Julia Armfield was one of the VERY talented bunch of students on our second-ever London-based novel-writing course in 2011 – along with Kate Hamer, James Hannah, Annabelle Thorpe and Tim Glencross, to name just a few (there will be more deals from that group yet, mark my words). Julia was the youngest on the course – and, at a mere 21, one of the youngest students we’ve had full-stop! She’s been joking on Twitter with fellow alumni, recently, about the novel she was working on back then, with its amazingly long sentences – and, yes, I do remember they were on the long side – but wow, so stylish and full of energy and exuberance. It was clear from the off that she was a major talent, and we are thrilled that she has become the 51st of our students to gain a commercial book deal: Picador have bought her short story collection Salt Slow plus a debut novel. Here we ask Julia what happened next …
So – Julia – short stories or the novel – which is best? And what would you say to writers who are discouraged from writing short stories because they’re told the novel is more saleable to publishers?
Impossible question – neither is better and neither is easier (in fact they’re both awful and difficult, moment to moment, because everything is when you’re actually writing it). I think I find short stories more satisfying, simply because they allow me to dispense with the sometimes overwhelming scaffolding of a novel and just focus on a tone or the turn of a moment. However, a novel enables you to develop and elaborate and forces you to inhabit an idea in a very different way, which is satisfying too.
To short story writers, I’d say there’s no better time to be writing and submitting than now. Short story collections are definitely having a moment and there’s a lot of excitement around them. On top of that, writing short stories is one of the best ways of getting to know yourself as a writer and getting comfortable with submitting to journals and competitions – it allows you the brief celebration of being done with something and throwing it out into the world, which the long-term task of writing a novel doesn’t provide in quite the same way.
Your short story collection Salt Slow has been described as “a collection of stories about women and their experiences in society, the body and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of its characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession and love”. These themes cover simultaneously personal and universal experiences – what inspires you to write about the contemporary female experience?
I’m preoccupied with the physical nature of being a person and of being a woman in particular, when so much of what’s external seems preconditioned to do you physical harm. I write about transformation a lot and about instability – difficult female bodies and the uncomfortable way they sit in the world.
I like books which look at the female experience at a slight squint – Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Daisy Johnson’s Fen. Books that don’t necessarily present you with a dystopia, but rather consider real life presented a little wrong or a little askew. Everyone’s behaving normally, but also there’s a wolf at the dinner table. I think that can be the most effective way of approaching a subject, when it’s fairly recognisable, but off by perhaps a factor of two. My brother recently came up with a pretty watertight descriptor of the tone I’m usually trying to hit in my writing, which was to widen his eyes very slightly and announce, unconvincingly, “This is all fine”. That’s what I try to do – write about things almost as we know them, except that something’s a little funny and everyone’s pretending it’s ok.
You were longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Foundation Prize. Then you won the White Review Prize for your short story The Great Awake. How has this shortlisting and award-win helped you in your path to publication?
The longlisting was really the key moment for me, because that’s how I found my agent. Sam Copeland read submissions for the Deborah Rogers Prize and approached me when I was longlisted, which made for a very exciting morning! I happened to be sharing a hotel room with my best friend at the time and woke her up screaming, which I’m sure she appreciated. The whole process actually moved very quickly after that – the manuscript I’d submitted to the Deborah Rogers Prize included four or five of the nine stories I’d already written and so the collection was more or less ready to go as soon as I signed with RCW. Winning the White Review Prize shortly afterwards was a fantastic boost and certainly helped with selling the collection, plus bizarrely I happened to win on the same day my brother got his first job at the RSC, so no one in my family got much sleep that night.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have essentially bypassed the search for an agent, which I know can be one of the most daunting things to contemplate. The main thing I’d draw from this is that submitting to competitions and journals wherever possible really is invaluable because you never know who’s going to read your work and decide it’s for them. Submitting can be incredibly expensive but there are awards and bursaries available (the White Review offers around 50 free entries on the basis of need) and the number of good places you can submit to completely free is still pretty high.
Now that you have exciting two-book deals with Picador in the UK – and with Flatiron in the US, how do you stay calm and keep focused on your writing?
Oh, no, I don’t stay calm.
I would say that, for me, having a full-time job on top of my writing is actually a real advantage, because I find it a lot easier to stay in “work” brain than I do to turn dead time into working time. I write a lot better in the evenings after work than I do on weekends, because I’m already in work mode.
It’s actually much easier to stay focused on the writing now that I have the deals, because I work a lot better with deadlines and direction. I know that won’t be the case for everyone but expectations are the biggest incentive for me. I’m working on edits for the collection right now as well as sketching out the novel and it’s so helpful to have that pressing feeling of my agent and editors expecting something of me – it makes it a lot easier to work than it was when I was only writing for myself.
But no, none of this means I stay calm, ever.
And, go on, tell us what it’s like to get those great publishing deals …
It’s incredibly exciting, of course, but I suppose the thing I should have anticipated is that the goal you’ve been working towards, your whole writing life, is never actually going to be the pinnacle. Reaching it just means you then have to focus on the next thing and then the next thing and I personally think that being a writer means never being totally satisfied with anything you’ve achieved. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very much the best thing in the world to find people who are truly excited about your writing and want to work with you to make it better, but the making it better is really what then becomes key. What I mean to say is it’s completely fantastic but I know I’ll always be looking towards what comes next. It can be hard to just stop for a second and sit in how good it feels!
Any hints as to what your debut novel is about and whether it will explore similar themes to the short stories?
It will hopefully explore similar territory to the collection but on a larger scale. Currently it’s set at a strange facility where women are apparently taken when it’s judged that they can’t be trusted with their own bodies in some way.
And whatever happened to that first novel, with the long sentences?
Definitely consigned to the drafts bin, although I’ll go back and cannibalise the good bits sometimes, the way I always do with everything I’ve written in the past.
Your CBC student group was one of the closest-knit we’ve ever had – continuing to meet up and workshop together for years after the course ran – and even publishing a group short story collection, The Book of Unwritten Rules. How has your cohort helped you in your writing, and are you STILL all in touch, seven years on?
We are still in touch and almost all of us try to see each other in a group at least a couple of times a year. The lovely thing about that group was that everyone felt very genuine excitement about everyone else’s work and I think that’s such a key part of why we kept in touch. When you think someone’s writing is fantastic, you want to keep tabs on them, just to see where they go!
And is there any one piece of advice you were given on the CBC course which has been particularly useful to you?
Cut it down, cut it way way down. That sounds like a joke but it was actually very freeing to be told I needed less, half as much, that you didn’t have to throw every trick and simile at every sentence every time.
Finally, if YOU gave one piece of advice to people just starting to write, what would it be?
Find other people who write and stick to them. Every April or so you’re probably going to declare that you’re done and you’ve failed and you can’t write any more and that’s that and you’re becoming a travel agent and moving to New Zealand and at that point, you will need your writing friends to completely ignore you until you get over it. You don’t need to be indulged at moments like that – you just need people in the same boat as you, who know you can do it.
If you’re interested in taking part in an intensive selective-entry novel-writing course, like Julia did, why not apply for one of our upcoming 3-month courses, in London with Charlotte Mendelson (scholarship place available) or online with Nikita Lalwani.
Or, you can enrol today on one of our 6-week online novel-writing courses for different stages of the writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel or Edit and Pitch Your Novel.