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Published: 24 November 2015

Q&A with Monica Ali, Surrey’s Distinguished Writer in Residence 2016

In an interview with Dr Paul Vlitos, Lecturer in English Literature & Creative Writing, critically acclaimed author Monica Ali shares her top tips for aspiring creative writers and talks about her new role as Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Surrey.

Monica Ali is the author of four critically acclaimed novels  – Brick Lane (2003), Alentejo Blue (2006), In the Kitchen (2006) and Untold Story (2011). She joins Surrey as Distinguished Writer in Residence in January 2016.

Monica Ali interview

Dr Paul Vlitos (PV): What aspects of working with students at the University of Surrey you are most looking forward to?

Monica Ali (MA): There is, of course, a long-standing debate about whether or not creative writing can be taught. The University of Iowa’s website states their ‘conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged’. Perhaps it is true that literary creativity cannot be taught, but writing skills can certainly be enhanced. Even the most experienced writers should never stop learning and honing their craft.

The classes that I’m planning will focus on aspects of craft such as character and dialogue, examining technique through close readings and brief creative exercises. So I’m looking forward to working with students to dig deep into the mysteries of the process. As a writer, you just write (and constantly revise). So much comes from the subconscious level. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to stand back and think about how you do the things that you do. I hope I’ll be able to offer some insights, and I know that the students will offer me their insights too - it will be a two-way street. 

PV: What are your main pieces of advice for aspiring creative writers? What one thing about writing (or getting published) do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out as a writer?

MA: Two things, equally important. You have to read. And you have to write. Simple. But I’m always amazed by the number of people who say that they want to write, but readily admit that they barely read, and also say that they don’t have time to write. It’s astonishing. If you’re not a serious reader you have no hope of being a good writer. And if you don’t have time to write, to my mind, that’s the same as saying your desire to write isn’t strong enough. I realise that I’m saying that from a position of great luxury, as I can write full-time. But when I started out, when I wrote my first novel, I had a baby and a toddler and no child care. All obstacles can be overcome if you truly have the desire. Think of Jean-Dominique Bauby, and then ask yourself if the obstacles that you face - and I’m sure they exist, we all have them to a greater or lesser extent - are the real issue.  

If you’re not a serious reader you have no hope of being a good writer.

Monica Ali, Distinguished Writer in Residence 2016

PV: Your first visit to the University of Surrey was to launch the Surrey University PEN Society. Could you say a little PEN about their work – and about how you first got involved with the PEN Society? 

MA: English PEN is the founding centre of a worldwide writers’ association with 145 centres in more than 100 countries. It campaigns to defend writers and readers in the UK and around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk. I am a former trustee and still an active member. Last year we campaigned to overturn the ban on prisoners receiving parcels of books. It was a cause close to my heart as I do voluntary work in HMP Brixton. I’m delighted to say that the campaign was successful and most of the restrictions were removed in December, with Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary announcing that the remaining restrictions would be lifted shortly. PEN also runs a great programme for publishing books in translation, as well as many reader and writer events. Membership is open to all and I’d strongly encourage everyone to consider joining. 

PV: You have been Man Booker shortlisted, Orange Prize longlisted, named as one of Granta’s ‘Best Young British Novelists’ and received the WH Smith People’s Choice Award. Which if any of the many accolades your work has received has meant most to you, and why? What do you feel is the most valuable thing about such awards – for writers as individuals and for writers as a community? 

MA: They have their uses, I guess. But in some ways, of course, they’re ridiculous. In sport, the person who runs the fastest or the team that scores the most goals, wins. To put literary endeavour into that framework, with winners and losers, is slightly bizarre. On the other hand, anything that gets people to read books is helpful. It’s best not to get too invested in that sort of thing. I remember giving a reading from In the Kitchen to a book club in St Louis, Missouri, and one of the women asked a question about one of the characters that was something I had never thought about. I loved that. That kind of unexpected connection and insight, the thought that someone across the other side of the world had delved so deeply into something I’d written. That was really rewarding. 

PV: Do you have a policy on reading your own reviews? Are book reviews ever helpful for the writer themselves? 

MA: Some writers read them, others don’t. I don’t. The important thing for me is to have a great editor, and I have the very best - Nan Graham at Scribner. She is the kind of editor that supposedly doesn’t exist any longer. She is brilliant at working with her writers on the big things, like structure, and she is also a brilliant line editor, from whom absolutely nothing escapes. 

PV: With students and staff here at Surrey eagerly looking forward to meeting and exchanging ideas with you in 2016, which writer in the world (living or dead) would you most like to meet and discuss your writing with? 

MA: Jane Austen, because she was one of my favourites as a teenager, and is a favourite still. She’s so witty and acerbic, and the consummate observer of human nature and foible. 

Read more about Monica Ali’s appointment and explore our English and creative writing degrees.