It’s not about you! Top tips for chairing literary events

The Open University’s Art’s Research Centre collaborated with Milton Keynes Literary Festival to train OU staff and MK Lit Fest volunteers to chair conversations with authors ahead of our joint events series, The Long and Short of It: From flash fiction to the doorstop novel.

Here, part-time PhD student, Antonia Saunders, who attended the training on campus, shares with us what she learnt.

A middle-aged white woman with long blond hair, wearing a green dress. She is standing up and talking.

The training was led by Julia Wheeler, a writer, journalist and interviewer who worked for the BBC for more than fifteen years. Julia chairs discussions at festivals across the UK as well as in the Middle East and North America. She has moderated events at The British Library, The Royal Geographical Society and onboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2.

What’s the role of a moderator?

A great moderator is hardly noticed. You are offering a space for the author to shine. This includes asking relevant, interesting and concise questions. It’s your job to judge and manage the energy of both the audience and the author. A good sense of timing is crucial. Give the author the chance to respond engagingly to your conversation-starters, and leave time for questions from the floor. When an event is going well, you hardly notice the moderator.

How should a moderator prepare?

The weeks before: be the class swot. Become acquainted with the author’s latest work or the book they are promoting. A close reading will help you to form relevant questions related to central themes. It’s also beneficial to have some knowledge of the author’s backlist. Reading reviews can help to open up ideas from another perspective, and previous interviews can help you to avoid well-trodden ground and come up with some fresh and insightful questions. Follow the author on social media. Have they posted something recently that you can ask them about? Tailor your questions to the audience and event. Keep your questions focused on the guest as a writer. Remember, you aren’t revising for an exam, you are preparing for a fascinating conversation. What do you hope to discover about the author and their work?

One week before: be a safe pair of hands.

Contact the author to remind them of the event blurb, time and place. Include your own short bio so that they have a sense of who you are. Tell them how much you are enjoying the book and pull out something specific to praise.

Confirm whether the author is planning to read from their work, making clear that a reading should not last for more than two minutes. With a poet, you might weave a few short readings throughout the conversation, and you might end with a reading too. With prose, one short reading is sufficient.

Be upfront about certain themes you’ll need to cover to be true to the event description. Ask if there is anything the author would especially like you to ask – that dream question, perhaps, that no one has asked about before. Don’t close the conversation down by asking if there’s anything they do not want to cover. If the author happens to raise any no-go areas, though, be sure to respect them.

The hour before: You’re in charge!

Arrange the chairs so that you are angled towards one another while facing the audience. Bring a cookbook stand to position the book the author is promoting. Engage technical staff to check the audio equipment is working. Ensure the stage is clear of any trip hazards. Pour out the water before. Brief any volunteers who might be holding the roving mics. Ask them to keep hold of the mics where possible to prevent an audience member from hogging it, and to allow the volunteer to move quickly to the next question to avoid delays. Show the space to the author and advise them that you will enter the stage first and motion them to their place. Be confident and politely assertive.

A middle-aged white woman is interviewed on stage by a young black woman.

OU PhD student Antonia Saunders (right) is interviewed on stage by an MK Lit Fest volunteer.

How should a moderator handle the event itself?

Introductions: Short and punchy

Your introduction should include your name, the name of the event, and a brief description of the author and their work, ensure you mention their latest book. Three or four lines should do the trick. The audience is there to hear from the author so segue swiftly into your first question.

The conversation: Wear your research lightly

Distill your research into a one-page cheat sheet, which you can hide behind a copy of the author’s book! You should avoid referring to this too often, but it can offer a crutch to remind you of important quotations, or to jog your memory with a question to keep a conversation on track.  But it’s important to listen to your guest and respond to their answers appropriately, rather than stick to a pre-formulated list of questions. It should be a conversation not an interrogation!  By briefly summarising the author’s answer you can segue into a deeper exploration of that topic, or you can close it off and move onto another area of interest. Don’t necessarily ask your best question first, rather give the author the chance to warm up. Ask open questions (what, why, how, tell us about, to what extent) to encourage the author to open up. Be prepared to keep the conversation going if the author is a little timid or to anchor the conversation if the author is very talkative. Have a phrase to bring things back if things go wrong. Responses like ‘people always ask that’ or ‘That’s wrong’ can be disconcerting, so have a very open question up your sleeve. ‘What would you like readers to take from the book?’ or ‘What inspired you to write about…?’ Try to maintain eye contact and ensure your body language conveys that you are engaged by what the author has to say.

Handling a panel: Create a dinner party vibe

You’ll need knowledge of one or two texts by each author. Keep in touch with all guests on an email chain. Set up the chairs in a curve, with you at one end and the author you expect to be easiest to work with at the other end. Ensure you give each panellist equal opportunity to speak, regardless of status. A question like ‘how does that resonate with you?’ can be a good way of acknowledging one response before moving onto the next author. Allow the conversation to flow, and don’t be afraid of a little controversy.  Set some hares running!

Online events: The same but different?

A middle-aged caucasian woman in a green rollneck top sits in front of bookcases. She's talking on a Zoom call to a middle-aged Asian woman, who is sitting closer to the screen.

Kamila Shamsie (right) in conversation with Emma Claire Sweeney. Spot the deliberate mistake?…They are not similar distances from the screen!

Check your download speed to ensure your WiFi is working at sufficient speed, and switch off any alerts. Think about the aesthetics of the screen. Lighting should be in front of you, and the author’s book visible behind you. Log in with the author ahead of time to position yourselves a similar distance from the screen. Wear bold un-patterned clothing. Give yourself enough time right before the event to ensure everything is working. Mute and turn off audience cameras during the main discussion. If an event is hybrid, direct one of your first questions to the author dialling in to ensure their voice enters the room early on.

