Getting Started with Fiction

4 minutes read

At breakfast one Saturday morning in 1991 my attention was caught by a photograph in the paper. A woman stood in a garden, somewhere on the Welsh borders. She was gazing up at the giant spreading leaves of a plant that towered above her, and her face was rapt, intent, illuminated; as if she were gazing at something holy. Behind her, at some distance, stood an old stone house. I said aloud, ‘There’s a novel there,’ and tore out the page.


What happened in that moment was something approaching what Vladimir Nabokov has described as ‘the throb, the glimmer’ which ignites a piece of creative work. A miraculous, mysterious and most precious thing.


This woman, with her wiry hair and other-worldly face, became for me the virginal and reclusive poet Gillian Traherne, descended from the seventeenth-century Herefordshire poet-priest Thomas Traherne. Her father was another poet, who drowned when she was three. Now, in adulthood, she lives on the Welsh borders in the house of her childhood, in an uneasy relationship with her widowed mother, Phoebe. Phoebe cares nothing for poetry: her life is in her garden. Londoners come to live nearby. Gillian, who knows nothing about men, falls rapturously and disastrously in love.


I began this novel in fear and apprehension. It took me many years, but I concluded in a state of exaltation. Though I have written several novels since, and one or two I’m proud of, I still consider The Hours of the Night (1996), my fifth, as the book of my life. It won an award and – amazingly – I still, now and then, get letters about it. And the writing gave me – eventually – such joy.

I began this novel in fear and apprehension. It took me many years, but I concluded in a state of exaltation.

 I drew on Welsh-border country known to me from many walking and family holidays, but entirely reimagined. I invented for the drama the long quiet lanes; the farm and the fields behind it; the church with a plaque to Gillian’s father; the school for damaged children for whom music is salvation. At one point I drew a map of this imagined place, with its made-up names, and pinned it above my desk. But through all this I was obliquely returning to the country childhood whose memory has never left me.


I wrote about remembered rural life. I wrote about music and poetry: huge things.  And I drew on little things: the whine of a milk float in the silence of a winter morning; screwed-up pieces of white paper thrown into an empty fireplace – Gillian’s father’s drafts, like those I once saw in another writer’s house. In fiction, so mysterious in its workings, so many things, blowing about in mind and memory, find their place at last. I remind my students never to underestimate the power of the unconscious.


Writing is of necessity so quiet and solitary, so private. Teaching exercises a quite different part of the mind and stimulates in a different and very rewarding way. I’ve been a tutor at the Faber Academy for over ten years now, working with such gifted, thoughtful and interesting people. And because so much when you begin to write is unknown, and waiting to be discovered, and because this can fill you with doubt and anxiety, and sometimes make you wish you’d never started, I keep the structure of my classes tight. We all need something to anchor us.


We read and analyse distinctive work by (mostly) twentieth- and twenty-first century writers.. We look at technique, consider the voice and style and how it works with the material. What can we learn, or steal? In the workshops, springing from exercises or from work in progress, I encourage people to begin something they’ve always wanted to write about – or perhaps, thrillingly, through Nabokov’s throb or glimmer, they’ll discover something quite unexpected. Either way, it is always good to see people bond as a group and grow in confidence, and sometimes a piece of writing blows us away.


If any of this strikes a chord, and interests you, I do hope we’ll meet on a course.

Sue Gee – Faber Academy's Getting Started with Fiction tutor

Getting Started: Beginners’ Fiction with Sue Gee begins on 24 April.


Sue Gee’s most recent book is a collection of essays, Just You & the Page: Encounters with twelve writers (Seren Books, 2019).


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