Balancing a writing career

 16 May 2012

Louise Doughty has written six novels, a non-fiction book, five radio plays, works as a critic and coach, and has been a judge for the Man Booker prize. She spoke about her career in literature.

Louise Doughty is a novelist, playwright and critic.
Louise Doughty is a novelist, playwright and critic.

Louise's career arc is testament to the resourcefulness of the contemporary writer. As well as being a successful novelist, she has presented BBC Radio 4’s book programme, A Good Read, been theatre critic for the Mail on Sunday, and written the innovative 'A Novel in a Year' column on the Daily Telegraph.

In 2008, she served on the judging panel of the Man Booker prize for fiction, and she also teaches creative writing to a wide variety of students and beginners.

Starting out as a writer

Louise read English Literature at university. Her first calling was to the theatre ("I wanted to be Glenda Jackson") but she decided that her real calling was writing. From that moment on, she pursued her dream with, "an almost religious conviction".

After writing a "consummately awful" novel while unemployed, she enrolled on the Creative Writing Masters course at the University of East Anglia, while Malcolm Bradbury and the late Angela Carter were running it. This was the hothouse that produced Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, among others.

"I feel good about being part of such a thriving literary culture."

"I got really taken to pieces there, but it was a nice time in the course’s history. There wasn’t a pressure-cooker atmosphere, which made you feel more protected. It all worked on the principle of peer assessment."

Louise is now the author of six novels: Crazy Paving, Dance with Me, Honey-dew, Fires in the Dark, Stone Cradle and Whatever You Love, which was short-listed for the Costa Novel Award and long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction.

Getting support for writing

Many people imagine that a novel manuscript is a precious document that can only be seen by an agent and an editor. This isn't the case for Louise, who uses friends and experts to support her work.

"I typically have about six readers. Two are the same for each book: a novelist friend who runs The Writing Coach website, and another who’s about to become a priest. I then have specialist readers, chosen on the basis of the novel’s subject-matter."

'Whatever You Love' was read by policemen, a doctor and an asylum officer, all helpful in their fields, but also demonstrated surprising responsiveness as literary critics.

This connection to external reality is important for Louise. She isn’t one of those writers who draws the blinds and disconnects the phone while working on a book.

"I would probably finish novels more quickly if I didn’t have other work. Even a one-off journalistic piece can take weeks. But I do wonder whether going into purdah doesn’t damage the art.

"You have to remain engaged with the outside world. The danger is that you end up writing one of those novels that’s essentially about a novelist writing a novel.

"People in my novels have jobs and worry about money. A review of my second novel said, 'Louise Doughty writes about people who don’t usually get written about', and I’m so proud of that."

Being part of the literary world

Louise participates wholeheartedly in the festival circuit, with Edinburgh her dream date.

"I love talking to readers. I understand some authors find it difficult, especially if they’ve been hiding in a hole for years to produce a book, but I love it. I like reading my work to audiences.’

"Go out there, get a job, get your heart broken, be prepared to lose everything. I like people who have complex lives."

She is also enthusiastic about awards, although acknowledges that the short-term effect on an author’s self-esteem can be damaging.

"It is possible to feel that, unless you’ve been long-listed for something, you’re dead in the water, which is nonsense. It isn’t the be-all and end-all.

"But judging a prize is certainly good for a novelist because you get such a sense of perspective on the whole process. I thought the [Booker] standard was incredibly high. It made me feel genuinely good about being part of such a thriving literary culture."

Teaching writing to others

As a writer whose early career owed a lot to tuition, Louise Doughty has now become a writing coach.

"I do a lot of teaching on residential courses with the Arvon Foundation, and those are not selective. It’s first come, first served, from somebody who may already have had three novels published to the little old lady who’s turning to writing for the first time.

"I’m also teaching a six-month course that is selective, and where I’ve personally approved everybody who’s on the course, because they have talent and ability already.

"They’re all unpublished, but they’re the sorts of students who might be doing a Creative Writing MA or working in copywriting, even the film industry. They all have interesting lives, and have something to write about.

"In the course of my teaching, I meet significant numbers of students, good writers, who would have got published even 15 years ago, but who can’t get published now."

She regrets that, even given her work in tuition, she can’t act as any kind of gatekeeper. "Unpublished writers tend to see published writers as somehow part of the industry, in a way that we know we aren’t at all."

Louise's advice to would-be writers is to, "Go out there, get a job, get your heart broken, be prepared to lose everything. I like people who have complex lives.

"Make sure that, if you’re writing a novel about three people in a house, it’s because you want to write about those people, not because you can’t think of anything else."

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