You will need to make extra effort to inject energy into an online conversation to keep it lively and engaging. It’s a good idea to pull questions out of the chat as you go along, rather than saving them all for the Q&A. Remember to nod and smile as the author is talking to show your engagement.

The Q&A: The question in that is…

Establish boundaries at the beginning of the session. Ask the audience, for the sake of time, to keep questions short and punchy. If the audience member gives a comment rather than a question, try to rephrase it as a question. If a question is particularly long, then announce your intention by saying ‘I’m just going to interrupt you there’. This takes the heat out of the interaction. Avoid saying that you have time for one more question in case that question is a dud! And have a supplementary question ready in case the discussion dries up.

Closing: End on a high

Keep to time. Audience members might have other places to be, and event organisers often have a swift turnaround between events. Put as much thought into your closing word as your opening ones. Thank the audience for coming. Give clear directions about where the book is on sale. Thank the author too, of course.

Afterwards: Be kind to yourself

There are almost always things you might have done differently in hindsight. But if you’ve kept your own ego in check, and helped the author take centre stage, then it will have been a job well done.

A headshot of a middle-aged Caucasian woman with a brunette bobbed hairstyle, wearing a maroon floral-patterned dress.

Antonia Saunders

Antonia Saunders studied for both her BA and MA at The Open University. Her part-time PhD looks at the construction of a Jewish Identity in histories and novels of the nineteenth century, and considers the literary and historiographical contexts of representations of Jewish people and Jewish Identity. She is co-convenor of the GOTH (Gender and Otherness in the Humanities) Postgraduate Forum, and she’s chaired discussions on the trope of the ‘Madwoman in the Attic’, gender fluidity in the arts and humanities, the non-human as other, and most recently, feminist readings of fairytales. Her supervisors are Prof. Delia Da Sousa Correia and Prof. Suman Gupta.

 

 

 

Posted in Research | Leave a comment

You’ll Get Old Sitting There: Contempt for Aged Males

In a new publication, OU Creative Writing lecturer Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill and Kevin De Ornellas of Ulster University explore ageism as presented in Edward Bond’s ‘Shakespearean’ trilogy about aged men

Book cover of Negotiating Age: Aging and Ageism in Contemporary Literature and Theatre. The cover image features a silhouette of two figures sitting on a bench watching the sun set over the sea.

Negotiating Age: Aging and Ageism in Contemporary Literature and Theatre, edited by Mária Kurdi, and published by Debrecen University Press

It is argued that three plays by Edward Bond, born in 1934, should be regarded as a loose trilogy—and that the plays are united because they use the legacy of Shakespeare to provoke uncomfortable reflections on aging and ageism.

Two Bond plays are renowned for addressing the vexed legacy of Shakespeare head-on.

Lear (1971) is an uncompromising appropriation of King Lear in which Bond ‘corrects’ Shakespeare’s too-casual treatment of the under-represented effects of the mad king’s actions on the poor of the mismanaged kingdom of Britain.

Bingo (1973) is a bitter depiction of a dying Shakespeare who realizes that his art has been worthless because it has done nothing to frustrate murderous inequalities in post-Tudor England.

It is less well known that The Worlds (1979) is also a Shakespearean adaptation. The story of an arrogant company director, Trench, who loses his position and degenerates into a rabid, destructive, tramp-like, terrorist-supporting misanthrope, is an adaptation of Timon of Athens.

Bingo is a quasi-biographical conceit; the other two plays are radical appropriations.

Julie Sanders’s definition of appropriation as opposed to mere adaptation is important here. She argues that appropriation represents more decisive journey away from the informing text into a wholly new cultural product.

In other words, appropriations, such as those by Bond, are new works in their own right. They are not adaptations of Shakespeare but radical new plays contrived to perpetuate Bond’s theatrical, political, and moral vision.

Edward Bond at the Théâtre National de la Colline, Paris, January 2001. Author: D. Tuaillon. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Many critics have written about Bond’s engagement with Shakespeare—especially Lear and Bingo. But none have afforded The Worlds the same attention as the previous two.

Crucially, critics have, understandably, concentrated on the quasi-Brechtian staging techniques in Bond’s plays as well as the blistering, uncompromisingly leftist critiques of historical and contemporary economic and social inequalities. But none have addressed the arguably more humanistic issue of ageism.

This is important because the lead characters in the three plays are all victims of ferocious ageism. Despite his callousness, Bond’s Lear is a man more sinned against than sinning because his aged impotence and alleged senescence are met with even more overt contempt than in Shakespeare’s original.

Shakespeare, in Bingo, is openly mocked for willful inactivity by his supposed friend, Ben Jonson, and by his shrewish daughter, Judith.

And Trench, in The Worlds, is revered when fit to run his company but ruthlessly marginalized and discarded when he is forcibly retired from his own executive board.

The descent into psychological torment that all three lead characters endure is directly related to ageism. Aging is almost entirely presented as a cause for scorn and derision in these plays. Bond generally sidesteps any sense of aging well: in his plays, good aging cannot be bought. The three leading characters addressed in this essay do improve as people—but only within themselves and in a manner unnoticed and/or unappreciated by their contemporaries.

The plays are set variously in ancient Britain, in Jacobean England and in late-1970s Britain: it is widely acknowledged that Bond rightly or wrongly sees consistent economic discrimination across these vastly different eras. It should, we argue, also be apparent that Bond sees bigotry towards the aged as being another social malady that is consistent across centuries and even millennia.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of reflection on aging and on inter-generational conflict. Characters in Shakespeare plays often ‘retire’: King Lear relinquishes his kingship; Lady Macbeth skulks off and gives up on public life; and Prospero breaks his staff.

Across Bond’s three plays, he appropriates Shakespearean meditations on aging and juxtaposes them with his own observations about society’s disregard for those who are no longer economically productive.

