1 March 2006
Andrea Levy is by far one of today's most successful writers in the Commonwealth.
|Andrea Levy winner of the Commonwealth writers prize 2005.|
She is the author of numerous short stories and has written four successful novels, each of which explore both cultural and social issues faced by young people.
Her books include Every Light in the House Burnin', Never Far from Nowhere, Fruit of the Lemon and her best-seller Small Island - for which she has won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Prize.
Levy, 49, is British-Jamaican and describes herself as a "child of the Windrush." This is because her parents emigrated from Jamaica to England on the Empire Windrush Ship in 1948 to help in Britain's post-war reconstruction. In this interview Levy tells CYP how she started her career as a writer and gives advice to aspiring young writers on how to succeed in the highly competitive literary world.
CYP: When did you first realise that you had a talent for writing? What was it that made you decide to take writing seriously?
Levy: I first realised that I could write after I wrote a letter to a friend of mine in Australia. In my letter to her, I detailed stories that were happening in my life and it was she who told me I had a talent for writing - she said my writing was so vivid that it felt like I was in the room with her.
This came as a bit of a surprise to me as before then I actually had a phobia of writing. You see, I was not very good at spelling at school and therefore used to feel exposed whenever I wrote anything down, in case I had misspelled it.
CYP: What do you think are the qualities of a good writer? What is it that makes a writer successful?
Levy: I think there are four main qualities needed for a good writer. These are tenacity, imagination, courage and humility.
Tenacity is needed because I feel you really have to want to write your story; imagination because you have to have something interesting to write; courage because you have to be bold and not scared of making mistakes and humility because you have to be able to take constructive criticism.
CYP: In your opinion, which topics tend to sell well in the literary industry? i.e. Controversy, Love, Suspense etc.? Are there any no-go areas?
Levy: There are no set rules when picking a topic to write about, as long as it's well-written and you encourage the reader by giving them a good story, the subject is fine. However, I do feel that part of the success of Small Island was due to the fact that it involved the real-life stories of four very different people. I feel that nowadays there is a real hunger for real-life stories as well as real-life TV.
CYP: Before you started your career in creative writing, did you attend a few writing workshops. Can you tell us about them and what you learnt? How important is it to receive training before writing a book?
Levy: I attended writing workshops for two hours every week for six years and worked as a graphic designer the rest of the time. Investing in a writing course was important for me as the classes I attended gave me ideas about the things I could write about. This was extremely important as it made me realise the story I had to tell was worth telling. The workshop gave me confidence in my ability.
It was also good to write stuff and read it out to the 20 other people there, to get advice and ignore the not so useful criticism. I think any good writer has to learn to distinguish between good and bad advice, even if it comes with the best intentions. There will always be people out there who like or dislike your work so you have to also assess the work of these people. As long as you believe in what you are trying to write about, it's up to you to see it through under your own terms.
CYP: Can you tell us about the process you went through to get your books published and yourself publicised?
Levy: It took me a long time to get my work published, my first book, Every Light in the House Burnin', took me two years to write. I sent my manuscripts to six publishers and six agents. I got 11 rejection letters and only one letter saying that there was potential if I improved the book and doubled it in length. So I did that and took it to the agent who in turn spent the next six years going to lots of publishers and receiving lots of rejection letters on my behalf.
Having an agent was essential for me as I would have become disillusioned and given up after so many rejections but they persisted.
CYP: What do you think are the common mistakes and pitfalls for aspiring writers in the industry? Do you think it is difficult for a young writer to be taken seriously?
Levy: The biggest pitfalls in this industry are overconfidence and arrogance that writing is easy and that anything you have to say is interesting without puting work into it. Writing is a craft and it's hard work. You have to be patient, remember writing a book isn't an extension of writing a letter.
CYP: What or who is your inspiration? What keeps you going through difficult times?
Levy: Believing in what I'm writing about and my need to tell the story being greater than anything else. As long as I think that what I'm doing is worthwhile I'm ok. Even if I feel that I want to stop, I write it anyway and then see. I never give up prematurely.
CYP: Why do you think entering literary competitions is important? And what has winning the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Prize done for your career?
Levy: Winning the prizes has been fantastic for my books and me. As a writer, you realise that there are a lot of fiction books out there and receiving an award is like receiving a stamp of approval. It also encourages more people to buy your books and read them. Winning prizes helps sales, gets more people reading your books and so more people enjoying your stories.
If you don't win, it just means that you'll have to do more publicity work for your books.
CYP: How long did it take you to write your best-selling novel - Small Island? Why do you think Small Island became such a success?
Levy: It took me four-and-a-half years to write Small Island. I think it was successful because it was an epic story as well as a meaty read. It made the reader fell like they were learning something about an actual time in history as well as reading a good story.
CYP: Do you think there is room for young (aged 15 - 29 years) talent in the literary world? Is the industry doing anything to encourage young talent?
Levy: I don't think it's particularly difficult if you are young in this industry these days, though it might have been a different story 30 - 40 years ago. Nowadays, people like manuscripts from young writers because they feel they can nurture them as well as get a lot more writing years out of them. Publishers are always looking for well-written books therefore if you are young and talented, they will be very happy to publish your book.
I particularly admire Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, every publisher wants more people like her.
CYP: What are your plans for the future? Tell us about your new novel?
Levy: I don't talk about my new books because however hard I try I can never say enough to convince people that they will be successful. The only way I can convince people that they are good is if they actually read them for themselves.
For more information on Andrea Levy and her books you can log onto her website http://www.andrealevy.co.uk/ .
i think it is great that you are taking out the time to teach little kids about this commonweath