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Heather - freelance writer
Name: Heather
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: Self-employed writer; dyslexia support tutor; tutor in creative writing
Year of graduation: 2002
Date of Interview: 07/05/2008

Now Playing: Heather - freelance writer
Heather talks about her current role as a freelance writer.

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Can you tell me a little bit more about what you do now?

So now I am a freelance writer and I have an agent and I do a bit of journalism on the side and a bit of creative writing teaching and I do work with dyslexic adults a little bit as well but my main thing is I'm writing a book at the moment, my first major book and then I'm hoping that that will lead to a book every couple of years. So I'm basically freelance and I'm outside any institution and I'm very much sort of self-guided, self-motivated and self-disciplined and that's something the PhD really enabled me to develop the ability to do. I think it's a brilliant; it gave me an incredible opportunity to develop my ability to work on my own, to direct my own projects, to see them through, to write substantial amounts of text and to manage large documents, large kinds of projects, so it's actually really useful skills that I got from that which I've definitely taken into what I'm doing now.

Can you tell me on a day to day basis what your life is like?  Give me some taste of the variety in your life

So the book was commissioned and I had two years to submit the manuscript.

And did they pay some of that commission up-front?

Yes I had an advance up-front on the signature of contract and then I had another chunk of money from the contract on submission of three chapters so.

And was it enough money to mean that you didn't have to earn any other kind of income anywhere else?

It wasn't enough no. It was nearly enough but not quite enough so I applied for grants as well to pay for the research cos the first year of the work on the book was a research year so I applied for lots of funding and also worked part time doing creative writing workshops and some dyslexia support for graduates mainly in higher education, but mainly researching the book. I didn't start writing it 'til a year in so I got a grant to go to do lots of the research abroad which involved lots of travel so most of my time was spent researching in different libraries. I had to do a lot of reading and then after the year of research writing could begin, a mixture of research and writing. Now I'm in the process of writing up my research.

And how do you tend to structure your days?

It depends if I'm writing or researching.  If I'm researching I tend to work a kind of full eight hour day, a variety of research at home or in different libraries in London or where I live. And if I'm writing I tend to write in the mornings and tend to have a page limit a day so a daily goal of five pages a day so I tend to alternate between research weeks and writing weeks and then some weeks are editing so every day is different really. I don't really have a particular routine.

Do you write at home?

I write a mixture of at home and I like to travel so I quite often go abroad to write. I quite like writing in the library. I'll go to London sometimes to the British Library so I like to kind of vary it really.

What are the best things about being a freelance writer?

Well the best thing for me is being able to explore my imagination and that's what I really enjoy about my writing is it's very imaginative and it involves research and kind of engaging with history but in a really imaginative way. In a kind of almost a sort of all-the-five-senses kind of physical way. I'm trying to re-imagine history, re-imagine the past and write about it in a very sort of visceral way. So that's the thing I really enjoy about it. The particular project I'm working on at the moment I really love and I feel that my writing is just improving all the time and I'm becoming increasingly confident and it's a very unpredictable process as well. I can never predict quite where things are going to take me and that's what I like about it and what's very different about it to the PhD work is, the creative writing that I'm doing now although it's research and it's about the past it's very er flexible and it can go in all kinds of different directions so I don't really know sometimes. So I really enjoy that. I'm very much interested in working with visual artists and I've done a few little projects on the side with visual artists and I like doing collaborative work, that's something I'm kind of moving towards. I've done a project with a film maker and a project with a sculptor and I'm definitely interested in pursuing that in the future. And I've started teaching creative writing in a fine art college, teaching art students so that's a direction I'm very excited about. Obviously you're very self directed. It's very flexible; my days are completely my own so that's a really wonderful thing. Of course that's sometimes very difficult and the downside of being freelance is the insecurity, the financial insecurity, the fact that you've really got to shape your own time and be very self-disciplined and I'm learning how to do that and it's difficult sometimes and I need variety and I need to get out of the house and, you know, making all those things work I think are the hardest aspects of being a freelance writer. But I feel like I'm kind of getting there with it and I really like what I'm doing now. It's the right thing for me and it's the right thing and I am thinking of going back into universities maybe at some point in the future as a creative writing tutor and I'm now doing some part-time creative writing work in universities and I'm really enjoying that so I feel like maybe I'm going to end up back in an English faculty at some point in the creative writing department which is a growing field in Britain now. Very much a sort of growth area so, you never know, I might actually – the great thing is that I think having the PhD in English will really help me to get a job, a position as a creative writing tutor or lecturer if I wanted at some point. I think again it will resurface as an incredibly useful thing. It gives me that option. Obviously lots of tutors in creative writing at universities don't have PhDs, it's not necessary, but I think it would be helpful so I think it's going to serve me, be useful, forever. But if I don't, you know, it depends how my writing goes really, what kind of levels of advances I'm getting, what kind of sales are like will shape the future and whether I need to do it or whether I want to and I don't particularly like writing full-time I've discovered. I was fortunate to be able to do that with this book but I'd rather have some teaching and some other kinds of things that I do so the PhD has really kept my options open.

It's interesting that you didn't want to pursue an academic career and you are pursuing your creative interests but that you are mapping a future for yourself that has an academic context

Yes exactly. I think – potentially – it won't necessarily. But it's there potentially so it's nice to have that option and so, yeah, I have kept it as an, well it's re-emerged more recently. When I first finished the thesis and I was wanting to pursue my creative writing it was absolutely no way. I didn't want to be back in any kind of academic institution so it's all sort of more sort of resurfacing now as an option for the future not the immediate future but the longer term future so yeah it's definitely a possibility now I think in a way that it wasn't when I first finished the PhD. 

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