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The Word Factory. A short story cornucopia

June 15, 2014

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The Word Factory was initially conceived by Cathy Galvin as a series of intimate short story salons. But with someone of Cathy’s energy, this was never going to remain such a simple concept for long. So with the assistance of an equally dynamic set of creative people, the Word Factory would appear to be gently asserting itself as a brand associated with writing excellence.

Tell me about yourself.

My Dad had a big influence on my decision to be a writer. I couldn’t see well when I was little because a measles attack had damaged my eyes – I was really behind at school for a long time. In the early days of primary school, he would sneak little pieces of paper into my pockets with words on them so that I could copy and write something: I had little idea what was going on most of the time. He also took me to the library and read to me: Thomas the Tank Engine stories were a particular favourite. Ours was an ordinary working class home and trips to the library were important, because we didn’t have books lying around the house. So, quietly, he got me reading and writing.

My mother died a few months before I started secondary school. By then I had caught up and it’s probably no surprise that I loved school and learning: work was a brilliant, rewarding distraction. Secondary school was a key time for me in my life and I was lucky enough to make friends there I’m still close to.

After that: I left home in Coventry to study politics at Leeds University: the course was created by Ralph Miliband, Ed’s Dad. By then I had decided I wanted to be a journalist. An English degree was tempting, I loved poetry, but I felt that journalism was a vocation, that it would offer me a viable living and a chance to witness the world while writing; that politics would give me an insight in to how power worked. The kind of power that made ordinary people feel small. Deep down I recognise now that I also thought literature wasn’t for the likes of me. No teacher at school had supported my ambition to write. We were at a Catholic comprehensive where the girls were encouraged into teaching or nursing. So it’s a real pleasure now to have returned to Coventry to study for an MA in Writing at Warwick University. I know that sounds strange, because I’ve made a living from writing and editing for thirty years, but this is different. I’m back in the playground doing what I really love, writing creatively, and it’s a joy. I’m understanding the pleasures of working on fiction, non-fiction and poetry and not caring anymore about what I should or shouldn’t do. It’s also hard to dig deeper in this writing: journalism can offer a mask to a writer. It’s a way of observing without participating.

So bearing in mind this sense of identity you have as a journalist, what is the MA doing for your identity as a writer?

I’m taking the course over two years and at the end of this first year, unexpected things have happened. Most importantly and with thanks to David Morley, I’ve returned to poetry. I left it behind when I was 18, not as a reader but as a writer, because I was scared and I won’t let it go ever again. Also it’s worth understanding that as I have got older, I really don’t care about identity. I’m not looking for a label or badge.

What would you say is the difference between editing as a journalist and editing fiction?

The obvious difference is that in a piece of journalism, the facts have to be right. Other than that, I think the process is similar. The important thing about editing is understanding the effect the writer’s words are having on you and the reader, emotionally, in terms of place and time: does it make sense? An editor should be aiming to get the best out of the writer and encourage them, share thinking: it’s a creative process and huge numbers of editors have been removed from that process in publishing and newspapers as budgets have been slashed. There’s the minutiae of looking for typos and all that, but that’s not the art of editing. It’s more about working with writers to ensure they’re getting across what they need to get across. Sometimes it’s helping them understand what the story is in the first place: saying out loud what the story is in a few sentences can be helpful, for fiction or non-fiction because we often lose the thread and words take on a life of their own.

I’m becoming more confident as an editor of fiction as I study it and listen to what accomplished writers understand. It’s helped me become less reverential about fiction and appreciate just how brilliant some of my journalistic colleagues are. They have to produce work quickly that people will pay for: as did Dickens, as did Shakespeare. Having your work critiqued in a workshop is also interesting: you learn something every time.

How do you make the switch from journalism to creative writing?