This blog post is an adapted extract from: Kevin De Ornellas and Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill (2024) “You’ll Get Old Sitting There”: Contempt for Aged Males in Three ‘Shakespearean’ Works by Edward Bond. In: Kurdi, M. (ed.) Negotiating Age: Aging and Ageism in Contemporary Literature and Theatre. Debrecen University Press, 26-47.

The authors would like to thank Anoush Simon for practical assistance in the production of this essay.

Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill, a lecturer in Creative Writing at The Open University

Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill is a lecturer in Creative Writing at The Open University, United Kingdom. His research interests are in authorship and structures of production in theatre for social change, and theatre in post-conflict societies. Upcoming publications include a chapter on ethics and aesthetics in applied theatre in the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Literary Evaluation, chapters on writing drama in the upcoming Creative Writing Handbook from Bloomsbury, and a monograph on post-conflict Irish theatre for University of Exeter Press.

Kevin De Ornellas, a white middle-aged male with a beard. He's wearing a black beanie and a maroon woollen jumper, and he's crouched in front of a patch of daffodils.

Kevin De Ornellas, a Lecturer in English at Ulster University

Kevin De Ornellas is a Lecturer in English at Ulster University. His PhD is in English Renaissance Literature from Queen’s University Belfast, and his research focuses on drama on stage and on the page – especially Renaissance and post-War drama. He is also interested in the study of representations of animals and the environment in literature and culture. His publications include The Horse in Early Modern English Culture (2013), chapters in several books, among them The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Literature, and the Companion to Literary Biography. He is an editor of the forthcoming  Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Literary Evaluation.

Posted in Creative Writing, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kidnapped by Agatha Christie and OpenLearn

In readiness for the BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy, which will air this festive season, senior lecturer Anthony Howell lets us in on how the Queen of Crime has added a touch of mystery to new Open University courses.

The sheer star power of Agatha Christie took me by surprise, I must admit. I was aware of the statistics (her novels have sold over 2 billions copies) and that her best-known protagonist, Hercule Poirot, was enjoying new prominence as a result of the recent Kenneth Branagh adaptations. But given that I primarily investigate the dusty corners of the late 18th- and early 19th century (and am used to being read mostly by two old university friends and the dog) I was struck by the degree to which she justified the label ‘popular’. We had decided to make ‘Literature and the Popular’ the organising theme for the first block of teaching material on the new MA in English Literature (A893). But, quite honestly, there is popular fiction and then there is Agatha Christie, in a class all of her own.

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (2022). This image is publicly available.

With some trepidation, I volunteered early in module production to contribute a unit on Christie for the new MA. I had enjoyed her novels since my teenage years but writing about them in a teaching context would involve venturing some distance from my specialism. Nevertheless, I was confident that with some preparation I could get a handle on it. Christie is normally considered ‘middlebrow’ as an author and, clearly, her work is intended as a form of escapism. Among other things, I was able to touch on how this made it, in the words of Alison Light, an invaluable ‘literature of convalescence’ for the British public after the the First World War. However, Christie also possessed a seemingly supernatural skill for crafting a satisfying clue-puzzle story and it became clear to me that this was the key to the cultural impact of her fiction.

The unit was later adapted into an OpenLearn course, Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, with the help of the module Chair, Alex Tickell. Launched in 2006, OpenLearn is the Open University’s home of free learning. It hosts over 10,000 free courses, articles, activities and videos. There were around 15 million visits to the platform last year from all over the globe so pairing Agatha Christie with OpenLearn always had the potential to be a powerful combination. You can view the course here.

OpenLearn: the home of free learning at the OU

Right away, it seemed to have a ready-made audience and the ability to travel all by itself with minimal effort (certainly from me). A range of people interested from all walks of life began to click though the minute it landed on Google. I was invited to take part in different kinds of media to promote it. Local radio, for example, with a lighter tone and a mainstream audience. It was hugely enjoyable. The Faculty’s social media team created a buzz with some activities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. People responded immediately, sharing pictures of their own rare collections of Christie’s novels, participating in quizzes and games and generally responding very warmly to this opportunity to share their enthusiasm for one of their favourite authors.

Although we did take the course out into the world, the world also came looking for us. For the first time, I received emails out of the blue from learners not yet enrolled on an Open University course. One wanted help to download and print a copy of the course for her elderly mother, who struggled to read on a screen. Another had recently visited Torquay museum and thought the course might be a good fit for the Agatha Christie display there.

Agatha Christie at her home: Winterbrook House, Berkshire, 1950. This image is publicly available.

Professionally too, unsolicited requests arrived. An offer came to act as a reviewer for a new course on European Crime fiction, currently under production in the school of Social Sciences at the OU. I was encouraged to attend ‘Captivating Criminality’, the annual conference of the International Crime Fiction Association, which took place at the imposing setting of Corsham Court in Wiltshire. Experts in the field were keen to hear more about the OpenLearn course and the feedback from students. I’ll be moonlighting at the next one in Budapest too.

This is a very roundabout way of explaining that, since writing the course, I have found myself periodically snatched away from my usual teaching and research interests and taken in quite different directions. It sometimes feels as if I have been kidnapped by Christie herself and taken by her to new places without very much agency of my own; plotted helplessly into a new narrative.

Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction now feels established on OpenLearn. In the first few weeks, the course page had received over 15,000 visits. As of this month, that has now risen to 57,000 visits and 2,460 enrolled learners (with 806 gaining statements of participation). I was delighted to learn that the course will soon feature in a new landing page featuring Women in the Arts, curated by Hannah Parish. I would say that it’s comfortably the biggest pedagogical impact I’ve managed to have in my career so far. But, although it’s been enormous fun for me, it doesn’t feel much like my impact. I’m left, in the end, along with the detective fiction enthusiasts, to ponder a familiar question: whodunit?

