In “Sentenced to Fifteen Years: The Story of Creative Writing at Glasgow since 1995”, Willy Maley reflects on the Creative Writing Master’s at Glasgow University, which he co-founded with Philip Hobsbaum
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Willy Maley, a Consulting Editor of “The International Literary Quarterly” with effect from Issue 10 of the review, and who will be contributing an example of his prose to the “Glasgow Voices” feature to be included in Issue 10, has written the following piece to mark the 15th anniversary this year of the Creative Writing Master’s at Glasgow University, for publication in Interlitq:
SENTENCED TO FIFTEEN YEARS:
The Story of Creative Writing at Glasgow since 1995
By Willy Maley
First, a question: What is the connection between Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and Batman Begins? (Answer at the end.)
The Creative Writing Programme at Glasgow, now fifteen years old, was the brainchild of the late Philip Hobsbaum. Working from home as well as from the University, Philip acted as a mentor for new writers for thirty years – in London, Belfast and Glasgow – before persuading the University of Glasgow to support a pioneering Masters in Creative Writing as part of its postgraduate provision. The pre-history of the course is that long period when Philip acted as a mentor and motivator for student writers at Glasgow and for aspiring writers in the wider community.
Philip was a great believer in the group approach to writing, and a list of the writers who emerged from the groups he directed reads like a who’s who of contemporary literature. Writers associated with these earlier groups include Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, but those who proved most relevant to the Glasgow programme were Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead, Bernard MacLaverty and Tom Leonard. Philip had also, over the years, met informally and individually with many students who were aspiring authors, helping them refine their work, and steering them towards various editors, agents and publishers who were personal contacts.
In addition to Philip there were two other options for creative writing at Glasgow before the Masters course was launched. One was the Original Composition Honours submission, an option open to final year undergraduates. The other was the Creative Writing Fellow, part-funded by the Scottish Arts Council, and open to students across the University.
In 1995, the Masters in Creative Writing was launched at Glasgow University, with two students, twice the number with which East Anglia had piloted its Masters, when Ian McEwan flew solo. One of those two Glasgow guinea pigs, Landon J. Napoleon, went on to publish his first novel, Zigzag, in 1999 with Bloomsbury in London and Henry Holt in New York. Landon had a PhD in Applied Persistence and wrote to eighty-five agents in search of representation. At one point he faxed the front cover of USA Today when it featured a story that treated the topic of his novel based on the Big Brother mentoring scheme. Ironically, Philip Hobsbaum recommended the agent whose services he finally secured.
Subsequent students on the course have enjoyed considerable success, securing agents, being shortlisted for writing competitions, getting publishing deals. Many have been awarded writers’ bursaries from the Scottish Arts Council; several edit literary journals; and many have been publishing in a wide range of quality journals and magazines. Publishing successes have extended to essay writing, with several students finding publishers for their essays, and others having the opportunity to review for learned journals and the national press.
Glasgow’s postgraduate course was taught jointly with Strathclyde from 1998 until 2002, with Margaret Elphinstone, Zoe Wicomb, and Dilys Rose the tutors there. This necessary step taken upon the retirement of Philip Hobsbaum allowed for a fruitful interchange of ideas and synergetic sharing of resources. The Glasgow tutors at this time were Willy Maley, Rob Maslen and Adam Piette. Philip Hobsbaum’s vision in the long term was of a Centre for Creative Writing with professional writers at its heart, and for creative writing to be studied from the first year of an undergraduate degree straight through to a PhD. We have now had more than twenty former Creative Writing Masters students complete PhDs at Glasgow, including Booker shortlisted author Rachel Seiffert, and many more are following in their footsteps. The route from PhD to publication has been short. Two novels and a biography have already appeared: Rodge Glass, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography (Bloomsbury, 2008); Rachel Seiffert, Afterwards (Heinemann, 2007); Chiew-Siah Tei, Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes (Picador, 2008).
Alasdair Gray, a former member of a group run by Philip Hobsbaum, as well as a former Creative Writing Fellow and tutor at Glasgow, once compared the creative writing teacher to an usher, opening windows and doors and making sure that writers are comfortable and kept informed. He also refers to creative writing tutors as servants of the servants of art, the servants of art in this case being the Masters students. Gray concludes by saying: ‘Most groups exist without a unique person to form them. The members continue learning in these what schools and colleges start to teach and sometimes prevent: how to recognise our thoughts and feelings, and express them, and share them. The value of a writer’s group is in more than the few members who get published and famous.’
Since 1995, those who have put their energies into teaching Creative Writing at Glasgow have included Alan Bissett, Margaret Elphinstone, Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, Philip Hobsbaum, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Willy Maley, Rob Maslen, Kei Miller, Adam Piette, Andrew Radford, Elizabeth Reeder, Alan Riach, Dilys Rose, Michael Schmidt, and Zoe Wicomb, as well as former students-turned-tutors – or Masters-turned-servants –Laura Marney, Colette Paul, Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh. Robert Alan Jamieson deserves a special mention as a Creative Writing Fellow who, though he never taught directly on the Masters, was a huge inspiration to students on the course.
At Glasgow, Creative Writing students have been admitted primarily on the strength of their portfolio, rather than publication or a particular kind or class of degree. That’s why we’ve turned away published writers and students with first class degrees and even PhDs in order to bring in those whose work intrigues or surprises us. Our record on recruiting mature students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds is one of which we are rightly proud. Our knack for unearthing talent is part of the process of selection. Look down the list of new students for this session fifteen years from now and you might be looking at a Booker Prize Winner, or several writers of real distinction, or, just as important, you might be looking at a group of people who advanced their craft through graft over a year or two of intensive reading and writing. A community of artists can be a hard thing to come by for writers working in solitude, but the group approach to creative writing that Philip Hobsbaum pioneered, and his vision of a community with writers at its core – rather than just critics, although writers can also be critics, and often better critics than straight academics – is becoming more of a reality with each passing year and each new intake.
