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Julia Grigg and Mike Manson, graduates of the Creative Writing postgraduate Masters course at Corsham Court, Bath Spa University
Monday 18 February 2019
Julia Grigg, who lives in Bath, and Mike Manson, who lives in Bristol, are two mature students who were part of the 2015-16 cohort of Creative Writing Masters course students, working for a full academic year towards completion of the course, and eventual development and publication of a full length novel. Julia Grigg’s The Eyes That Look: The Story of (Jacopo) Bassano’s Hunting Dogs , and Mike Manson’s Down in Demerara could not be more different in style and source of imagination, but both of them did achieve commercial publication.
The Eyes That Look was inspired by a painting in the Louvre by the Venetian artist Jacopo Bassano (1510-95). It shows two hunting dogs - a very early example of a picture of animals only - and has the title Deux chiens de chasse lies a une souche. It is to be found in Gallery Six of the Louvre, which also houses Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the same room. On seeing it, Julia wondered why the taboo (if it was such) on purely animal painting had been broken only then (1548-9) and she decided to write a novel about it.
She took an Oxford University course on sixteenth century Italian Renaissance background, and tackled various books on novel-writing, as well as using the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2014 and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The Bath Spa one-year course lasts for 45 weeks, over three terms. At the close of Term Three, students are required to submit a 40,000-word manuscript to qualify for the degree. Fellow-students ranged in age from the 20s to the 60s. An intensive tutorial timetable was accompanied by Julia’s transformation of herself as a writer, through continuous constructive criticism. Her original idea of the outcome differed radically from the actuality. The 40,000 words were different ones, there was a new timeframe, a different narrator, a new slant on the story, a major new character (the art historian and practising artist Giorgio Vasari, author of Lives of the Artists), the use of the present tense, not the past, and the use of the first person, not the third person. Julia’s personal tutor said to her at the end: ‘You have transformed yourself as a writer.’
Julia said that the course had its ups and downs, inevitably. The ‘Downs’, she felt, were that more was need on the publishing industry, on online publishing, and on what she called the ‘nitty-gritty’ of presentation. She had three tips: to develop resilience, to participate in the ‘creative buzz’, and to find a suitable mentor. As the writer Neil Gaiman has observed, ‘Writing, like death, can be a lonely business.’ The novelist Fay Weldon took an interest in Julia’s work, and advised her to forget the agent, and go straight to an art publisher. Soon afterwards, Unicorn Publishing of London made Julia an offer for her novel, as historical fiction has become a rising genre in the last decade or so. Hilary Mantel, whose Tudor novels around the life of Thomas Cromwell have been so successful, has said that ‘reading historical fiction is like meeting the dead, looking alive,’ and also, tellingly, that ‘fiction must be made to bend around the facts.’
Mike Manson’s novel Down in Demerara was praised by Fay Weldon, once again, as ‘wonderfully funny; I laughed out loud a lot’. Mike added the question ‘Why write?’ His answers were: for the pleasure of passing on information and making up a story, to sort thing out in your head, to create your own world (you, the writer, are in control throughout), for the pleasure of creativity, and possibly for the chance of making a little money. Producing a book, he said, is a small miracle. Mike Manson is a self-taught writer, who produced his first book, Bristol Beyond The Bridge, in his twenties. It took him twelve years in all to write. This was followed by Riot! The Bristol Bridge Massacre of 1793, and a novel Where’s My Money? – which was read on BBC Radio. A film option followed, and it won the People’s Book Prize. It was one of the four books representing the West of England in the BBC’s series Books That Made Britain. Later Mike and Edson Burton produced Vice and Virtue: Discovering the Story of the Old Market, Bristol.
Mike Manson admitted that he did not get on to the MA course at the first attempt, but he did join the 2015-16 cohort. He went to Guyana, South America, and was inspired to write about the illegal mining and labour exploitation which he saw there. This later became the main theme of Down in Demerara. The novel was, as he put it, ‘Adrian Mole meets (Conrad’s) Heart of Darkness’, self-realisation through love, friendship and fear. The novel appeared in October 2018 and was followed by newspaper reviews, radio interviews, book groups, public events, festivals, blogs and tweets. He asked himself the inevitable question ‘ When am I going to get any writing done?’
He also asked himself the central question ‘ How is one to write a novel?’ The answer was by sheer hard work - although little equipment is needed, the task is a marathon, the equivalent of doing a three-year degree. Mike advised any writer to choose their best time of day, and get on with it. Do not procrastinate, and write every day. Set a target, say 1000 words a week, and stick to it. Join a writing group, and be resilient. Try to meet new people, and realise that your writing is up to you. It is never too late to start.
© Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, Literature and Humanities, BRLSI, Bath, based on notes taken during Julia’s and Mike’s joint presentation