Anthony Howell is a Senior Lecturer, Staff Tutor and Associate lecturer in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at the Open University. He is currently Chair of the MA in English Part 2 and a module team member on A893 and A894. Anthony has contributed teaching units to a variety of OU modules and developed new teaching strategies to support students in secure environments. His research interests are in the field of Romanticism, in particular the work of Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and John Clare.

Posted in Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fine Balance: writing, teaching, public engagement

When the world opened again after lockdown, my steadfast companion was the view out my home office window of a fell in Cumbria. Fell ponies often arranged themselves along the ridge of the commons above grazing sheep, backlit by low winter sun. I would gaze at their silhouettes when I needed a break from my computer screen. Former colleagues at brick-and-mortar universities in the US and UK began heading back to campus as COVID restrictions were lifted. I’d taken a job at the OU working from home during the pandemic, and I’d moved five hours north in search of an affordable house with a garden. My ‘new’ office was in a converted bedroom. I couldn’t go to campus or meet colleagues face-to-face for several months after lockdown eased, so I dug in and reconciled myself to living and working in what I came to think of as my ‘fast-moving cloud,’ the western slope of the Howgills.

Fell ponies

Working at the OU has transformed my life as an academic. Moving into a home-based role that is part operational, part distance learning, and part research has provided time for reflection. Most days after lunch, I walk a different lane or track or public footpath in my tiny village where sheep outnumber humans, and I think about things. I live on the edge of the Lake District, countryside that writers Dorothy and William Wordsworth and their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have found familiar. At first, the reality of experiencing the romantic notion of the ‘sublime’ was quite a shock, and it took months to connect with the land in a way other than fear (of high winds, low clouds, and gusting rain) or dread (of same). With time, though, I settled in and got on with work and with writing and connecting with local writers and artists, which has made everything better, especially the low-lying clouds.

Like other writers who have lived in isolated landscapes, I’ve found this time fruitful. A collection of personal essays There is Fire Here was published in September by a small UK publisher, Signal 8 Press. I have long been a fan of the ‘fourth genre,’ and There Is Fire Here has been a satisfying opportunity to bring together fifteen essays spanning the day I dropped out of high school in Texas and left home on the back of a motorbike at sixteen, to my move across the Atlantic to the UK, where I learned how to write poetry.

Some of the joys of being a writer and an academic are the connections between your research, your teaching, your colleagues, and public outreach. My work in creative nonfiction includes my own writing, my teaching, and public engagement—a circle which is finely balanced within my role at the OU.

While I was working on finalising the manuscript for There Is Fire Here, I was asked to serve on the panel that would be revising the third-year Arts & Humanities module, A363 Advanced Creative Writing. I proposed that we expand the teaching on life writing.

Emma Claire Sweeney, the discipline’s Media Lead and a fellow course author, asked if I might like to interview Kit de Waal for the Milton Keynes Literary Festival. De Waal’s debut memoir Without Warning and Only Sometimes had recently been released and the festival needed someone to interview her. It was a dream role. I was sent all her previous books to read, which included several novels and an anthology she edited, Common People. I set those on my bedside table and devoured them.

Kit de Waal

During my conversation with de Waal at Milton Keynes Lit Fest, I confessed in front of the festival audience that I had cried on the train finishing one of de Waal’s novels, My Name Is Leon. In the same way that she had wowed me with her stories, Kit wowed the crowd, made them laugh and cry, held them enthralled for the entire hour. An OU camera team were there to record it all.

Soon, clips from that conversation with Kit de Waal will be part of the next iteration of A363 Advanced Creative Writing, a culmination of research, teaching and public engagement woven through bespoke teaching materials for the OU. I’ve sent Kit a copy of my book, and fingers crossed, she’ll be attending my online book launch on Wednesday 8th November, when I’ll be in conversation with brilliant UK writer, Zoe Lambert.

Tickets are free and it will be a relaxed evening. I’ll be joining from Cumbria, in a comfy spot by the woodstove. Grab your favourite drink, settle in somewhere cozy and join us.

Lania Knight

Lania Knight holds a BSc in Plant Science and Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire, and an MA and PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. She is the author of four books, including two novels, Three Cubic Feet, shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award in Debut Fiction, and Remnant, a dystopian novel set in the American Midwest, as well as a poetry pamphlet Single-Track B-Road, and a collection of personal essays There Is Fire Here.

Posted in Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The OU Near You: summer festival edition

In this bonus summer post, Jennifer Shepherd, Chair of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences team in Ireland, shares a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the Open University’s partnership with the John Hewitt Society’s annual Summer School.

What does summertime mean to you?

For me, it’s festival time.

Each summer, I find myself in the picturesque cathedral town of Armagh, Northern Ireland at the Marketplace Theatre, home to the annual John Hewitt International Summer School. Now in its 36th year, the festival is hosted by the John Hewitt Society, established to celebrate the legacy of local poet, art historian and social activist John Hewitt.

Hewitt’s legacy is everywhere in evidence here in Armagh in late July, as a diverse group of writers, visual artists, musicians, political commentators and social entrepreneurs gather to celebrate the power of story to explore some of the most pressing social issues we face today on the island of Ireland.

It’s warm and unpretentious and full of surprises.

One day the mainstage hosts eminent Irish playwright Frank McGuiness, sharing the wit and wisdom of a literary career spanning over 4 decades; another day finds bestselling crime writer Denise Mina discussing her take on hard-boiled crime fiction; still another, a round table of political commentators and journalists pitch ideas for engaging citizens meaningfully in the Northern Ireland political system.

Everywhere there’s story, whether it takes the form of images – such as Nigel Swann’s haunting photographs of the ‘Yellow Star’ houses of Budapest – or music, provided by award-winning folk artist Jack Warnock.