They work together because everything we read, write and experience comes in to play in any writing. The two forms of writing have never been mutually exclusive: just think of Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Doris Lessing or Blake Morrison. I’d recommend anyone interested in blending creative memoir and non-fiction reads Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: he came to talk to us at the Word Factory recently. Writing beautiful prose and being a newspaper editor can go together, though rarely. Writing well means having a relationship with the reader: poetry is a little different, but even there the editorial skill of understanding how something looks on the page, the logic of how it all comes together, plays a vital part whether in verse or in a newspaper feature.

What does a magazine commissioning editor look for?

My adult life has been spent in newspapers and magazines: as a reporter, writer and editor. For most of that time, I have been a commissioning editor: looking for and commissioning the ideas and stories I trust other people will find fascinating and illuminating. Currently, I’m an associate editor at the relaunched Newsweek; for seventeen years before that I was at the Sunday Times. Each publication has a different reader in mind. At the same time, you’re looking for what you want to read, what you feel so passionate about you will be able to work with a writer as they bring an idea to life and also see its full scale: what kind of headline and standfirst will grab the reader, set the tone? What kinds of pictures will accompany the text? Is this big enough for the cover or the front page? What else does it need to come alive? These days, the commissioning editor also has to think, how can it translate online: what excitement can be created around the story and the writer on social media? Is it so good it could make a longer read, an e-book? The ideas can come from all over the world as well as from the intensely personal, drawing on what’s happening in people’s lives and how big events are affecting them, often in ways that aren’t evident at first glance.

That must have some bearing on any fiction writing you do?

You would think so, but no, not directly. I’m not trying to hold a mirror up to the world. There are many journalists who are good novelists. But I’m not a novelist and I needed to separate off to try a different kind of writing. Setting up the Sunday Times short story award and commissioning fiction in our magazine for the first time brought me back to fiction and the short story salons and writing classes I now run are certainly an important part of my life. Writers are mostly hugely generous towards each other and I’ve learned so much through these activities and from the team that’s come together as a result of that. It wouldn’t excite me, yet, to structure a novel based on worldly knowledge. Part of the change is freeing myself up to write differently. In the very best writing, as Glyn Maxwell says in his brilliant book, On Poetry – you know there’s a human presence. In journalism, unless you are a columnist, you are supposed to hold that presence back though in truth in the best pieces that voice and presence is felt. I know I have to step back from behind the he mask as a writer, get down and dirty. I’ve loved writing short stories and writing them has made me realise just how hard they really are. I would probably like to write some more short fiction. I want to get better.

Kevin Barry – Reads from The Ox Mountains Death Song from WordFactory on Vimeo.

How did you get involved in short stories?

It has been a thirty year journey. It was completely accidental in many ways. It also springs from a tendency to facilitate others and an odd kind of instinct.

I won’t bore you with my career but I’ve done lots of different kinds of journalism and regarded the Sunday Times Magazine as my editorial finishing school, working with the best of writers and colleagues. My interest in literature kept bursting through. Though I’m not a literary writer, and I think I’ve only written one book review in my life, I found myself becoming a Trustee for ‘Poet in the City’ and persuading News International to offer the charity some funding. About six years ago, we were redesigning the Sunday Times Magazine and I thought it would be interesting to explore the possibility of publishing brilliant short stories occasionally, as a way of reaching a new constituency of reader; possibly attracting some of the Guardian readers who loved literature. This idea was accepted and I thought we might run a short story a month but the editor said no, go for it. Do one a week. I had an extraordinary year of being able to commission almost any writer in the world. It was also a very lateral thing for a news magazine to do and I knew it needed some other momentum. By chance I met Lord Matthew Evans, who had been the chairman of Faber and Faber and is now chairman of EFG Private Bank. We both loved the idea of creating a short story award – an award that’s now the biggest prize of its kind in the world, with £30,000 for a single short story, and has grown from strength to strength in the past few years. He and the bank made that happen.

