You want to be a ‘writer’. You don’t really know how to go about it. You’ve had to tell your dad you’re not going to do his job so you better learn the method for actually becoming one fast.
The first method is to find a subject that’s commercially viable. People usually want to read about vampires so you could definitely write something about them. Jane Lovering has recently started writing about erotically-charged vampires in the York area and she’s been selling a lot of books so obviously there’s money to be made here.
The second approach is to write what you want to write – the tales you believe you can tell as genuinely original entities. The writing you think will have a massive impact. The narratives you think will send people into a bewildered emotional frenzy.
Nicholas Royle, a short story writer, novelist and creative writing professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, falls gracefully into the second category. Royle’s stories baffle and at the same time thrill, something vampire fiction only manages to a lesser extent. He’s been contributing to different magazines for decades and writing what he can, when he can. He writes on arguably taboo topics that he really cares about, like mental illness and sexuality.
In one of his short stories, a hypochondriac walks through Manchester, fighting to erase a dotted line that he thinks is etched onto his neck. Another features a man who saves a goal for the first time, but ends up literally frozen in that moment.
I went to meet Royle in a giant, prison-like building on the MMU campus. As I meander into the marrow-melting midden of his office, I was acutely aware of my own imprisonment.
I start by trying to find out how he wants the readers to react to his output. “A lot of people who read my stories think, ‘I enjoyed that but I don’t really know what’s going on.’ That’s fine, because for every five people who react like that, there’ll be one who will genuinely appreciate it.” Royle believes in saying little and letting the readers figure it out for themselves.
How hard was it to get started? “My dad was a no-nonsense Manchester man”, he tells me. “I showed him my early stories and my first couple of novels and I don’t think he was greatly impressed. I carried on, and I didn’t let that discourage me. People who want to write stuff that might be considered ‘niche’ need to write it.”
This is a powerful message. Royle is a shining example of how the trend of trying to ‘second-guess’ the market should stop. How many authors have written something genuinely worthwhile just to fit into the market?
I’m interested, then, in how Royle manages to get his stuff out, and how well-received his stuff was at first. “I show stories to like-minded friends. I sent stories to editors and kept being rejected. You just have to carry on. I wrote eighteen stories before I sold my first one, but once you’ve sold one it’s easier.”
“It didn’t bother me if I kept getting knocked back. I believed in what I was doing, and among my immediate friends I liked what they were doing and they liked what I was doing. That was enough encouragement.”
So Nick has a definitive set of contacts. He thinks about them rather than a mute, faceless market that we’re constantly told to think about. I press the issue and wonder how he came to have a circle of people who adored his occasionally kooky ideas and vice-versa.
“Some of it was bumping into people and becoming friends with them. I worked in the same office as a guy called Michael Marshall-Smith and we were writing very similar short stories. I was published by this stage and he wasn’t. We showed each other our stories and I decided that his were brilliant and very publishable. I decided to set up my own press and create an anthology called Darklands, based on a few more people I met.”
So Royle was very lucky. Smith’s story in the anthology is about a woman literally wrapping her mother up. He’s a writer who has a similar tone and style to Royle’s work, a similar emotional dissonance. Yet Royle met him purely by accident: he happened to work in the same office as him a while ago.
Royle managed to run into like-minded people wherever he went, seeing that he’d probably be able to bring them together. He managed to create a ‘movement’ purely from incidental encounters.
I guess I try to pinpoint where he gets his ideas from without asking a silly, direct question. I see he has a David Lynch poster ominously hanging up, and adduce masterfully that he is interested in surrealism. “I’m hugely influenced by surrealism. It’s my favourite movement in art, in painting, in film and literature, but particularly paintings. I’ve written two novels about the French surrealist Paul Delvaux. I wrote to him once and he sent me a postcard of one of his paintings, but I hung it directly in the sunlight and all the ink faded.”
Royle travels everywhere and walks endlessly to get his ideas. His stories take place in Paris, Birmingham, the South of France, Amsterdam… Royle’s wanderings are the heart and soul of his stories.
His stories seem like bizarre caricatures of very real experiences. He tells me more about ‘Kingyo No Fun’, his story set in Amsterdam. “It was based on a weekend I spent there in the company of Will Self and a bunch of artists and writers.”
“I take my research very seriously and if I’m going to write about somewhere, I go there. Normally, it’s the other way around.” Royle goes on holiday somewhere and a story just clicks. “When I moved to London I became known as a ‘London writer’.”
Royle has talked about his writing career and I ask him reluctantly about his academic career. Neither of us really want to talk about it. “I love teaching creative writing, but that’s quite distinct from the boring stuff. I love giving advice to good writers.”
Royle sometimes weaves the rigmaroles of academia into his work. “There’s a lot of the boring stuff in some of my work. I have a meeting to go to soon, and I know that I will sit there for two hours, contribute nothing and hear almost nothing that is relevant to the job. It kills me.”
So Royle uses his academic life to the best of his abilities. To form circles, to help aspiring writers, even every now and again as an impetus for fiction, just like he uses other apparently disconnected circumstances he’s been forced into in his life. Unemployed, working a boring job at Pizza Express, studying at university: Royle does not neglect any of these experiences and tosses them all colourfully into his work. Royle constantly puts himself out there and doesn’t give up writing what he wants to write. He believes in experience.
If you don’t believe in stories about depraved city-dwellers, and you prefer stories about people having their blood drained in the cubicles of Kuda, that’s okay. But it is easy to appreciate the lesson that Royle imparts: get a literary idea and act on it in whatever way you can. After all, the future will decide what books really challenged and influenced people, not the Amazon bestsellers list.
Royle’s recent novel, First Novel (it’s not his first novel) was called ‘a finely honed work of sophisticated gaming’ by The Telegraph. Check it out.