As an OU academic based in Northern Ireland, I have the pleasure of managing a partnership with the John Hewitt Society on the delivery of the Summer School. It’s a natural fit since the Open University has much to offer local conversations around politics, history, and creativity.

Collaborating with the John Hewitt Society for the last decade has allowed the Open University in Ireland to showcase the incredible quality of our teaching and research, particularly in the area of creative writing.

Heather Richardson, Nessa O’Mahony, and Siobhan Campbell

It’s a pleasure to meet festival-goers during the week who have signed up for workshops led by OU writers – this year, we were joined by novelist Heather Richardson, and poets Nessa O’Mahony and Siobhan Campbell. Festival-goers are full of praise for our teachers, noting that OU writers really ‘see’ each student and bring out the very best in them and their writing.

‘Oh, you’re with the OU,’ is how I’m often greeted when I introduce myself in the busy foyer between events—because if there’s a proverbial zero degrees of separation in Ireland, the same holds true here for the Open University.

Jennifer Shepherd (right) with former OU student

At the local book vendor’s festival stall, a man tells me his friend is studying on the new English Lit MA and really enjoying it. I encounter a woman at the OU pop-up stand who confides that she’s already got a place reserved on an MA programme and wonders if she can get further details.  Another man lingers over the OU leaflets on display and tells me a long story about a professional life that took many unplanned turns. He always wanted to study law but never got the chance – did I think it was too late for him? A former OU student of my own waves from across the crowded foyer and makes her way over for a catchup and selfie.

She reminisces fondly about her first OU module and grins at the memory of her debut at an Open University open mic night, the first of many engagements over the years as an accomplished poet and flash-fiction writer.

And maybe this is what I like most about my annual pilgrimage to Armagh each summer: to see the power of story at work in unexpected places.  While speakers on the mainstage are inspiring us with tips for master storytelling or compelling new visions for a shared future in Ireland, I’m seeing something just as exciting at my Open University pop-up stand. People talk about their daily lives and, when they do, I get a glimpse of the way in which OU study allows people to write new futures for themselves and shape the story of their own lives in fresh and exciting ways.

Jennifer Shepherd

Originally from Canada, Jennifer Shepherd completed her PhD at the University of Alberta and post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Hull. She is a Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at the OU. As chair of the FASS team in Ireland, she is responsible for facilitating local knowledge exchange and engagement opportunities, as well as maintaining partnerships with Ireland-based organisations which include the John Hewitt Society, the Belfast Book Festival, and Dublin/Belfast Culture Nights.

Posted in Collaborations, Creative Writing, English Literature, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From creative practice PhD to academic book publication: a eureka moment!

The previous post in our series on the PhD journey and beyond explored the nature of research in Creative Writing. Following up on this, recent PhD graduate, Shanta Everington, shares her experience of adapting her practice-based PhD research for publication.

Much has been written about turning the traditional academic thesis into a monograph. As a researcher undertaking a practice-based PhD, my journey to book publication was a little different. A PhD in Creative Writing typically comprises two connected components – a book length piece of creative writing (in my case, experimental life writing) and an accompanying critical commentary exploring the process of producing the creative writing.

Many Creative Writing PhD students write novels or poetry collections which are then published by mainstream or independent publishers on completion. As a previously published novelist, I initially planned for my life writing to be published as a stand-alone creative non-fiction book, and the content of the critical commentary to find its way to an audience via peer-reviewed journal articles and conference papers.

Contemporary explorations of motherhood have primarily focused on the biological mother raising the child she gave birth to. My research project, ‘Other Mothers’, aimed to give voice to women who become mothers through the alternative routes of adoption, surrogacy and egg donation, and their silent partners – the birth mothers, surrogate mothers and egg donors – who make motherhood possible for them.

I interviewed six women, drawing on a range of interdisciplinary approaches, and created a body of experimental life writing, which aims to expand our understanding of what it means to be a mother.

The research presents the stories of a mother via egg donation and adoption; an egg donor; someone who became a mother through surrogacy in India; a surrogate mother; an adoptive mother of two who was herself adopted as a baby; a birth mother in her seventies who gave her baby up for adoption fifty years ago. My own personal experience of pregnancy loss and adoption offers a seventh voice.

At the end of the PhD, I approached a few literary agents who handled creative non-fiction. Although I received a few encouraging rejections, I wasn’t hitting the mark for the mass-market route. Then I had my eureka moment!

Another Mother: Curating and Creating Voices of Adoption, Surrogacy and Egg Donation

Through creative practice as research, I developed an experimental approach to writing lives – a hybrid form of curated material (edited interview and quotation collage) and created material (poetry, reimagined scenes and lyric essay), a literary tapestry building on Jo Parnell’s idea of the literary docu-memoir. There is a duality to the research’s original contribution to knowledge which lies in both its expansion and analysis of life writing techniques. Both components – the experimental life writing AND the critical meta-narrative analysing the artistic, ethical, personal and political considerations involved in transforming life into literature – are of equal significance and belong together. After a rethink, I decided to pitch a book consisting of both parts. In some ways, this might limit my readership – for example, women considering adoption, surrogacy and egg donation might be interested in a book of women’s stories but perhaps not so interested in critical analysis of form. Yet in other ways, it expanded the book’s potential readership, to anyone interested in motherhood, gender and women’s studies, life writing studies, the sociology of reproduction, creative non-fiction writing approaches, oral history and ethnography studies.

It seemed that an academic publisher would be my best bet for these audiences. Pitching to an academic publisher was quite unlike my previous experience submitting to literary agents, the gatekeepers of commercial publishing. Although I didn’t need an agent, there was a new set of gatekeepers to get past – the peer reviewers.

My external viva examiners helped me frame my writing as a form of autoethnography, connecting my own personal experience of motherhood and the experience of other mothers to wider cultural, political and social understandings. After looking at a range of academic publisher lists, I found a commissioning editor of an ethnographical series who I thought might be interested in work spanning both literature and social sciences.

