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Vanessa Curtis Interview

Posted on 02 December 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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Writewors talks to Vanessa Curtis

Tell us something about your background.

I’ve published two biographies on Virginia Woolf, a large amount of journalism and have now made a dramatic switch to writing children’s novels.

I review books for the newspapers - it’s a very good discipline as it forces me to read with care, write to deadline and be able to edit very quickly if necessary. I also co-edit a literary magazine and contribute articles, as well as commissioning others to write for us. I teach music too. All of these fit well with writing novels.

How did you start writing?

My parents are great readers and ex-English teachers and my brother owns a bookshop, so books and writing have always been discussed avidly at home.
I started writing as a very small child and was encouraged by that rare thing, the truly inspirational English teacher. English lessons were the only ones that we were allowed to take outside under a large oak tree in the warmer months. The teacher read poetry to us – Christina Rossetti, Wilfred Owen - and ever since, I’ve always associated poetry with a sort of golden glow of eternal summer. My poems were published in the school magazine. I got my first experience of being edited at aged eight when the headmistress took it upon herself to change one of my poems without telling me, so that my first line, ‘There is a blooming blossom tree…’ was changed to ‘There is a flowering blossom tree’ (!). To add insult to injury I wasn’t given any credit for using the fantastically grown-up word ‘oscillating’.

Who are your favourite writers and why?

I like to get inside the heads of famous writers by reading their journals: the diaries of Virginia Woolf have to be my favourite books of all-time. Not only do they provide a fantastic social history (covering the years 1915-1941) but they also give a unique insight into the hazards of a writing life. All the insecurities we have as writers, the observations we make about people around us, the effect that external events have upon our internal thought processes are here, recorded in Woolf’s ruthlessly honest and self-deprecating words. Writers who have managed to write despite crippling depression intrigue me: the diaries of Antonia White are painfully raw on the subject of her writer’s block. And Sylvia Plath’s endless fascination with herself coupled with the agony of getting the words out onto the page horrifies and comforts me in equal measures. I read/review a fair amount of contemporary novels too: I admire and enjoy the fiction of Helen Dunmore – her children’s prose is breathtaking and she has that rare ability to take any period of time in history and time-travel, making it absolutely believable.

How did you get your first agent/ commission?

I started churning out articles in my lunch-break when I was in my early twenties and stuck in a succession of dull office jobs. It seemed easy, enjoyable and I was surprised that magazines were prepared to pay Actual Money for the articles. At that stage they were all frothy pieces about sex, blind dates, being single and what not to wear. Later on as life became more complex they became serious pieces on subjects like divorce, harassment and bereavement. In 1998 I became involved with a literary society and began to co-edit their literary magazine. Inspired by this I submitted a proposal for a non-fiction book to an independent publisher and got lucky – they issued me a contract and also agreed to publish the follow-up. On the strength of this I managed to get freelance work as a book reviewer for national broadsheets and I still do this today. In 2004 I wrote another non-fiction proposal and was invited to meet a very reputable agent, but publishers rejected it. I picked myself up off the floor and once I’d stopped howling, decided to write an adult novel – it was an ambition to at least complete a first draft. As soon as I’d finished it I realised it wasn’t the right book for me to be working on – it had that typical first-time-novelist’s angst, the horrid self-importance, the self-conscious literary seriousness that puts me off when I read it in other people’s books. I missed writing with the humour I’d used in my early articles, and so mainly for my own amusement I wrote a children’s book about a feisty girl-detective. I sent it off to some agents and got the usual rejection slips although there were one or two personal letters with helpful advice. Another children’s novel followed, this time with some more personalised, encouraging rejections and a request for full manuscript from one agent that I submitted to. But, he rejected it with a kind and positive letter. I had a few weeks of abject misery where I wanted to give up writing and do virtually anything else instead. But I plunged into writing a third book in March. I sent it back to the same agent in August, he requested the whole thing, made some excellent suggestions for changes and signed me in September this year. Phew!

What's the worst thing about writing?

ilt for not doing it. Guilt for doing it. Wasting days. Comparing myself unfavourably to other novelists. The long periods of time when I have to wait: waiting for inspiration, waiting to find time to write, waiting to hear from agents, then publishers, etc. The way that writing is so tied in with my sense of self-worth – it shouldn’t be, but it is. The incredible odds stacked against success of any kind – is there any other career where you work alone on projects for maybe years at a time with no guarantee of any recognition at the end of it?

And the best?

Being different. Realising that there’s no age-limit on writing. Opening the newspaper, seeing my work in print. Writing to music - I choose certain tracks that I think will suit the mood of the current book I’m writing. For instance the book I just wrote for teenagers was written to an angst-ridden raw soundtrack comprising of bands like Green Day, Razorlight, The Killers and the Arctic Monkeys. The best, rare, days are when the writing and the music seem to blend into one and spiral up out of the ordinary and into some place where the words flow out almost faster than I can write them down. One of the advantages of writing fiction, to me, is that most of it’s coming from my own imagination; there’s no need for the books, photographs, footnotes and academic texts that I need to use for non-fiction. But paradoxically, I sometimes miss the structure of having all those tools around me. I love doing research, both for fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes it’s good to learn something new to keep the brain ticking over. I’m currently immersed in reading about the Suffragettes, just for my own pleasure.

Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.

I’m one of those superstitious souls who don’t want to show anybody their work unless there’s a guaranteed publishing contract at the end of it, although I’ve had kind reviews and positive comments from readers on the two biographies I’ve published so far. I did a live radio broadcast after my first book was published and although feedback was good, the experience was terrifying beyond belief, due in no small part to lack of sleep, a tube strike and being on the same show as Edwina Currie (she got the lion’s share of airtime, obviously). I’ve never been a great fan of courses, workshops and writing circles, although I have read a fair number of ‘how to’ books and I take the comments of publishers and agents seriously. The thought of circulating my work-in-progress to other people doesn’t appeal – one negative comment, however well meaning, carries the risk of denting your confidence irreversibly. I think you have to get used to judging your own work and knowing when it is ready to send out. No amount of degree courses or writing workshops can ever prepare you for what it’s like to sit day in day out alone at your desk, trying to write a novel. That’s the true apprenticeship and the true discipline and it’s tough. It will show you whether or not you’re cut out to be a writer.

What was your breakthrough moment?

The first contract I ever signed in 2001 felt like a breakthrough moment. Another was last year when I realised that I was actually enjoying writing fiction for children and that there might be some sort of future in it. And meeting my agent, getting the approval of somebody considerably more experienced than myself; an official ‘go ahead’ to write fiction. It’s strange how we sometimes crave ‘permission’ to get on and do the work.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

Nik Perring at 13:18 on 02 December 2006  Report this post
Thanks for a great interview, Vanessa. And all the very best with the book(s).

Hopefully see you over at the Childrens Group soon.


Sappholit at 14:51 on 02 December 2006  Report this post
Hey!! Hurrah for you!!

Great interview.

I have never in my life used the word 'oscillating' and feel quite inadequate that you did this when you were eight.


PS. Sylvia Plath is the bomb.

Nessie at 16:07 on 02 December 2006  Report this post

Great interview...some really good thoughts for writers in here. Thank you!

the other Vanessa

nessiec at 17:28 on 02 December 2006  Report this post
Thanks Nik, Sarah and Nessie Number One!

Luisa at 18:53 on 02 December 2006  Report this post
Great interview, Vanessa - really interesting. Good luck with the books!


EmmaD at 23:29 on 02 December 2006  Report this post
Fascinating interview, Vanessa, thank you.


MF at 08:26 on 03 December 2006  Report this post
An inspiring and encouraging read - thanks!


rogernmorris at 09:38 on 04 December 2006  Report this post
Hi Vanessa - great interview, really thought-provoking and enjoyable. I've got a file full of all my old rejection letters. I didn't do it consciously, just found myself hanging on to them for some reason I can't explain. I have looked back at them from time to time, usually to extract some crumb of consolation from the better ones. I also recognised what you said about needing permission.

And I've never been very good at sharing my work in progress with others either.

Congratulations on the VW books and good luck with the children's ones.


nessiec at 11:48 on 04 December 2006  Report this post
Thanks very much Roger - that means a lot. Still waiting to hear re the children's books - probably not until 2007 now!

mermaid at 15:41 on 05 December 2006  Report this post
A fascinating interview - thanks, Vanessa.

It's interesting to hear about how you associate music and writing. I'm trained in music too, and like you, I find that a certain song or piano piece will inspire me and help me along with the mood I'm trying to create in each current writing project. To me, the two are very closely interlinked.

Good luck with everything.


SarahT at 11:52 on 06 December 2006  Report this post

Welcome to WW! Your first editing experience struck a chord with me. That was very similar to mine. I wrote a poem which was intended to contrast the sun and the moon. The teacher changed a lot of the words and, I recall, took out the references to the moon, and then stuck it on the wall. I remember distinctly feeling that it was no longer my poem, and that the edits were all wrong. I'm not sure what effect this experience has had on me - I can handle being edited now - but I remember the feeling of wanting to get my own voice out and the frustration when this didn't happen.


MarkT at 21:19 on 22 December 2006  Report this post
What a great, inspiring interview.

Thank you so much for taking the time to let us know how you do what you do.

Good luck with whatever you do.


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