So by this time, my thinking was changing. I was excited by what you could do to offer stories on phones and online and came up with something we called ‘Fast Fiction’ – fiction online, behind the paywall and an e-book imprint with 4th Estate and Sunday Times short story award longlisted authors. I was a little ahead of the curve: tablets weren’t common then. Essentially, the Word Factory was beginning to form in my mind. An online channel bringing people closer to writers and their work. One day, the Word Factory might offer both short stories and non-fiction. Perhaps even poetry.

So my immersion into the world of short fiction was accidental and in some strange way had to happen. I’m not interested in criticism, but I do love good writing.

Have you ever edited fiction?

I put together an anthology of new writing for Waterstones a few years ago called Red. That was a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Wonderful stories and pieces from a range of writers including Lionel Shriver, David Almond, Hanif Kureishi, Max Hastings, Suzanne Moore, Alice Oswald and David Harsent.

A.L. Kennedy reads from ‘Baby Blue’ from WordFactory on Vimeo.

Why did you decide to do the MA?

When you’ve done something for a long time, like working in an office full-time for thirty years, you either embrace change when it comes along or sink. I wanted to make the Word Factory work. I thought I wanted to do more journalistic writing but then realised I needed to step away completely for a while and begin to put together a book I’ve been thinking about for ten years. It’s non-fiction but it needed to be written in a non-journalistic way and I thought I’d learn a huge amount if I did the MA, which I have, and that I could begin that book knowing I had to meet the deadlines of the degree. I’ve needed deadlines all my life. There were other reasons: the return to Coventry, not long after my father’s death, to create new memories following a painful time. The chance to work with my friend of 20 years, Maureen Freely. I could have done the degree in London but I love the train and going back to a place I left aged 18 has been a tender experience. And having been so involved in short stories, I wanted to be brave and have a proper go at writing them and instead of being a judge myself, being judged by others.

What is your book about?

I own a ruin on a little island off the coast of Connemara. It’s my grandmother’s cottage. My mother’s side of the family is Gaelic speaking and there is a sadness about their story and what I feel is my own disinheritance from the place, because I don’t speak the language and because I lost her. It’s a book about what’s missing, in all sorts of ways.

How has the MA helped you to pull that together, apart from the structure of the course that forces you to work on this project?

I now know I can’t sit with piles of research and jottings for much longer. I’ve got to get on with it. The poetry has been a revelation and form has forced things through and out of me that reveal something about the heart of the book that I didn’t know was there before.

How has the poetry helped you think about the book?

It has refined certain ideas and clarified my sense of what I need to do. I look back on earlier notes on the book and see how flowery the writing was and poetry is helping me strip that right back which is a surprise: you would have thought being a journalist would have done. I’m not doing that thing of trying to be a writer anymore; I’m just writing and without the poetry that wouldn’t be happening. David Morley forces you to write on the spot. He says things like, do a crown of sonnets. I realised I liked formal structures and conventional metre; the struggle with the form lets surprising things in.

What makes your heart miss a beat with a really good piece of writing?

I recognized I was getting this excited and anxious feeling, almost like falling in love, about starting to write poetry. I’m still in love. It might end. And I don’t know enough yet. A few years ago, I took a class with Katy Evans-Bush and the same thing happened. That’s the heart-beat of writing for me. When my heart misses a beat in someone else’s writing – well, how do you define it? You are hit by something simple and sublime. Whatever the form, you also know you are in the hands of someone who instinctively or rationally knows exactly what they are doing – a poem, a story, a novel – it’s taking you. You aren’t you any more. The ego has gone. Writing is physical.

I’ve stopped breathing with so many writers: one I keep listening to, over and over, to hear just how he breathes and thinks and writes, is Edward Thomas. How ironic the breath was literally sucked out of him when a shell exploded by him in the Great War.

So you must feel like a child in the sweet shop with The Word Factory.

