Xan Brooks is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster, and at the end of his term as Falmouth University’s Writer in Residence. In this interview, Xan talks about his experience in the role, his relationship with Cornwall and what he’s been working on.
So, your time as Writer in Residence has sadly come to an end. Have you enjoyed it?
Absolutely. People tend to imagine the writer’s life as being this idyllic, creative existence where you’re well fed and looked after, you gaze wonderingly out at the sea and occasionally gather to discuss books and art with like-minded individuals. I’m happy to tell them it’s nothing like that at all. Except, it turns out, when you’re the Writer in Residence at Falmouth. Then it’s exactly like that.
What has been the best part of being Writer in Residence?
The most fulfilling part of the residency has been spending time with the students. It didn’t feel like a teaching environment; it felt like a working environment. I’m impressed by them – not simply by the standard of the work, which is excellent, but by their intelligence, curiosity and outlook on life. They have their priorities right. They’re writing because they have something to say, not to show off that they’re writers. I’m going to miss them.
We were doing opening lines the other day and I was loftily explaining why Hemmingway is the master of concision. Why there was one superfluous word in this opening line that an editor could get rid of, and they disagreed, saying ‘no, it was absolutely necessary’. It’s good to be called up on that.
It’s very nice for my ego to go in and say things and have everyone nod and agree and take a note, but it’s actually much healthier for them to come back and say, ‘no, you’re wrong’. It’s better. [This has been] a total learning experience for me. And that’s how it should be.
Have you enjoyed working in Cornwall?
My relationship with Cornwall is a pretty fleeting one, but it’s one of those places where I always wished to have the opportunity to spend more time. So, it’s been great to do that.
I started a book well over ten years ago now, here in Cornwall. A friend had a friend, who had a cousin, who had a dog, who had a cat, who owned a little fisherman’s cottage over in Portloe. I had the use of that for a week, maybe two, and I came down on my own and sat in this tiny little one-bed cottage and wrote. The book that came out was a total disaster and never went anywhere – it’s dead – but those two weeks in Cornwall were absolutely terrific.
It felt like a really galvanising, enriching place to work. The smack of the sea air. I slept better than I had in years. And then wrote through the day. It’s the cliché: you can understand why so many writers and painters come down here. The light has a sort of intoxicating and cleansing effect and it encourages, sharpens the senses.
Having begun a bad, failed, dead novel in Cornwall twelve, fifteen years ago, it’s quite nice to come back to begin what will hopefully be a living, good novel. My second novel.
I think Falmouth is a good environment to work in. If the town were less nice, it would be even better. I’ve managed to write four chapters, which isn’t too bad. But I’ve also browsed in a lot of shops, sat in a lot of cafes and been to a lot of pubs. That’s Falmouth’s fault – it kept distracting me.
What else have you been working on during your residency?
The main thing is that Falmouth has this collaboration with National Trust publishing, which is in itself connected to the South by Southwest Festival, which goes to a different venue every year. This is the third year that Falmouth have done this with the National Trust.
The first was Wyl Menmuir, writing about Cheddar Gorge. The second was Holly Corfield-Carr [writing a collection of poetry about East Soar in Devon]. This year I’ve been doing the Penrose Estate. The story is called Savage Lonely Cornish Homes. It’s a tale of modern-day Cornwall – very nearly a romp – set in and around Penrose. We’re really excited about it.
We had eight fantastic Falmouth University artists pitch to do the illustrations and we have just about managed to decide on one. The National Trust are publishing the book in the summer, so it’s a light-speed turnaround, almost like being back in journalism again.
The [MA in Professional Writing] students are helping to edit it and we’re going to see it through to production. It’s all part of the publishing side of the MA.
Now, at the end of your journey as Writer in Residence, do you have any final pieces of advice for aspiring writers? Your top three tips, perhaps?
Three tips for an aspiring writer?
- Don’t blow your ideas by yakking about them to your mates.
- Write a story as though it has already been told – that way you avoid a lot of laborious exposition.
- Don’t panic when the stuff you write isn’t as brilliant as you’d hoped. Only bad writers think that all their writing is good.
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