Working in creative nonfiction

 22 March 2011

Creative nonfiction is a relatively new literary genre. Though its popularity is growing, as is the critical respect afforded to it. Author John Osborne spoke about his work.

John Osborne is author of two books published by Simon&Schuster.
John Osborne is author of two books published by Simon&Schuster.

Creative nonfiction as a genre

As with many genres, the definition of 'creative nonfiction' is relatively fluid. Broadly speaking, if a piece of writing centres around a factual narrative, yet the author also applies poetic, theatrical or humorous techniques to the composition, then the work can be characterised as creative nonfiction.

Subcategories of the genre often include traditionally non-literary forms, such as food writing, documentary essays or travelogues.

Striking the balance between the factual expectations inherent in these subcategories and the author’s desire to construct a work of literary merit can occasionally lead to controversy. For example, the profile of the genre was raised dramatically when claims emerged that James Frey’s bestselling book ‘A Million Little Pieces’ included fabricated events and characters.

John Osborne, author of two books published by Simon&Schuster, spoke to Choices about his journey in the industry and hopes for the future.

The motivation to be a writer

Many people think they have ‘a good book in them’. Very few, on the other hand, manage to translate this into actual composition. What point does a writer become sure they wish to follow this career path? John cites an early sense that the lifestyle appealed to him greatly:

"I spent a lot of my time doing what I pictured writers did. I drank red wine, listened to loud music, read lots, and filled notebook after notebook.”

“I first wanted to be a writer when I watched Roald Dahl being interviewed on Going Live one Saturday morning. He was in his shed, which is where he wrote all of his work. I loved that image, the solitude and imagination.”

For John, this appeal gradually evolved into what became the beginnings of his practice - a hobby that eventually ended up defining his academic choices:

“I always used to write things, would always have a notebook I was writing things in. I used to write little stories about an imaginary football team. It was only when I started university (University of East Anglia) that I started to take writing seriously. 

"If it hadn't been that injection of creativity by the people I met at university I'd probably still be writing about the imaginary football team.”

Beginning a writing career

Even though he wrote a great deal within the education system, it was outside of these confines that John began to make strides towards becoming a working author. In his case, the transition began in Vienna:

“I only worked about 15 hours a week, so in my free time I tried to turn writing from a hobby into a career, or at least see how far I could get. I spent a lot of my time doing what I pictured writers did. I drank red wine, listened to loud music, read lots, and filled notebook after notebook.”

Like most writers, John’s next move was not toward instant success and recognition, instead, the process was gradual. Like many others, finding an agent was a crucial step:

“I tried to get the novel published - it was rejected by about ten publishers. I was still in touch with my friends from university, who were starting to get book deals themselves, and really hoped that would happen to me too. Then I had the idea, wrote three chapters of it and approached an agent, she really liked the idea and asked to see more.”

Selling your book to publishers

“The most difficult challenge is working out what happens next, trying to pitch new ideas, hampered by uncertain economic times."

Having an agent is only the first step, albeit a vital one. In order to sell, or ‘pitch’, your book to potential publishers, both the subject matter and the style have to have a distinct and identifiable appeal.

Creative nonfiction proved a great outlet for John’s talents:

“My first book was called ‘Radio Head, up and down the dial of British radio’. Every chapter focused on a different radio station, from the big stations such as Radio 1, Five Live, Classic FM, through to local and community radio”

“The Newsagent's Window, adventures in a world of second-hand cars and lost cats’ was published in 2010. This is about the community of people who buy and sell things in newsagents' windows.”

Both books were well received upon publication, getting complimentary coverage in a number of prominent newspapers, magazines and radio shows.

Despite the relatively sort time that has passed since the publication of his first book, John sees the market as shifting rapidly, something which will inevitably come to influence potential writers and their work:

“Obviously most companies are struggling these days, and particularly with publishing there doesn't seem a willingness to take a risk on new talent, which is understandable, but a shame.

"At the same time is the rise of the ebook and the Kindle, and there's a lot of uncertainty about that and how it will affect the way people buy and read books.”

A career in writing

Unless your work finds a truly massive international readership, writing is often a poorly paid career. Many authors write part time and supplement their income in other ways. John’s career has not been immune to these common concerns.

“The big challenge is money. It's rare I've been able to write full time, only for about 6 months when I was starting my second book have I had that luxury.”

Despite this, John finds that his passion remains undimmed. Faced with challenges, uncertainty and a shifting market, certain experiences and memories provide more than enough incentive to continue.

“The most difficult challenge I think is right now, to be honest, working out what happens next, trying to pitch new ideas, hampered by these uncertain economic times. But my love of writing hasn't changed.

"I remember recording a poem for Colin Murray's Radio 1 show. I was in the pub with some friends that night, but at 10.30 I sneaked off, walked through town with my headphones on, listening to the poem I had recorded, and then to Colin Murray saying how much he had enjoyed reading my book that afternoon. That was pretty special.”


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