What started you off as a writer?
I was eight years old, and living on the island of Corsica. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture, and half my family was across the globe. So I was very much on ‘the outside’ (a place I often still inhabit). My aunt, also a writer, sent me a massive box of books. I still remember opening them! So I read. And I wrote plays (my grandmother’s plays were also in that box)—but mine were awful. And that was the start. Writing for me was both a way in and a way out.
Do you have a writing routine? A dedicated space for your writing?
Routine for me as a writer comes and goes. I try to do #100daysofwriting when I can or the ‘cheat’ version, #50daysofwriting. I’m part of two writing groups—one international and digital, the Fiction Forge; the other local, ‘Sixers’, which I co-founded whilst on the Manchester MA at Centre for New Writing. These help keep me honest. When I’m ‘writing’, though, anything ‘counts’—stories I’m on, my current novel, or an academic article. I get to count marketing too, things like this…
I don’t have a dedicated space—my office is in the corner of my room. I take my laptop to where I most feel I can work that day.
You have a day job as an academic. How does your writing dovetail with that?
I do! It is tough securing an academic job as a writer. I teach Creative Writing at the University of Salford, where I’ve worked since 2019, two years after completing my PhD. I take nothing for granted. Writing whilst teaching is not an easy game. I try to write when I know I can produce, and then I try to give my students everything else I can. In the classroom, it’s not about me—it’s about them.
Could you tell us a little about Creative Writing in the academy?
I suppose you could say it may not always be the most commercial brand of writing that we teach in the academy. I can say that as I worked for a top literary magazine in the US and they wouldn’t publish, it’s fair to say, many students producing work in a university setting. Some editors say that writing can’t be taught. I’m not sure I fully agree. I think the practice of writing can be taught and craft can be taught—and I’m very committed to sharing that kind of approach to my students. Focusing on reading is something I’m pretty committed to as well. If you want to write well, you have to read! A lot.
Tell us more about the range of your writing.
I write fiction, non-fiction, hybrid prose and poetry. I also write academic articles. My projects vary based on what I’m next trying to ‘get out’. I work on some things for an age. That included Dry River!
And now about Dry River. What sparked the basic idea for that?
I was sweeping my kitchen one day—a very domestic task—whilst my kids were still young, and I realized no one had written a contemporary version of Wallace Stegner’s The Angle of Repose, published in 1971. I had read the novel literally as we moved across country to California. During the 2008 global crash, as I watched neighbours lose homes to foreclosure, I knew I had a story to tell. I suppose too my (co-authored) non-fiction book considered the profound effects of deindustrialisation through the lens of one woman worker. So I was very interested in the effects of economic change on people’s lives. I definitely sensed a zeitgeist moment when I first wrote the novel. The dryness of California’s landscape, as well as its economy, helped me to shape the novel’s sense of place.
Can you tell us something about your writing process for this novel?
I wrote the first draft of Dry River in something like 24 days on a dare from a friend. It was November 2008 and we were doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I got down the bare bones. An Elizabeth George Foundation grant enabled me to work on some pages with editor Tom Jenks. That’s when I realised how much work there was yet to do!
We came to the UK figuring I would ‘knock out’ the revision in a year on the MA. No such luck! I was able to work on it for my dissertation. And in summer of 2013, I was lakeside, with my kids in Camp, and did the ‘Michigan rewrite’, day and night for three weeks. Then I put it on the shelf for the PhD.
In 2016, I asked a good friend and editor, Olga Zilberbourg, to read it for me. I asked her if I should shelve it permanently. She said, ‘No!’—and that it was ‘New York-agent worthy’.
As an inaugural Artist in Residence in 2019 at John Rylands Research Institute, I started sending out the novel, this time seriously. Two years later, it still wasn’t picked up. Editor Kitty Walker helped me re-think its structure. Bridge House Publishing took it on and then you helped me take it over the line: your feedback enabled me to correct imbalances that had been in the novel for quite some time!
I suppose, crucially, I never stopped believing in the book. Jeanette Winterson at Manchester posed that question to me in 2013, ten years ago. And I kind of knew then that I couldn’t let the book go.
It’s been out now for a few days. Have you had any feedback yet?
A few days after the soft release, I got an Instagram message from extended family in the States. She told me she’d gotten both the Kindle and the paperback on order and that she couldn’t put it down. The time stamp was some ungodly hour. So I knew it was having an impact on readers.
Without giving any spoilers can you tell us something about your main character?
As a public defender, Sara Greystone is committed to fairness; but in some ways, she struggles with it in her own life. Her imperfection and that of her husband (and fellow protagonist), Tye Bradshaw, are some of what make the novel work. They are just ‘muddling through’, as we’d say here in Britain, in an awful economy. And their struggle, I think, is something many readers can relate too, especially in our current economy. Novelist Ian McGuire—who kindly endorsed the novel—captures this when he said that the novel explores ‘the complex forces, both private and public, that bind people together and pull them apart’. Economies can do that, and other factors too. I won’t say more!
How do you think it suits the Feisty Women imprint?
Sara is definitely a ‘feisty woman’! So I was thrilled when Bridge House Publishing picked up the novel. It seemed a clear match. I only learned the night of the launch at the Burgess Foundation (2 June 2023) that mine was the first novel in the series (after, of course, your Schellberg Cycle)!