I’m sure most of us would baulk at the idea of a PhD right now; the thought of doing a dissertation in a year’s time is almost too much for me. So, what about writing a PhD alongside a novel which went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? That is the reality for University of York student Fiona Mozley, who became the second youngest author to be shortlisted for the award, with her debut novel Elmet.
Fiona went to Cambridge University and lived in London after graduating, whilst working for literary agency Artellus Limited. It was on a train on her way home from visiting her parents in York that she found her setting for the novel. Elmet is the story of Danny, his sister Cathy and their father, living in Yorkshire in a house built by their own hands. It is a breath-taking novel about land and ownership, masculinity and family. Elmet presents an interesting dichotomy; the political theme of austerity speaks to a very current economic concern, whilst the tone of the writing is lyrically timeless, evocative of the medieval land that the title is derived from. Fiona told me that was her intention. “It’s lucky for me, but not for society, that things have only deteriorated since I wrote it, so it’s become more topical.”
Fiona moved back to York to complete her PhD which is concerned with medieval landscape in literature, and when I asked if she missed living in the capital, she said , “It gave me a sense that I wanted to do something with my life. People in London are constantly striving, and that competitive environment was useful. I saw all my peers going on to do these amazing things and I though, what am I going to do?”
Elmet was the first piece of fictional writing that Fiona had ever finished, and she wrote most of it without telling any of her friends or family. With that in mind, I was fascinated to learn more about her creative process. Her top piece of advice for aspiring novelists was, “Just take your time. Be aware that a novel gets written a sentence at a time. If, on a particular day, you can only write one sentence, it’s still progress in the right direction. Don’t be overwhelmed with despair, just keep going and piece it together.” Fiona had previously attempted a novel based on her own group of friends and said that she found it hard to work on because it was so close to her own life. “It stifles things. I was writing thinking that I couldn’t say that because it didn’t happen. If you’re not writing about yourself then you can be more creative. Also, I think it’s important that we have books which aren’t about well educated middle class people in their early twenties!”
When I wondered if she thought now was a good time to be a new writer, Fiona looked thoughtful. “It’s made very difficult because of economic pressures. It seems so vulgar to talk about the financial aspect, but it’s very difficult to take a risk and devote so much time to writing when it may never happen, and you may be poor for the rest of your life. But there’s also so much content. In terms of the political situation, there’s a lot to talk about.”
Elmet was published under John Murray Originals, who focus on unique new voices, with an emphasis on taking a risk with writers who they like but don’t think will necessarily be commercially viable. Before that, Fiona had sent Elmet to a variety of publishers and entered it into multiple writing competitions, without success. She was refreshingly encouraging and honest about the process of getting published. “Publishers have a business to run; they might be rejecting you for a whole host of reasons. It might be that they think it’s good but it’s not for them personally, or that it doesn’t fit with their list, or that it’s not the right year. It’s important to bear that in mind.” Fiona added that she would like to see an expansion of major publishers over the country, given that the ‘Big Five’ are all based in London. “I think it would make for a healthier literary culture. I’m really interested to see the development of smaller publishers in the North of England.”
Fiona works part time in The Little Apple Bookshop in York and is a firm advocate that the printed word is here to stay. “We look at screens all day and I think books are a welcome break from that. Literature, whether it’s poetry or fiction, is an intervention in the world and that intervention is more real when it’s something tactile. I think all of these technologies are wonderful and the kindle has a really important place to make reading portable, but it’s also worth remembering the importance of the physical object as a cultural object.” It’s a fantastically positive reinforcement for the written word, reminding me of the wealth of independent bookshops in York that should be taken advantage of.
If there is any current role model for aspiring writers, it’s Fiona Mozley. Already working on her next novel as she balances her PhD part time, she is living proof that a passion and dedication to writing can pay off in unimaginable ways.