Yes and no. I have four children and am also the parent of this beautiful organization. Warwick is my sweet shop, where I can be a child. The Word Factory is my baby. I take responsibility. We’re into our second year and planning the third. It began in the singular, just me, but it is a collective now. It’s a ‘we’ – a group of writers, a community. I’m parentally proud of my deputy, Paul McVeigh, and all the other editors: Alexa Radcliffe-Hart, Alison Burgin (Hitchcock), Sophie Haydock, Andrew Oldham, Lindsey Waller-Wilkinson, Carrie Kania; of our film-maker Peter Clarke and design directors Tony and Corinne Oulton. Of all the authors who have come to read. Of the wonderful mentors who supported our new apprentice scheme, Stella Duffy and Alex Preston and the new ones just on board, Adam Marek and Nicholas Royle. Of our brilliant apprentice short story writers Rebecca Swirsky and Holly Dawson. I’m so proud of the writers and readers who come and thankful they find something in the experience. I’ve lost track of the number of our regulars being longlisted for awards, winning awards, being broadcast. Being recognised and having our first Arts Council funding six months ago felt miraculous. The Word Factory brings writers of short fiction together with salons, classes, a short story club, apprenticeships, the website … and next: publishing.

Word Factory event held at the Society Club

Word Factory event held at the Society Club

What happens in the workshops?

This is also something that’s happening organically. The first one I did was held at Birkbeck University over a weekend. Julia Bell and the team there are brilliantly supportive. David Vann, my fiction tutor at Warwick, came to talk and teach as well as Deborah Levy, Alison Moore and Adam Marek. Julia, Carrie Kania, who runs the Society Club bookshop in Soho, the Word Factory’s first home, and is also a literary agent came to talk about the nitty-gritty of being noticed by an agent. It was a Saturday and Sunday of these extraordinary writers and I realised two things; that the writers coming to the workshops are really talented and that what we were offering them was like a mini-masters. Now we hold classes before our events: a core of writers come to these and now also share work. I’m learning from each session just what it is writers really need. A big part of that is needing each other.

Can anyone come to these workshops, or is it something you have to apply for?

Anyone can come, but it’s not as if we are advertising them. It’s very much word of mouth. There’s a core of people who come quite regularly. We send out our e-mail invitations and they get mentioned by various writing organisations including the Writers Hub at Birkbeck and National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE). Do go to our website to find out more.

You’ve started a literary salon in Leicester.

Yes we have had two events in Leicester now, thanks to Lindsey Waller-Wilkinson who came to a workshop, saw what we were doing and suggested we hold a salon in Leicester. The East Midlands has a vibrant writing scene. We’ve established a model for what we do now, which is the salon and the masterclass on the same day, and we’re thinking about what we might do next in Leicester and in other parts of the country including Manchester and Belfast. But you can’t force these things – salons develop organically and are dependent on a champion.

Holly Dawson. One of the writers in the Word Factory apprenticeship scheme

Holly Dawson. One of the writers in the Word Factory apprentice scheme

How is the apprentice scheme run?

We will announce applications for our second scheme next month. The apprentices can come to all masterclasses and salons and in return, we ask that they become more involved with us, contributing to the website, helping pour wine, anything we have to do. They are mentored for six months, sharing their work with a leading author or editor, using our knowledge and meeting writers, being part of a happy and hard-working team. We invite each mentor and apprentice to come and read at one of the salons and last year we had support for the apprentices from the Spread the Word writers’ development agency and Foyles. There’s no pattern, because it has to be an individual thing. Our mentors gave their time for free – Stella in the midst of cancer. It was so moving to see the relationships and the work develop.

Where do you see your writing going over the next few years?

This book will get written. I also want to publish a pamphlet of poetry and work towards a collection. Journalism won’t go away. We know nothing about what will happen to us tomorrow, let alone a few years down the line. Three years ago, none of this would have been imaginable.

Click this link for more Word Factory Videos

For invitations to the Word Factory contact Cathy

Cathy Galvin

Cathy Galvin






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