Fact meets fiction
‘I have incredibly clear memories of my time at Pembroke,’ says the author Richard Beard (1985).
His recollections of these real events regularly blur into imagined stories. ‘My memories of Pembroke probably provide about 40 per cent of the material of my dreams I should think. Unresolved memories, unresolved events…’
However Richard does not, like so many others, suffer from nightmares about finals. ‘I didn’t have much exam phobia in the first place,’ he says. ‘I had a strange experience where about an hour into my last exam I just sat up, looked out of the window and thought, this is absurd. This whole process is pointless. I could write something much better if I had more time. The person who reads it will get nothing from it because I haven’t thought about it properly. So why I am doing this? It’s futile.’
At that moment he resolved not to pursue a career in academia, a major decision that would go on to shape the course of his life. Nonetheless, he recalls this turning point with a touch of humour: ‘I’m just grateful that I had my epiphany an hour into my last exam and not an hour into my first!’
Since sitting that final exam, Richard has gone on to become a successful writer. He has published five novels including Damascus (1999), which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Lazarus is Dead (2011). He has also written three non-fiction books, each in various ways addressing masculinity: Muddied Oafs (2003), Manly Pursuits (2006) and Becoming Drusilla (2008). Alongside his writing he currently spends half the week working as the Director of the National Academy of Writing. He also convenes the Academy’s Creative Writing summer programme, held at Pembroke College.
In order to run the programme Richard spends a month each summer living and working at Pembroke. We chat whilst sitting with coffee and cake in Café Pembroke and Richard seems both relaxed and genuinely glad to be back.
Of his time as a student at Pembroke, he says: ‘I was very happy here. I lived in College for two of the three years, so you come to feel attached to the stones.’ He also became attached to the friends that he made, both among his peers and within the fellowship. After graduating he stayed in touch with several College fellows including the late Professor Howard Erskine-Hill, Michael Kuczynski and the late James Campbell, with whom Richard would often go to watch local rugby matches. Sport remains a passion; two of his non-fiction titles concern the subject and he also contributed a chapter on sport to the College book Pembroke in our Time (2007).
‘I think my Cambridge was very circumscribed,’ Richards reflects. ‘For me, it was all about Pembroke College. Everything seemed to be here. If I were to draw a map from memory, it would be a little circle containing Pembroke, Market Square, Park Street and the Pembroke sports grounds.’ Perhaps that explains why Cambridge does not seem to have infected his imagination as it does for so many writers. Aside from In Our Time, he only makes reference to Cambridge in one other book – Muddied Oafs – in which the focus is once again on Pembroke College and the sports field.
Overall, the University did not play much of a role in encouraging Richard as a writer. Although he read English, he found that there was very little support for creative writers. ‘As a student of literature it seemed to be more acceptable to write poetry than prose. There was also a very good playwright who was here at the same time as me, Nick Vivian, and he’d take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every year along with lots of other very talented people. That was high-profile creative writing by a student and I think after that everyone else felt a bit intimidated.’
It was only after he graduated that Richard began writing in earnest. The wealth of books that he had read during his degree provided ‘a great reservoir of inspiration’. Free of the demanding Triops reading list, he also began to read ‘for pleasure’ again, enjoying science fiction, romances and thrillers. These gave him the incentive to create stories of his own and six years after graduating he had published three novels. Struggling to sell his fourth he enrolled on the renowned MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA). ‘It was great to find that they had contacts in the publishing industry of the kind that Cambridge didn’t really have,’ he says. ‘Our class also got quite a lot of attention because I was in the last year that was taught by Malcolm Bradbury. We even got on the TV. It was a good time to be there.’
His time at UEA culminated in the publication of his fourth novel and a fifth followed in 2011. His next novel is due out in March 2015. ‘Earlier today I saw the cover that my publishers have designed and it’s fantastic,’ he grins. ‘The book is alright, but the cover is going to be the best thing about it.’ Acts of the Assassins is the second instalment of a loose trilogy that began with Lazarus Is Dead. Richard says: ‘It’s about the deaths of Jesus’ disciples. The conceit of the book is that they’re all being killed off in horrific ways by a serial killer and there’s an investigator trying to find out who is responsible. It’s a historical novel that’s set in the present.’ He laughs. ‘That’s my line. I’ve worked on it and I’m sticking to it.’
Beyond this he already has plans for a third book based on Biblical material, another non-fiction title and a further novel called History of an English Speaking Person, which will focus on the themes of language and growing up. ‘I hate writing the first draft of anything,’ he says. ‘I hire an office so I’ll sit there for about three hours each day writing in longhand. It is a painful struggle. Every time I start a new book I have to go right up to the cliff edge and think it’s never going to work and that I won’t be able to feed my family and that sort of thing. Then I’ll suddenly have the revelations that’ll make it all work. I wish I didn’t have to go to the cliff edge to get to that point but I do. Every single time.’
Once the first draft is complete Richard will edit it in biro before typing it into a computer – which he refers to as ‘the machine’ – before printing it off again and spending hours each day editing the hard copy. He explains: ‘It’s very bad ecologically, but having a print-out makes it much easier and so I advise my students to do the same. To write a good book you have to chop down some trees and I think the equation is in favour of the good book. Just about.’
This kind of practical advice is at the core of Richard’s vision for the National Academy of Writing, which aims to offer specialised training for writers. In particular, Richard has been instrumental in instituting the idea of the so-called Public Edit. In these sessions, brave writers allow him to edit their texts in front of an audience, the logic being that ‘a lesson for one is a lesson for all’. Richard himself thrives on the editing process: ‘I enjoy it because with every draft the text gets better. At the end of a day’s editing you go home happier than when you went because you’ve got something better on the pages.’
Richard is keen to share this joy with students at his alma mater and to reverse a trend that sees young prose writers at Cambridge going unnurtured. To this end he runs Public Edit sessions in the College twice a year. Richard explains: ‘Any member of Pembroke can put forward a text and it’s hugely encouraging to people who want to write. Last year, those writers who were chosen had their texts edited by me and then read aloud by the author Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s a great opportunity.’ He has also helped judge the College’s creative writing competition, the Ivy Compton-Burnett Prize.
Whatever the context, Richard is dedicated to encouraging young prose writers, to helping people ‘take writing seriously in a technical sense’ and to dispelling unhelpful myths about the writing life. For example, he says, ‘We need to get past the idea that everyone has one book in them – which is probably true – and realise that if you’re going to be a writer you need more than one!’
In anticipation of me turning our conversation into a blog post, Richard has some helpful advice to offer. ‘The best way to learn how to write good narrative non-fiction is to learn how to write good fiction. It’s the same techniques.’ This makes sense coming from an author who writes in both forms and who routinely weaves fact and fiction together so closely that they are hard to untangle. Does that mean that when he interviews other writers he uses a little artistic licence? ‘I don’t use a Dictaphone so I usually make up most of the dialogue,’ he confesses. By contrast, I did use a Dictaphone and I haven’t made up any of the dialogue, so this interview can surely be categorised as pure non-fiction. But to what extent have I allowed my imagination to create a fictional character based on the facts or to neaten and embellish the truth? Sometimes fact and fiction sit so closely that it is almost impossible to tell, even for the writer themselves.