Shelley Weiner Interview
Posted on 20 July 2007. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to Shelley Weiner
Tell us something about your background.
I’ve always worked with words. Growing up in South Africa with immigrant parents, I felt like an English language/literature pioneer in my family – an intrepid and obsessive explorer in the dusty upper turrets of the Port Elizabeth Public Library. I became a journalist on local newspapers and then, when I came to live in London in 1977, an editor in a publishing house, a PR writer, and then a feature writer on the John Lewis Gazette, before I decided – at 39 – that I couldn’t be a ‘promising youngster’ any longer and set out to write a novel. That was in the early 1990s. Since then I’ve had four novels published (A Sisters’ Tale, The Last Honeymoon, The Joker and Arnost) and have just completed Summerstrand. I’ve also had quite a few short stories included in anthologies & on radio.
When I started writing fiction I knew that I’d need an additional, more reliable, source of income. At first it was freelance journalism and then, having organised and taught a series of fiction workshops in Camden Town with Alice Thomas Ellis soon after my own first novel was published, I realised how fulfilling it was to tutor/enable other new writers. Since then, I’ve lectured on the creative writing programme at Birkbeck College and, among other institutions, taught for the Open University, the Taliesin Trust, the British Council in Israel, and Durham University Summer School. A gratifying number of new fiction writers have emerged from my “First Novel” workshops in various venues, including my Highgate kitchen (where I’m planning some upcoming courses). Since 2004 I have also worked as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow with placements at Middlesex University and, currently, at the University of Westminster.
As to how all this affects my own writing … it’s hard to say. When I work with creative writers, I find myself totally drawn into the heart of their stories and engaged with what they’re trying to say. This does, I’m afraid, interfere with my own creative processes, and I find that creative writing tutoring is best done during gaps between projects. When possible. As an RLF Fellow, my brief is to assist with writing generally (essays, etc), which is much simpler and has enabled me to devote myself to Summerstrand. It’s a difficult juggling act which, it seems, most writers are compelled to learn.
How did you start writing?
As mentioned, it had come to me that I’d had enough skittling over the surface as an adept wordsmith. It was time to do something ‘proper’. What this ‘proper’ thing was, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I had a story – the history of how my parents, both concentration camp survivors, had come to South Africa – and I was determined to find a form in which to tell it. I’d heard about the Arvon Foundation and enrolled on a course in Devon, where Alice Thomas Ellis was a tutor. She became a friend and mentor – I was terribly lucky – and encouraged me to write a novel which, in a frenzy, I completed in about six weeks. This was the family story which I’d been so determined to tell and which, alas, was never published. But it did get me an agent and unleashed a torrent of fiction. Stories, plays, and A Sisters’ Tale, which became my first published novel.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I always dread this question. When it’s put during a reading/discussion panel, my mind tends to go blank and I feel so stupid. When I started writing fiction, I immersed myself in writers’ diaries and notebooks – Woolf, Fitzgerald, Kundera, etc etc – which taught me an awful lot about how they worked, what they were trying to say. It never occurred to me to join a creative writing class – there weren’t that many around – so this was my ‘training’. I’ve always read widely and voraciously, which has given me a sense of having a solid base from which to write. I think that, when I started, my style seemed to be affected by what I was reading, which taught me to avoid reading fiction while I was writing it. These days I’m less directly affected, but I also feel myself less passionately involved with what I’m reading. I feel quite sad about this. Not sure if it’s to do with me (a kind of ennui?) or what’s currently being published. Latterly, I’ve gathered together a group of friends and we’ve gone back to some classic works for inspiration: Dostoevsky, Mansfield, Graham Greene.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
The agent who took me on with my first book (that initial attempt to tell my family’s story) was very encouraging about my second novel, A Sisters’ Tale, which was sold almost immediately to the first publisher she approached, Constable. I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was – on the other hand, the advance was tiny and, although the book got very good reviews, it never went into paperback. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve done and hope that someone will pick it up one day and think it’s worth republishing.
What's the worst thing about writing?
Waiting for responses. At every level. For me, it never gets easier and I’ll never get thicker-skinned about it. It’s kind of comforting that – although some writers are better than others at showing it – everyone feels vulnerable. The problem is that the publishing business is a hard-nosed one and it deals, on the whole, with sensitive souls. Rejection and the fear that we have nothing more to say is something we all have to deal with.
And the best?
The best? When the writing’s going well and there’s that wonderful sense of fullness, of words and ideas spilling out onto the page. That, for me, is happiness.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
I think my answer to ‘what’s worst’ covers the negative side. Or the commercial aspect, at any rate. On a personal level, I’ve had responses from people who have engaged with my books in all sorts of ways – it’s been amazing to me that my work has touched them, moved them to write. I’m not sure if any of this has a direct influence on what I’m writing, but it certainly make me – as a writer – feel less isolated.
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