Emily Briggs at Routledge expressed interest and helped me rework my proposal. At this stage, I still planned for the book to be published in its original structure: creative writing first and critical commentary second. Emily sent me a similar creative-critical title that she’d commissioned, Situated Writing as Theory and Method: The Untimely Academic Novella by Mona Livholts, which presented the theoretical framework before the novella; Emily and I agreed a similar structure for my book, switching the original order.

Peer review flagged up problems with connotations of ‘other’ in research title ‘Other Mothers’, and so, ‘Another Mother’ was chosen to represent the triangular nature of motherhood via adoption, surrogacy and egg donation. I took on board suggestions for beefing up existing content and adding additional material, mainly in the areas of politics and power, as well as gender identity issues dissecting with motherhood.

As a creative writer responding to feedback from sociologists, I had to remain clear on my research aims and parameters. Brochner and Ellis (2016) set out two forms of autoethnography: analytic and evocative – the former developing theoretical explanations of phenomena and the latter offering a narrative presentation that opens up conversations and evokes emotion. My work was firmly the latter, raising questions to which there are no easy answers, offering a discursive site on motherhood. The book presents a collage of voices and forms, offering stories which are open to multiple readings and interpretations.

 

Shanta Everington

Dr Shanta Everington is Associate Lecturer at The Open University, where she gained her PhD in Creative Writing. A creative and critical writer working across a range of forms, much of Shanta’s writing explores recurring themes of difference, identity and belonging. Previous books include novel Marilyn and Me (2007), narrated by a young woman with a learning disability, and young adult dystopian novel XY (2014), exploring gender identity. A consultant for the Royal Literary Fund, working as a Writing Fellow and a Reading Round Lector, Shanta is also a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE).

Another Mother: Curating and creating voices of adoption, surrogacy and egg Donation was published by Routledge on 8th June 2023.

Posted in Research | Leave a comment

Custom and Practice in Creative Writing Research

We kicked off our series on the PhD journey and beyond, with a post from an English Literature PhD student, which offered a glimpse into a trip to an archive. This month, one of our Creative Writing PhD students, Alistair Daniel, shares his reflections on a very different form of research.

The customs officer flipped the pages of my passport and frowned. ‘What’s the purpose of your visit?’ he said.

I removed my fingers from the biometric scanner, leaving little crescents of sweat. I had not been looking forward to this question.

‘I’m doing research for a novel,’ I said.

The officer frowned. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘Can’t you just make it all up?’

Creative writing research has an image problem. While few people question the idea of research in other disciplines, in my experience, when you tell someone you’re doing creative writing research, they start to smile, visualising a pair of air quotes that hover over the word ‘research’ like a sceptical drone. If, when pressed as to the nature of this ‘research’, you admit that it involves spending five days in a bed and breakfast outside Hallowell, Maine, where you plan mostly to sit by a lake, the smile tends to broaden considerably. This is just a jolly, says the smile. You’re having a laugh.

Even if your trip doesn’t bear a suspicious resemblance to a holiday, the question still stands: what is creative writing field research for? After all, some writers don’t seem to need it. Shakespeare never went to Verona. And it’s amazing what can be gleaned nowadays from YouTube and Google Earth. Did I really need this field trip at all?

Montreal, the novel I was planning to research, is set not in Montreal but in a summer camp in central Maine where my protagonist, a hapless 19-year-old philosophy student called Simon Pritchard, has come to work in the kitchen. When not dicing carrots, Simon plans to spend his time transforming himself into a philosopher. To cut a medium-length story short, his plan goes tragically wrong.

Over the previous five years, I’d done the work of imagining Simon and his world – of making it all up – but that (I didn’t tell the customs officer) was partly why I needed to go: I needed to see how much of it was true. But there were other reasons as well. As a philosophy student, Simon is full of romantic Sartrean ideas about self-transformation. He finds an idyllic spot by a lake, a boulder hidden from the rest of the camp, and attempts to philosophise there, making phenomenological observations about his surroundings and noting them down. I needed to know what he would note. I needed to see what he saw. I needed to sit by a real Maine lake on a real Maine rock observing real Maine dragonflies, insects and birds, observing the kind of moss that grows on the Eastern Hemlock, touching the bark of an Eastern White Pine, hearing the unsettling cry of a loon, inhaling the stench of lake mud and Amber Solaire. I needed the sort of rich sensory detail that can’t be conjured by watching videos on YouTube.

Alistair sitting on a rock at the edge of a vast lake, notebook in hand.

Arriving in Boston I was excited, but anxious. Any writer knows that the timing of research, as much as the research itself, can be crucial. I’d originally applied for a grant in 2020, but Covid intervened. It intervened again in 2021 and by the time I was finally able to go, in the summer of 2022, my novel was almost complete. What if I’d got everything wrong? I was due to submit my PhD in three months’ time. How much would I really be prepared to rewrite at this stage? On the other hand, if it turned out I’d got everything right – that you can, in fact, make it all up – I would have wasted both my time and the university’s generous research grant. The trip would have looked – and felt – like a jolly.

In the end, I needn’t have worried. As I travelled around Maine, following in Simon’s footsteps, I soon realised how worthwhile it would be. Some things, I discovered, I’d got more or less right. There were plenty of rocks at the edges of lakes, many of them suitable for sunbathing and phenomenology. The loons really did sound insane. In this respect, the trip was good for my writerly confidence.

But I made fresh discoveries too. I drove the freeway Simon takes towards Canada – a road you can’t find on YouTube. I ate Maine dishes of the kind served at summer camps (popovers, whoopie pie). I walked out to Bar Island at low tide, a trip Simon takes with the kitchen crew. Two friends in Freeport showed me how to cook a lobster, which Simon does in a climactic scene at camp. I auditioned five different lakes and half a dozen rocks. None of them were exactly what I’d imagined, but between experience and imagination I worked up something that felt right.

