Published: 10 May 2016

Meet the academic: Dr Paul Vlitos

Dr Paul Vlitos, Programme Leader for English Literature and Creative Writing and twice-published author tells us why he finds creative writing at Surrey so inspiring and the benefits of a postgraduate degree to kickstart your career.

Dr Paul Vlitos

Please introduce yourself – perhaps you could tell us something that isn’t on your staff profile page?

My name is Paul Vlitos and since 2011 I have been programme leader for the English Literature with Creative Writing programme here at the University of Surrey. I am the author of two novels: Welcome to the Working Week and Every Day is Like Sunday. Both are published by Orion. I am also the author of three ‘Kindle Singles’ which are stories by established authors available exclusively on Kindle. These are The Unravelling, Mister Noone (also available as an ebook) and The Scarlet Ceremony. Mister Noone is also available as an Audible audiobook.

I teach on both the undergraduate and the postgraduate Creative Writing modules as well as modules on the English Literature programme. You may also have seen me recently on Channel Four’s Great Canal Journeys, discussing ‘Surrey in Literature’ with Prunella Scales and Timothy West. Worth checking it out for some lovely shots of the beautiful Surrey countryside!

What’s your favourite memory of being a student?

I remember some absolutely dazzling undergraduate lectures – inspiring and witty and challenging and entertaining. I also remember being part of a really great MA group, with lively seminar discussions often being continued afterwards in the pub. I think one of the most enjoyable parts of postgraduate taught study, like an MA or MFA, is finding yourself part of a community of your like-minded academic peers, all with the same passion and enthusiasm for the same area of your subject as you.

How and why did you become a professional academic?

After I had finished my PhD, which was in English Literature and which focused on the relationship between eating and identity in a selection of postcolonial novels, my first permanent teaching job was as Lecturer in English at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. It was while I was in Japan that I wrote my first novel and after I returned to the UK I began teaching Creative Writing – at first part-time at Goldsmiths and then full-time at the University of Surrey. I have always wanted to combine teaching and researching critical books and articles with writing and publishing creative work and I have been lucky to find a position here at Surrey where I am able to do all these things.

What excites you most about your current role?

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is workshopping creative work with students – when we all sit around reading each other’s work and discussing it in a group and asking questions and making suggestions.

There are very few times in life as a writer when you can expect to receive that kind of detailed, informed, constructive feedback and it is lovely to see the attention and thoughtfulness people bring to understanding and engaging with other people’s work. It is also great to get to know people as writers over the course of the year or years, seeing them find their voice as a writer and develop in confidence and ambition and technical expertise.

What is your particular area of academic expertise, and why are you passionate about it?

Both my creative practice and my critical writing are very much focused on the novel – I am fascinated by the history of the form and how it develops and how individual writers engage with and develop that history. I have written on novels from all around the world – my PhD looked mostly at novels in English for the Caribbean and from South Asia – and from the late 19h century (an era I am very interested in) to the present day. As a writer and as a critic – and as a teacher – I am really interested in taking novels apart and examining in detail how they work and what they are trying to achieve, and a seminar is one of the few places where a group of people can really sit down and do that. 

Why should people study at postgraduate level in your academic area?

There are loads of great reasons to undertake a Creative Writing MA and MFA. Here at Surrey we try to encourage our students to develop both as creative writers and as critical thinkers.

On our postgraduate programmes we aim to help you express yourself clearly and effectively and memorably, to provide you with experience developing engaging stories or poems or critical arguments, and to sharpen your analytic skills when it comes engaging with the writing of others. With an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey you might go on to a career as a writer or in publishing or in academia or in a range of other professions – any job which values an eye for detail and the ability to assimilate information quickly and express yourself clearly! We also regularly invite writers and editors and literary agents onto campus – for instance to our annual New Writers’ Festival – so that our students have a clear sense of how the publishing industry works and how they can develop a career working with words.

What are you looking for in a postgraduate student?

Well first of all they should love to read, and to discuss what they have read! They should also be keen to listen to others and to engage with what they are saying. Some students applying for the Creative Writing MA and MFA have a particular project (like a novel or a collection of poetry) they want to work on and develop, others are interested in experimenting and trying out different kinds of writing to find out what they are best at. We welcome both sorts of students. One thing it is important to be aware of when you apply for a Creative Writing MA or MFA (at Surrey or anywhere else) is that you will be in a university setting and you will be expected to produce critical material – critical commentaries on your own work and essays on the work of others – at an appropriate academic level. We provide training and support for students to develop their research and writing skills as part of the Creative Writing MA and MFA because we feel that being able to think critically about literary texts and develop a richer understanding of literary history is part of how writers improve. 

Does a particularly good memory of your time at Surrey stand out for you?

Some of my favourite memories from Surrey have been watching students read from their own poetry and prose in public for the first time.

At events including the New Writers Festival and smaller events on and off campus during the year our students are encouraged to read and perform their work to an audience, and those are always memorable and enjoyable events. It is also always lovely when a student emails excitedly to say they have had their first story or poem published, or have just had their novel accepted by a publisher.

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