Julia Bell Interview
Posted on 27 October 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to Julia Bell, author of two novels for young adults.
Tell us something about your background.
I’ve written two novels – Massive (Young Picador 2002) and Dirty Work which is forthcoming in January. Also I co-edited The Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan 2001) while I was teaching at UEA.
I’m currently working on several new projects – a new novel for Young Adults called Disser, an adult novel and various short stories. I quite like having several projects on the desk at once – when I get stuck with one I can add a bit more to the other . . . I seem to work best in two or three week cycles – taking that time to write a new chapter or a story. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the teaching, a kind of necessity in order to keep the work manageable alongside the teaching.
I have a lectureship at Birkbeck which I enjoy a great deal. I love the conversations that emerge in a writing workshop, the way that students get passionate about their writing and reading. It stimulates my writing. Although I do think it’s best not to teach too much . . .
How did you start writing?
When I was 8 in a red exercise book. The story involved camping and a yellow Labrador which I painstakingly drew to illustrate the story
Who are your favourite writers and why?
George Orwell – because he was an English writer with a social vision, and he was funny. Keep The Aspidistra Flying is one of my favourite novels. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – what a wonderful, rumbustuous, clever, funny, humane piece of writing.
Michael Chabon – mostly for The Wonder Boys, but his other novels are fantastic too, and he scripted some of Spiderman movie.
Colette – especially the Cheri novels. She captures a certain naughty, curious, sensual teenage girl’s voice perfectly. I have a soft spot for English campus novels too – David Lodge and Kingsley Amis and Malcolm Bradbury and I thought Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was a really worthy winner of the Orange Prize.
Looking over my bookshelf there are also lots of short story collections – North American mostly where they have celebrated and published short stories and allowed them to develop into a genuine form of high art. Alas over here they are treated as the poor cousin of the novel. There’s lots of Raymond Carver, and collections by Borges, Alice Munro, Jayne Anne Phillips, Junot Diaz. Then some English masters – Angela Carter and Helen Simpson.
I could go on and on but I’ll spare you. This is just today’s selection. I am always astounded by people who apply to our courses who haven’t read much. To be a good at fiction writing you need to read. Lots. Also not just fiction. I’m currently reading a book about diving as research for a story. Writing gives you permission to read across all the sections of the library. There’s nothing more fun than being able to read about volcanoes or bird biology or nail technology or the politics of Russia in the name of novel research. Good writers are magpies and they steal huge amounts of general knowledge in order to feather the nests of their writing.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
Precociously, when I was 15 I got published in a Virago anthology of stories by readers of Just 17 magazine . . . but I had to wait till I was 30 to publish my first novel. . .
What's the worst thing about writing?
Not being able to listen to the radio at the same time. (As I imagine all artists must be able to do . . . )
And the best?
Being mistress of my own universe. . . and the huge satisfaction of completion; of finishing something that pleases me.
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