Have you entered our 2021 Story Competition? Emma, one of our Creative Writing tutors , recently met up with one of the judges, local Essex Author Sarah Armstrong. They discussed her recent publications and top tips for Authors.
Emma is currently studying for her PhD and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Authority at the University of Essex. She runs local community writing group, Colchester WriteNight, and has published two collections of short fiction. Next term she is teaching short stories and life writing at ACL.
Your early novels were set locally in Essex, or in locations familiar to you. Even in the first book of the Moscow Wolves series, The Wolves of the Leninksy Prospekt, the protagonist ends up at the University of Essex. Can you tell us the benefits of writing about locations that you know, and how you decided to write about somewhere much further afield – Moscow or Minsk – without ever having been there?
People say that early novels are the most autobiographical, and that was true of the settings in my early books. I needed that security of knowing the places really well, being able to ‘see’ every corner and know what’s inside every cupboard. I took ‘writing what you know’ seriously. I also thought that this would cut back on all the research I’d have to do for a setting I didn’t know well. It was partly true, but I still spent a lot of time on Wikipedia and Google Maps. But there was something about knowing the settings that made them feel too small. I haven’t spent much time in exciting places, and it felt as if it was limiting what I could write about. I wanted to do something bigger, something that went outside my own experiences so I looked army shelves for places I was already interested in, places where I might set a novel. I found books on Moscow all over the place, and that led me to think about spies. The research, which I’d tried so hard to avoid, was brilliant. In reading history books, espionage books and fiction I felt that Moscow opened up the bigger story I’d been looking for.
Tell us about the second book in this series, The Starlings of Bucharest, due to be published in April.
The Starlings of Bucharest follows Ted who has moved from Harwich to London and becomes a film critic for a magazine specialising in films from behind the Iron Curtain. In Bucharest he is asked by the man escorting him to find out some information when he goes to the Moscow film festival, but he’s not sure if that’s a good idea. I wanted Ted to meet some of the same people that met Martha, the main character from The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. They come from different backgrounds and have different expectations of Moscow and the people who live there, and I want to explore the same places and ideas from a different perspective. All of my novels have two narrative voices because I like the way it throws light on our own potential for bias.
You also have a memoir, A Summer of Spying, coming out in February. Can you explain the inspiration for writing this book?
I resisted this book – I wanted to write the sequel to The Starlings of Bucharest and I have never wanted to write about myself. But it was a book I had to write. I have been waiting for years to be summoned for jury service, but I was summoned during the Covid-19 pandemic.
An armed man had broken into a house and the men who owned it were injured – the whole event was recorded, either as images or sounds. After the case finished, I was left with questions about what the full story was behind the attack, and also what the difference was between a house and a home, not just in reference to the case but also in relation to lockdown. I was also struck by how the themes behind the case seemed so relevant to the fiction I write. It wasn’t just about where the truth of the case lay, but about authority itself, the surveillance we are all exposed to, and what it means to belong to a place, Essex, especially in a pandemic.
You’re a member of our writing group, Colchester WriteNight, and have regularly run planning sessions for us. Can you tell us your top tips for preparing to write?
My first top tip for writing is to read – each genre has its strengths and weaknesses, and you are learning the craft as you read. Read everything, fiction, non-fiction, genres you like and genres you think you probably won’t like, and focus on what was published in the last five years. The main problem for writers of short stories is that they don’t read short stories.
My second top tip is to write for its own sake, for the fun of it. Being a member of Colchester WriteNight was essential to me practising how to write on demand when given any prompt, and the small pieces I wrote in those sessions often became the start of bigger stories, and sometimes novels. These flash fictions formed the basis of the fairy tales I used throughout The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt.
The theme for our short story competition this year is ‘Awakenings’. As a judge can you tell us what you’ll be looking out for?
I’ll be looking for a sense that the main character has changed, that they aren’t quite the same at the end of the story as they were at the start. The best way for characters to change is to make decisions that have consequences. Any setting should have some kind of impact – what’s the season, what’s the weather like? Where and when are you taking the reader?
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