I’m really pleased to have Stephen Carver as my guest blogger today. I first knew Stephen when I enrolled on an online Creative Writing course at my old university, UEA. It was an excellent course and I was very pleased to keep up my friendship with Stephen over the years. I was equally pleased to read his novel Shark Alley. I’m a great fan of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels and Shark Alley has lost of similarities to these. Stephen is continuing the good work of teaching a variety of online courses for Unthank School of Writing and he’s kindly included a link to this at the end of the article.
Today, Stephen’s going to tell us about where he writes.
When I started working on the project that became Shark Alley I still had a fifth-floor office at the University of Fukui, writing at an old metal desk by a huge window, its massive concrete sill cracked by earthquakes, looking out across a vast cityscape towards snow-capped mountains and the Sea of Japan.
I finished it in a much less dramatic setting, a cold downstairs study at the back of our house overlooking a wild garden in an unfashionable suburb on the outskirts of Norwich, the hometown to which I returned, taking a teaching post at the University of East Anglia. The most exciting part of my view now is an old wooden shed. This has become a home/office which I guard jealously against any suggestion from my wife that it would make a better bedroom for our son. Because I now work exclusively from home I spend more time in here than is probably healthy. My schedule is largely in synch with my kid, so I work when he’s at school, often returning to my desk at night after he’s gone to bed to focus on my own writing rather than online teaching or manuscript appraisal, which constitute the day job.
As a writer, I have a straightforward rule: I must add some new words to a draft every day. When I’m working on a big project, I will keep a weekly word count. Planning and research is done as and when, and if I have any downtime I’ll be reading. I’m not opposed to discovery writing, but I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going. I’m never really off the clock, and am constantly running story ideas and scenes in the back of my mind, keeping careful notes. As far as inspiration goes, most of the time I don’t see it coming and it’s rarely planned. I’ll be doing one thing and thinking about something else and it’ll happen: disparate elements will momentarily collide and suddenly there’s an idea. I write this down, think about it, and then try and write some more. As long as I don’t break the ‘everyday’ rule, the magic happens. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee, and the occasional small sherry.
My study is quite small, and I cannot deny that there are ‘man cave’ elements. I have an ergonomic L-shaped desk, a Charles Jacobs ‘Three Level Workspace,’ and a generic office chair with a broken cylinder base that I’ve rigged with a narrow drainpipe and duct tape. I always have my leather motorcycle jacket thrown over the back of it; an ancient, battered thing that makes me feel oddly secure. I’ve always worked on generic/custom PCs, upgrading every couple of years, and aside from a brief flirtation with Linux a few years back I’ve stuck with Windows and the latest version of Microsoft Office. I have a big AOC monitor, balanced on a very old, beige plastic stand. This is a relic from the days of the Commodore Amiga, which I need to keep my screen at eye-level and thus be kind to my back. It has a tray that I can fill up with unfiled paperwork and the various glasses I must now switch between to do my job. There are two ‘Deadstone Valley’ figures on top: a zombie pirate and Victorian soldier. These were the Shark Alley mascots, the protagonist being a writer of penny serials about pirates who finds himself in a real sea story while travelling on the doomed troopship Birkenhead.
I also have the Sky router stuck on my desk, because the damn thing doesn’t work right on the floor, and a Panasonic cordless phone that goes off every time I try to concentrate. Decent reading light is provided by a crane-like standard lamp that followed me home from work after my previous employer made me redundant. I like to listen to old music when I work, so I have two cheap speakers that are filled with dancing jets of LED-lit water for no adequately explored reason. In fact, my whole computer lights up. There’s a clear plastic window in the base unit emitting an eerie blue glow, as does my keyboard. I also have a figure of the Metalunan Mutant from This Island Earth (1955) that my son gave me for my birthday along with an ‘Interocitor,’ the alien machine Rex Reason has to build in the movie as a test of intelligence. These are very important. If asked where you get your ideas you should always say, ‘You need an Interocitor.’
Otherwise, my workspace is crowded with old mugs full of pens and pencils, because I still draw when I can, as well as assorted screwdrivers, penknives and general dad stuff. I love Mitsubishi ‘Uni-ball’ pens in red, blue and black for annotation, and have been destroying books with these since my student days. As well as being practical containers, the mugs are here so they don’t get broken. My favourite has a photo of my wife and son on it, and I’m also particularly attached to a set of Japanese tea cups covered in fiery kanji I can no longer read, Victorian jam jars dug up from a bottle dump when I was a kid, and a stoneware mug fired by my friend Rob in a kiln he built in the garden of a strange little country cottage we shared thirty-odd years ago that we got because the previous tenant had killed himself so no one else would rent it. I used to see him at night sometimes, a look of utter despair on his face.
To my right, the entire wall is shelved and packed with books, and this carries on around the room to the door, with an old metal filing cabinet and monolithic cupboards to my left full of stationary, data disks, comics and vinyl records. I keep my working books close, aside from the really posh ones which are out the front. I have all the scruffy stuff in here: weathered paperbacks with cracked spines and wrinkled covers full of post-it notes and scribbles, mostly history, reference and teaching material, and an eclectic mix of old and new fiction. There aren’t any pictures in here, because there simply isn’t any wall space.
I try to keep it neat and organised, but it always feels cluttered, like the interior of a 1950s radio set or the back of a Morris Minor. Most of the random knick-knacks end up under the monitor or on the window sill, a museum to my jackdaw fascination with shiny things. There’s an old bullet belt up there, tat-filled tobacco tins with exotic names like Rubicon Mixture, Adkin’s Nut Brown, and Brankston’s Golden, a brass control lever for a vintage BSA, a Bakelite Ovaltine mug full of shark’s teeth, and a compact army telescope that may or may not have belonged to my grandfather. My kid’s stuff keeps creeping in as well, so there’s always Lego and plastic dinosaurs lethally scattered about the laminate floor.
A couple of new boxes have also recently found a place in here. These contain the unpublished poems of my old friend Colin Phillips, who died of cancer late last year, and his late friend, the poet and mathematician Brian Higgins. These guys were part of a group of post-war British Modernists known collectively as the ‘Soho Poets’ that also included George Barker, Martin Seymour-Smith, and Oliver Bernard. Colin had inherited Brian’s work, and he was very worried about its fate at the end of his life, much more so than his own unpublished material. At the family’s request, I am now editing both collections with a view to publication. I like having them here; it makes Colin feel close.
So, that’s where I write. When I was a kid growing up in a tiny council flat I always hoped that I might one day have a study full of wise books and interesting things, a bit like Professor Van Helsing or my friend Maria’s dad. While this isn’t the wood-panelled private library of my childish imaginings, when I look back to scribbling away on the floor in damp and smoky bedsits when I was a grad student I would have to concede that this isn’t too bad, as long as I keep the curtains closed and ignore the state of the bloody garden.
Dr Stephen Carver is a cultural historian, editor and novelist. For sixteen years, he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing. Stephen has published extensively on 19th century literature and history; he is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth and the author of Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, a historical novel about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead. He is currently working on a history of the 19th century underworld for Pen & Sword, and a sequel to Shark Alley.
Shark Alley – ‘Re-imagining the Victorian Serial’
Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher – Author Blog
Essays on 19th Literature & The Gothic – Academic Blog
The Unthank School of Writing – Online Creative Writing Courses
You can buy Shark Alley by clicking on the following links: