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PhD to Publication

June 24, 2012

Book Cover of So It Is

Liam Murray Bell is a novelist and PhD student at the University of Surrey. His Debut Novel, So It Is, is out now from Myriad Editions. He talks about his PhD and his debut novel So It Is.

It is possible to publish fiction without a doctorate. Why put yourself though a process that is both time consuming and very hard work?

There were two reasons for embarking on the doctorate. Firstly, financial. I wanted to write a novel, but I didn’t want to do it in those snatched moments of time before/after work or at the weekend. The doctorate at Surrey offered me the chance of combining research with teaching so that I could support myself as I wrote. Secondly, there are a lot of historical details and contentious issues in So It Is that I knew needed to be thoroughly researched and contextualised. I knew that with the PhD process, although both exhausting and exhaustive, I would be able to conduct that thorough and necessary research in a supportive environment.

Part of a doctorate is about research and the academic process. What form did this take for your doctorate?

I looked at three main areas: novels that had already been written about the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland; the role of women in those novels and in the violence; and the narrative structures and strategies that could be used to drive the plot. So, for example, the last of these saw me investigating the split narrative, between a third-person coming-of-age story from the perspective of Aoife and a first-person ‘thriller’ story from the point-of-view of a paramilitary named Cassie. Through this I was able to explore how the switching back and forth between these two perspectives could be used to ratchet up the suspense and engage the reader in the action.

How did you then reconcile this aspect of the doctorate with writing your work of fiction?

I think this is the most difficult aspect of a doctorate in Creative Writing. Personally, I think you need to have two separate ‘hats’ – a critical and a creative. With the critical hat on, you research the contexts and the theories, and with the creative you write the novel and consider how best to tell the story. It has positives and negatives, but if you’re lucky then you’ll find that the critical research you’re undertaking begins to coincide with the creative – and vice versa. It’s at that point, hopefully, that you’ll begin to usefully reflect on how the two operate in conjunction.

What drew you to writing a book about the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland in the first place and why the interest in looking at it from a female viewpoint?

The two questions are actually linked. I have a fascination with the Troubles but felt that there was a lack of novels that looked at the role of women in the conflict. Women tended to be confined to the domestic sphere and experience the violence at a remove, through their fathers, husbands and sons. So It Is, was conceived as a novel that could explore this issue. Having decided that, it was natural to seek to portray the conflict from a female viewpoint because otherwise I would have been undermining that concern right from the start.

You mentioned novels about the Troubles forming part of your research process. Did you use other source material for background?

Absolutely. I read the ‘canon’ of literature from writers like Bernard MacLaverty, Robert McLiam Wilson and Glenn Patterson, but I also used sociological and historical accounts from the period. In particular, there is a sociological study by Begoňa Aretxaga called Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland. That was of immense benefit in forming my critical argument and the books of Tim Pat Coogan have been hugely useful in filling in the historical detail of the period.

Could you give a brief overview of your research into narrative structures and strategies and how this resulted in your final story construction for the novel?

Using narrative theory, I was interested in examining different narrative focalisations and the way they impact on our reading process. So I looked at the directness and immediacy of first-person and present tense for the paramilitary, thriller narrative of Cassie, as compared with the more considered, nuanced approach of the third-person coming of age narrative of Aoife in past tense where there’s a bit of distance between events and narration.

The doctoral process is both a reflective (thinking about the writing you have done) and reflexive process (making adjustments to your writing as a result of your reflection). How do you think this differs from the normal writing process?

I think, and hope, that most writers are both reflective and reflexive whether they are in academia or not, but I think academia formalises the process. That is, doing a doctorate or any academic research requires you to not only think about the writing you have done, but to write about that reflection and support it with research. For me, that crystalizes and structures that process.

What research tools did the doctorate equip you with and how do you think will you continue to use them in your writing career?

The doctorate has made me more diligent and methodical in my research. If there is a context or subject matter that I feel should be researched, I will now search out any and all texts written on it and I will try to link them all together in my mind and then in my critical writings. I’ll continue to do so, but I think it’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that you are, in the end, telling a story and that that is the primary purpose.

How different is the novel you wrote for your PhD to the final published work?

Thankfully, it is exactly the same. Because I managed to get a publishing deal before the doctorate had finished I had the commercial input – from editor, copy-editor etc. – before I’d finalised the PhD project and I was able to reconcile the academic with the commercial. Perhaps I was fortunate, in some ways, because the aim of the project was always to write a novel which was capable of being commercially published, so changing the novel as it went through the editing process could be part of the doctorate as well.

How did you find the process of working with the publisher to reach an end product suitable for commercial publication?

My publisher, Myriad Editions, have been superb from start to finish. So there were compromises to be made, but it was always a process of negotiation and discussion. Working with my editor was a hugely productive process and she had a really positive input in finalising the manuscript. The best example I could give would be the title. Through the first two years of the PhD the title of the book was rubber bullet, broken glass and this was integral to the way I thought about the novel, because it contained elements of both setting and plot. However, in discussion with my editor, it was decided that the title wasn’t memorable enough, and that it was too clunky to stand out. So we sat down with a pot of tea and we brainstormed ideas for an afternoon – I have a page in my notebook of rejected titles – and finally settled on So It Is, which gives both the specificity of setting – as it is a Northern Irish phrase – and a hint towards plot – in that it reflects the stubborn standpoint of the paramilitary character, Cassie. Most of all, though it is catchy. It took me a couple of days of repeating it, talking to friends and family, and generally trying it on for size before I was ready to relinquish the old title but, in the end, I’m delighted with the title and it seems to have been well-received.

Where will you go from here in terms of writing and career?

I’ve already started my second novel, which will look at contemporary culture through a young protagonist who is a failed singer-songwriter. There are several critical angles that I want to research as well, but I’m not too sure whether I’ll be doing that within academia or not – there are too many variables. First and foremost, though, I’m enjoying the feeling of having a novel out in the world and beginning to gather opinions and reactions to So It Is.

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