And it was while sitting on those rocks that I had some entirely new ideas. I’d already pictured the movements of the dragonflies at the edge of Simon’s lake – after all, I’ve seen dragonflies elsewhere – but I hadn’t realised that Maine has so many kinds. And I discovered that they were hard to identify, even with a guidebook in hand. In previous drafts I hadn’t considered this. I’d imagined Simon buying an Audubon guide and painstakingly identifying each type. In practice, I realised, that would be hard. Dragonflies tend not to stay still, nor do they match the pictures in the book. Very little, in this world, matches the picture. I’d not considered this, or how a somewhat rigid and unimaginative boy like Simon might struggle to cope with the dragonflies’ refusal to conform to a neat taxonomical system. Or how this refusal, this resistance of the world to classification, perfectly suited a novel in which Simon continually pigeonholes other people, fitting them into his own taxonomical system, with fatal results. In this way, I came home with far more than 24,000 words of fresh description: I had new metaphors for the themes of the novel, and new ways of presenting character.

Next time, I’ll tell the customs officer.

Alistair Daniel

Alistair Daniel is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University, where he is completing a PhD in Creative Writing. He has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths and has taught at the University of the Arts London and the University of East Anglia, where he held the Charles Pick Fellowship. His short stories have been published in magazines and journals including The Missouri ReviewThe Stinging FlyNarrative, LitroThe Irish Times and Stand. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2011 and 2020.

Posted in Creative Writing, PhD | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

From PhD Thesis to Monograph: Tips for Editing Your First Book

Heather Hind is a Lecturer in English Literature with research interests in Victorian literature and material culture. She is currently turning her PhD thesis into a monograph. In this post, the second in our series on the PhD and beyond, she shares her hints and tips for getting started with this process.

Motivation

Why do you want to publish a book? And how, in broad terms, do you want to go about it? These questions are worth asking yourself early on. Perhaps you see a monograph as a steppingstone in an academic career. Or maybe you want to disseminate your research to a wider audience. Or publication might be a personal goal. Quite likely, your reasoning is a combination of all of these and more.

There are alternatives to the book route, such as publishing your research via academic journals or public-facing media outlets. In any case, practical life matters need to be factored in too. The post-PhD period can be tricky in terms of employment, access to resources and mentoring, and time.Even if you plan to lightly edit your thesis, the timeline from writing your proposal through to seeing your book being published can be surprisingly lengthy – not to mention busy and uncertain.

My best advice is to keep in mind a clear sense of your motivation for publishing your book, and to create a realistic editing schedule. For me, that has meant being more ambitious than I initially intended with my revisions (because my motivation is academic impact) and assigning plenty of time to do them (acknowledging that I have other demands on my time).

Proposal

The next step, after deciding to publish your book, is to get a proposal and sample chapters in order. I’d highly recommend checking out Laura Portwood-Stacer’s Manuscript Works Archive. Laura is the author of The Book Proposal Book and her website contains guidelines, templates, prompts and all kinds of proposal-writing information.

The broad questions I found useful to think about while writing my proposal, and working out the new shape and emphasis of my monograph, were:

  1. What new perspective/s will my book offer?
  2. What ideas does it connect, or what story does it tell?
  3. How might it inform and influence my field and discipline?

Initial edit

First, remove any thesis-y phrasing and heavy-handed signposting, such as ‘In this thesis…’. Next, revise or cull your footnotes and any extraneous references. One of my PhD supervisors advised me to ‘wear my learning heavily’ in the thesis or, in other words, include plenty of references to show the full breadth and depth of my reading and research. While your monograph should be detailed and well-researched, it doesn’t want quite the same ‘heaviness’ as a thesis. During this initial edit, pay extra attention to the clarity of your writing and flow of your argument. As with your footnotes and references, consider cutting any tangential sentences or paragraphs. It’s a good idea to make space for new material before it’s written, rather than adding and adding to an increasingly baggy monster of a manuscript.

Content and structure

Hot Air Balloon Inflating” by ajagendorf25 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Next, you might rethink your monograph’s overall content and structure. Your examiners’ reports can be very useful here! You may well plan to cut as well as add material, though identifying areas to expand—whether to include unused thesis research or new post-PhD developments—can make for a major selling point in a book proposal. I have heard that some publishers want to see an entirely new chapter for the monograph, though another approach (which I’ve adopted) is to add sections of new material to your existing chapters.

You might also consider restructuring your chapters so that they make more sense (or are more marketable) as a book. For example: would splitting your chapters up into shorter ones help to guide your reader through the material with more ease? Is there a current or emerging topic that you might engage with in a new chapter or sub-section? Can you retitle your chapters (or overall book) to appeal to a wider audience?

With these points in mind, I found it helpful to reread some monographs that I admire to reflect on what works well, especially in terms of structuring the introduction and conclusion.

Academic writing guides

These can also be sources of inspiration. Helen Sword’s books on academic writing are excellent and she also has some free writing tools and videos. Here are two more resources I’ve found helpful for writing and editing:

The Thesis Whisperer – This site is useful for thesis writing pointers as well as general academic writing tips.

Publish Not Perish / Jenn McClearen – A newsletter with a back catalogue of posts that includes tips on all aspects of academic writing.

Valuable tips

Picking up on my earlier point about recognising the pressures of the post-PhD period, here’s the advice I’ve found most helpful.

  • Carve out writing and editing time

I have found online writing retreats vital to gaining momentum with my editing because they force me to sit down, focus, and work in regular blocks. I even volunteered to run a series of them to squeeze more into my calendar. Even if you don’t join a writing group, you could try marking out blocks of writing and editing time in your calendar as well as planned deadlines for chapters or sub-chapters (which work even better if you tell someone about them for accountability!).