Philip believed strongly in the importance of a group ethos for writers. He told me back in 1995 that one day we’d see writers graduate from Glasgow and go on to be major figures. In fact he said one would win the Booker, and we came close within five or six years. In the few short years since the Creative Writing programme got underway we’ve had a whole posse of students picked up by Penguin, Picador, Canongate, Orion, Black Swan, Neil Wilson, Bloodaxe, Bloomsbury, Heinemann, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and in the States, Grove Press and Henry Holt. In the past year three of our graduates have won major prizes: Jen Hadfield won the T. S. Eliot Prize for her second poetry collection, Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008), Andrea McNicoll won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards 2009, in partnership with the Scottish Arts Council, for Moonshine in the Morning (Alma Books, 2008), and Eleanor Thom won the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award for her debut novel The Tin-Kin (Duckworth, 2009).
We can’t take all the credit for the writers who pass through our portals because often they’ve come to us prepared and polished from groups they’ve participated in or even ran outside the University – Glasgow is a city rich in writers – or they’ve been mentored by established authors, a thing that successful figures do out of a spirit of generosity and shared creativity. We in the University have as much to learn from writers, as we have to teach.
Back to my opening trivia quiz question. I asked what the connection was between Creative Writing at Glasgow and Batman Begins. The screenwriter for Batman Begins (2005) is David S. Goyer, who also wrote the screenplay for – and directed – ZigZag, the adaptation of the debut novel by Landon J. Napoleon, the first student on the Glasgow Creative Writing course to publish a book. Zigzag was published by Bloomsbury (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in 1999, and filmed in 2002 under the same title, starring Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo, Natasha Lyonne, and Oliver Platt. The tagline for the movie was: ‘One wrong turn is all it takes.’ Landon says the first draft of the screenplay dropped through the post six weeks after Goyer agreed to do it. The novel took a little longer, and what ended in Hollywood started life right here on Gilmorehill. Intriguingly, Batman Begins is also a film about mentoring. One right turn is all it takes. Those who decide to pursue Creative Writing at Glasgow have taken that turn. Welcome to the Bookmobile.
Fifty books published by graduates of the Creative Writing Masters at Glasgow:
Nicola Barry, Mother’s Ruin (Headline, 2007)
Nick Brooks, My Name is Denise Forrester (Orion, 2004)
Nick Brooks, The Good Death (Orion, 2006)
Ann Burnett, Loving Mother (Ladybug Publications, 2008).
Lynsey Calderwood, Cracked (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002)
Karen Campbell, The Twilight Time (Hodder and Stoughton, 2008)
Karen Campbell, After the Fire (Hodder and Stoughton, 2009)
Jason Donald, Choke Chain (Jonathan Cape, 2009)
Anne Donovan, Hieroglyphics (Canongate, 2001)
Anne Donovan, Buddha Da (Canongate, 2002)
Anne Donovan, Being Emily (Canongate, 2008)
Rodge Glass, No Fireworks (Faber, 2005)
Rodge Glass, Hope for Newborns (Faber, 2008)
Rodge Glass, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Jen Hadfield, Almanacs (Bloodaxe Books, 2005)
Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe Books, 2008)
Mandy Haggith, Letting Light In (Essence Press, 2005)
Mandy Haggith, Castings (Two Ravens Press, 2007)
Mandy Haggith, The Last Bear (Two Ravens Press, 2008)
Mandy Haggith, Paper Trails: From Trees to Trash – The True Cost of Paper (Virgin Books/Random House, 2008)
Shug Hanlan, Hi Bonnybrig (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2000)
Jenn McCartney, Afloat (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2006)
Carol McKay and Eileen Munro, As I Lay Me Down To Sleep (Mainstream, 2008)
Andrea McNicoll, Moonshine in the Morning (Alma Books Ltd, 2008)
Laura Marney, No Wonder I Take a Drink (Black Swan, 2004)
Laura Marney, Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby (Black Swan, 2005)
Laura Marney, Only Strange People Go To Church (Black Swan, 2006)
Laura Marney, My Best Friend Has Issues (Black Swan, 2008)
Alison Miller, Demo (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2005)
Maureen Myant, The Search (Alma Books, 2009)
Will Napier, Summer of the Cicada (Jonathan Cape, 2005)
Landon J. Napoleon, Zigzag (Bloomsbury/Henry Holt, 1999). Filmed as ZigZag (Columbia Tristar, 2002, dir: David Goyer).
Landon J. Napoleon, The Spirit Warrior’s Handbook: A Practical Guide to Finding True Freedom (iUniverse Inc, 2005)
Ben Obler, Javascotia (Hamish Hamilton, 2009)
Colette Paul, Whoever You Choose to Love (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004)
Rachel Seiffert, The Dark Room (Heinemann, 2001)
Rachel Seiffert, Field Study (Heinemann, 2004)
Rachel Seiffert, Afterwards (Heinemann, 2007).
Alastair Sim, Rosslyn Blood (Publish America, 2004)
Alastair Sim, The Unbelievers (Snowbooks, 2009)
Mary Smith, No More Mulberries (Youwrite.com, 2009)
Zoe Strachan, Negative Space (Picador 2002)
Zoe Strachan, Spin Cycle (Picador, 2004)
Chiew-Siah Tei, Little Hut Of Leaping Fishes (Picador, 2008)
Eleanor Thom, The Tin-Kin (Duckworth, 2009)
Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room (Canongate, 2002)
Louise Welsh, Tamburlaine Must Die (Canongate, 2004)
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick (Canongate, 2006)
Graeme Williamson, Strange Faith (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2001)