, then go up the following Friday and spend three or four days writing it up. So it's just getting that idea, methodical really. And that's how I tried to encourage my PhD students as well, is to get a methodical idea of what it is they're doing.