  • Look into post-PhD funding and other kinds of support

While there are major postdoctoral funders that provide longer-term fellowships (e.g. Leverhulme, British Academy), these almost exclusively require you to start work on a new project. However, your period or discipline may have societies or associations that provide small pots of research funding to early career academics for developing existing projects or publications (e.g. the Royal Historical Society). Some will cover expenses for research trips (ideal if needed for expanding your monograph), while others may fund proposal writing or even monograph editing. Some have early career memberships and fellowships that provide other benefits to recent PhD graduates, such as academic affiliation, library access, or networking and mentoring opportunities.

  • Keep connected to others

I’ve found academic and peer networks in the form of writing groups, societies, conferences, and PhD/Early Career Researcher friends even more important in the post PhD-period. Whether it’s through presenting and getting feedback on your research, swapping proposals or chapter drafts with someone, or just venting about how it’s all going, don’t underestimate the value of sharing your work-in-progress with others.

Heather Hind

Heather Hind’s monograph will be the first book-length study of Victorian hairwork – the crafting of decorative objects from human hair – and its presence in British literature of the period, with chapters that focus on works by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Wilkie Collins, and Margaret Oliphant. Her broader interests are in nineteenth-century literature, material culture, textiles and handicrafts, and object-led and embodied methodologies.

 

Posted in PhD, Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ins and Outs of Archival Research

Part-time postgraduate researcher, Antonia Saunders, kicks off our series on the PhD journey and beyond with her reflections on a recent trip to Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. As Antonia reveals, her visit not only furthered her research into how 19th-century historians and novelists constructed an idea of Jewishness, it also offered broader and more unexpected rewards.

The Bodleian Library” by malias is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As a part-time PhD student with a full-time job in corporate banking, I sometimes feel as if I am snatching snippets of time to follow my aspirations of becoming a full-time academic.

So, when my supervisors suggested that I use some of my Support Grant to facilitate a three-day research trip to the Bodleian Libraries, I got onto it straight away. The prospect was overwhelmingly appealing: access to materials relating to my research on Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disraeli, and George Eliot; accommodation in college rooms; an uninterrupted period to focus on my research.

I needed to apply for a Bodleian Reader card ahead of my visit, and my supervisor very kindly supplied me with a letter of introduction. I could order materials for my visit up to five days before. My list of archival materials has over forty items, and you can only order up to ten items at a time. So, I selected what I thought might be the most relevant ones to look at on my first visit.

These included handwritten manuscripts and typed proofs of Disraeli’s novels, and one of George Eliot’s notebooks from 1861, and two for 1868 when she first conceived the idea of her long poem The Spanish Gypsy. I also wanted to consult Gordon S. Haight’s seven volumes of George Eliot’s letters in the Old Bodleian Library as these have not, as yet, been digitized.

I spent most of my visit in the Weston Library with the resources I had ordered. The ability to search through Disraeli’s papers and George Eliot’s notebook was thrilling. At first, I found Disraeli’s handwriting illegible – horizontal lines in brown ink with occasional bumps and tails. I had a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be able to make out anything. But I tried comparing his handwriting to his novels on Project Gutenberg, and – slowly, very slowly – I began to be able to decipher his handwriting, and to note some changes between the manuscript and the finished novels.

George Eliot’s handwriting in her notebooks was meticulously neat, but she had written some pages in Latin, German, and Italian, so I copied down some passages with names and words I recognised to translate later on. I also spent some time in the Old Bodleian Library reading through Haight’s volumes of George Eliot’s letters.

I didn’t get through all of the material I ordered for my visit. Now that I know what is held there, I am planning my next trips with a more focused approach to specific materials – perhaps visiting for one day at a time,

I do, however, highly recommend staying overnight in college rooms. I booked into St. Stephen’s House, a theological college, about a twenty-minute walk from the centre of Oxford. The students were welcoming, and I had some very interesting conversations over breakfast. One of the students had a diamond pin on his lapel with the figures 1897. I asked him of the significance of the year, and he told me it was from the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria and that he collects Victorian merchandise from the golden and diamond jubilees. I also spoke to a visitor who is an Egyptologist translating a ceremonial text held at the Ashmolean Museum.

I completed both my BA and my MA at the Open University, and I am passionate about the egalitarian principles the university is founded on, especially because of the opportunities it has afforded me. However, the chance to sit down and meet other students in a relaxed atmosphere, and to talk about interests beyond my own research, gave me a feel of what it might have been like had I attended university in my youth.

The benefits reaped during my visit went beyond the academic. I also experienced a boost to my mental health. I found it invaluable to clear space in my schedule to focus on my research, to be able to think a thought through without being interrupted by pressures of work or home life, and to be surrounded by such a wealth of learning and knowledge.

Magdalen College, Oxford” by interbeat is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

One of my supervisors, who lives in Oxford, met me for a walk on two of the days. She gave me a tour of Magdalen College, including a walk around the deer park and through a field of snake’s head fritillaries. She also took me to her own alma mater, New College, where we heard the choristers practising.

I started my research in 2020 during lockdown, and I think I have inadvertently adopted sedentary habits – always a potential risk for bibliophiles. But it felt so good to be out and about, walking in the fresh air. It made me reflect on my use of time and to commit to getting outside each day, rain or shine, to clear my mind.

Antonia Saunders

Antonia Saunders studied for both her BA and MA at The Open University. Her primary interest is in the novel in all its forms with a particular concentration on the nineteenth and early twentieth century. She began her part-time PhD at the OU in October 2020. Her thesis, The construction of a Jewish Identity in histories and novels of the nineteenth century, considers the literary and historiographical contexts of representations of Jewish people and Jewish Identity.

Posted in Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment