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The Writing Life: Authors Speak

Inspiring insights, practical advice. Poets, novelists, children’s writers and biographers speak candidly about their lives and work. The Writing Life is a collection of edited extracts from National Life Stories’ Authors’ Lives project.

Supported by the Arts Council England and edited by Project Interviewer Sarah O’Reilly and NLS Director Rob Perks, The Writing Life was originally published by the British Library as a double audio CD in May 2011 (and is still available). It was also distributed through First Story and The Arvon Foundation to aid the teaching of creative writing in education.

This web page features all of the audio extracts from the CD, which have been grouped together into the following themed clusters.

Introductory voices

  • Why write? What happens when you write? Some brief impressions.
  • Literary idols and ambitions, the wish to write and the influence of childhood events, family background, and teachers on writers’ lives.
  • Reading as an early and decisive influence on novelists.

Speakers (in order of appearance): Philip Ziegler, Beryl Bainbridge, Hilary Mantel, Peter Porter, Maureen Duffy, Howard Jacobson, P.D. James, U.A. Fanthorpe, Michael Morpurgo, Ian McEwan, Michael Frayn, Ian Rankin, Penelope Lively.

Starting out 

  • What makes someone want to write and how does a writing career begin?  Which decisions lie in wait and what opportunities are there to be exploited? Writers discuss the things that made them want to write and remember their first novels and poems.
  • The choice facing an author is not only what to write, but what form to write in. Why do some choose poetry, others biography or the novel?

Speakers (in order of appearance): Ian Rankin, Beryl Bainbridge, Michael Morpurgo, Hilary Mantel, Howard Jacobson, U.A. Fanthorpe, Peter Porter, Maureen Duffy, Victoria Glendinning, P.D. James, Michael Holroyd.

Finding ideas

  • How do ideas for novels arrive?
  • Moments of inspiration: Michael Morpurgo describes the incident that convinced him he could write the story ‘War Horse’; PD James describes the geographical setting that inspired ‘Devices and Desires’.
  • Why is place important for a biographer? Victoria Glendinning describes how it can affect the very sentences you write.
  • ‘Occasionally something happens’: poets attempt to describe the mysterious arrival of a poem.
  • Coping with writers’ block: novelist Penelope Lively explains her dislike of the term whilst poet Allen Fisher describes how he helps his poetry-writing students cope with blocks.
  • Biographers Michael Holroyd, Victoria Glendinning and Hilary Spurling describe pursuing their biographical subjects in attics and archives.

Getting underway

  • The intoxicating, sometimes dreaded, moment when you begin a new piece of work, as described by biographers and novelists.
  • The intense experience of writing, the importance of dreams, tricks of the trade, and the best time of day to write.
  • Where writers write, the tools they rely on, and the extent to which they rewrite.
  • Should you write on a computer or use pen and paper?

Speakers (in order of appearance): Philip Ziegler, Victoria Glendinning, Philip Hensher, Ian Rankin, Michael Morpurgo, Hilary Spurling, Hilary Mantel, Michael Frayn, Paul Bailey, Anne Fine, Michael Holroyd, Anthony Thwaite.

Creating characters

  • Where do characters come from and how are they constructed? How is the structure of a novel arrived at? What is the relationship between character and structure, and what questions should you keep in mind when thinking about the shape of your work? Is structure important?
  • How much should you plan in advance when writing? The crucial and problematic question of structure in biography.

Speakers (in order of appearance): Hilary Mantel, Philip Hensher, Michael Frayn, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Penelope Lively, Beryl Bainbridge, Linda Grant, Victoria Glendinning, Michael Holroyd, Hilary Spurling.

In the thick of it

  • What happens between first and final draft? How is a book finished, and when? What feelings are experienced in saying goodbye to familiar characters, both imagined and real?
  • Biographers speak about saying goodbye to their subjects. How can you judge the quality of your work?

Speakers (in order of appearance): Hilary Mantel, Hilary Spurling, Philip Hensher, Paul Bailey, Simon Brett, Ian Rankin, Michael Holroyd, Victoria Glendinning, John Fuller, Peter Porter, Wendy Cope.

The critics

  • ‘A bad review doesn’t get any easier to take’: After the writing’s over the critics pick up their pens.
  • Today a writer’s work rarely finishes with the final full stop. What happens after publication.
  • If you aspire to be a writer, what should your focus be?

Speakers (in order of appearance): Penelope Lively, Victoria Glendinning, Hilary Mantel, Michael Holroyd, Beryl Bainbridge, Peter Porter, Wendy Cope, Linda Grant, Peter Porter, P.D. James.