Life after lit pix
For years, Susan Greenhill was one of the most familiar faces on the publishing scene as, Nikon at the ready, she chronicled life in the book trade. Lately she has swapped a camera for a pen, and this month she makes her debut as a published author.Once upon a time, like Alice, I found a rabbit hole, and clutching my camera I fell into the wonderland of publishing. And there I stayed for the next 30 years, photographing book events and authors.
It was an exciting time. There were numerous dazzling book launch parties, we all drank champagne, and Joan Collins was invited to everything. It had its own fair share of Mad Hatters and Queens. New publishing companies were opening. I covered the launches of Bloomsbury and Simon & Schuster in London. I took portraits of Margaret Thatcher for HarperCollins. I flew to the Ritz in Madrid for David Beckham's launch. I was at Hay-on Wye in its earliest years for the Sunday Times. Later, I had a weekly picture column of literary events on the Saturday Times.
Perhaps it was more like being in heaven than in wonderland. I had the best job in the world. But I got older, and as the economy worsened, publishing became - perhaps - less fun, more finance-driven. So almost three years ago I gave up photography and went to Birkbeck, taking a one-year post-grad course in Creative Writing, and then a two-year MA. My final work has to be in by the end of the month: 15,000 words of creative writing, and a 3,000-word essay. But it has been another wonderland, and I have loved every minute of it.
The course is run by Russell Celyn Jones. Toby Litt, Benjamin Wood, Julia Bell, and Jeremy Sheldon, all published writers, as well as by playwright Colin Teevan. In my second term I took a playwriting module with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who was the first woman to have a play performed on the main stage at the National Theatre. This year I did a poetry module taught by Liane Strauss, a glamorous American published poet, highly rated by Clive James.
I went to classes at the college one evening a week. For the rest of the week I did my homework. I wrote stories, plays, poems, and read voraciously. We emailed our homework to our tutors and classmates, who gave invaluable feedback. I became obsessed. My flat is falling to pieces, the windows filthy, my clothes shabby, my friends have forgotten who I am, and my relationship with my partner, the writer Andrew Lycett, has disintegrated to the occasional grunt. And there is nothing in our fridge.
Although I had done some copywriting in a previous life, written newspaper articles, and won a pen in one of the weekly Spectator Competitions, at Birkbeck I found my writing "voice". I am never going to be another Virginia Woolf or Henry James, but I could be a rival for Pam Ayres, or perhaps become today's P G Wodehouse or Anthony Powell - without the balls.
Joanna Trollope said in the Guardian recently that no one should write until after 35, because she feels that writers need life experience. My years as a photographer have certainly influenced my writing. I've been to places, and met people, that I would never have had access to without my camera. Photography taught me to see. And hanging around at book events gave me plenty of opportunity to stand and stare, watch how people behave and move, notice what they are wearing and carrying. And eavesdropping has proved enormously beneficial with writing realistic dialogue!
I have met an enormously diverse and interesting collection of people of all ages on the course. Sometimes our only point in common is our love of books and desire to write well. Some people are born writers, but most of us who want to write benefit from being taught the technical skills. As well as weekly classes, and one-to-one tutorials, we had a wide range of lectures, including ones on writing style, digital developments, and the commercial realities, as well as talks given by experienced editors, agents and authors. And twice a term at a pub in King's Cross, "celebrity writers", students, staff and alumni read their work at an event, known as Hubbub.
Birkbeck College began as the Mechanics' Institute, founded in London in 1823 by George Birkbeck. "Mechanics" then meant skilled artisans, and the purpose of the Institute was to instruct them in the principles behind their craft. The Institute became Birkbeck College, part of London University, in 1920. Past teachers at Birkbeck include TS Eliot, who taught English for a short time. Ramsay MacDonald was a student - although not studying Creative Writing. Perhaps had our course been going in the latter part of the 19th century it could have influenced British history. More recently, alumnus Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says it Loud) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize last year.
Students on the Creative Writing course who choose to take the Publishing module are responsible for producing an annual published anthology of short stories called Mechanics' Institute Review (MIR). This year's book, MIR9, includes work by well-known, established authors - Nick Alexander, Jenn Ashworth, Julia Bell and Alison Macleod. And there were over 80 submissions from present and past students on the Creative Writing programme. My story, "Seeing Red", has been chosen for inclusion - it was probably just luck!
Having said that, do please buy the book - it's available on Amazon, and in selected bookshops. Birkbeck has a website which showcases students' and ex-students' work: www.writershub.co.uk - it's worth keeping an eye on, for it's where you might spot the next wave of brilliant writers, and future Man Booker winners.
MIR9 is published tomorrow,Thursday 27 September, and readings of selected stories will follow at Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0EB on Monday 19 November at 6:30pm.