Hayley Webster was born in 1977 and grew up in Hampshire and Berkshire. Her first home was a mobile home in the grounds of the boys’ care home her father worked at. She’s done all the jobs. The worst one was lifting boxes of apples across a warehouse. She rather enjoyed working as a Little Chef (it was the free pancakes).
After both her parents died of cancer when she was twenty she decided to stop dropping out of ridiculous degree courses based on her dad’s idea of her being a European Diplomat and got a First Class BA in English and United States Literature from The University of Essex, then a Distinction for her MA in Creative Writing at UEA. She’s worked in commercial magazine publishing and was a secondary school teacher for seven years, which she had to leave after having a breakdown, from which is she is currently living her way out of.
She lives with her daughter in Norfolk. In many ways she is very happy.
After Nyne sent Daniel David Gothard to talk to this extremely driven writer, and find our all about her first novel Jar Baby, (Dexter Haven).
Hayley, it’s great to talk to you for After Nyne. Let’s start by talking about which creative writing MA did you study and why that particular course?
I did the MA Creative Writing (Prose) at UEA in 2003-2004 I had it in my mind from the time my teacher gave me The Magic Toyshop to read when I was in Year 10. I looked up Angela Carter and saw she’d taught there. It sort of settled in my head, somewhere at the back, that one day I’d have to go there and do that, even though she wasn’t there anymore.
Which parts of the course did you enjoy/dislike the most and why?
So many people say this, but I enjoyed having the time to write, an outside verified ‘excuse’ to dedicate all my time to it. I enjoyed that it was my ‘life’, that I wasn’t writing between doing other things. It was all I was doing. I liked talking about books. I liked lots of the other writers. I disliked how I was at the beginning of the course, which was a bit entitled and a bit ‘Ooh look at me’. I can forgive myself for that because I’ve changed since then, and I was twenty four. But, I definitely found getting onto the course, when it was so hard to, gave me a shield of professional arrogance that life soon knocked down – all for the greater good where my writing was concerned, I think.
I enjoyed the confidence it gave me. And I enjoyed the chance it gave me to experiment and make writing the biggest part of my daily life.
Did you start writing a long piece – your novel ‘Jar Baby’ – on the course or specific pieces for various modules?
We handed in work to our workshop group every however many weeks and the others commented on it. I used that time to experiment. I handed in something different every time. One time it was a book for teenagers. Another it was a comedy. Another it was about a ten year old child. I never wrote a whole piece for those sessions. When we had the time to write the final piece I wrote a novel in the voice of a ten year old girl whose dream was to be a concert pianist and whose parents were going through a divorce and she was constantly dealing with their drunkenness and neglectful behaviour. It was a dark comedy. I got a Distinction and the novel has never seen the light of day. In fact, I don’t even know where I’ve put it.
The only bit of Jar Baby I wrote whilst on the MA was the scene at the (fictional) Museum of Twentieth Century Fashion where Diana is there for the launch of the Rohan Rickwood retrospective. Just that one scene. I think I was satirising my own behaviour at some of the social things I found myself part of whilst on the MA. And I love writing scenes where people are showing off to each other, flashing about and being shiny. Those things seem so transparent to me now. I look at my younger self and think, ‘Where’s the awareness?’
If you were invited to teach on that same course now and given carte blanche in your seminars, how would you approach them?
*Dream Job Alert*. I liked the freedom I had, so I would want to allow a lot of freedom in terms of what was being written. But I think I would have a professional development part to it, not just meeting agents and things, but actually learning about all the different ways of being a published writer, all the ways in. I’d also have a module where people had to write in ways they wouldn’t normally, in genres they wouldn’t, because I think sometimes a writer’s best work comes when they access the parts of themselves that feel the least comfortable. I enjoyed the structure as it was. I wouldn’t change any of the modules I did whilst there, or how it was taught.
Do you believe prescriptive reading helps the creative writer on MA courses or should there be a different way?
I’m happy to be given a list books to read and have a reason and time to read them. That’s my idea of ultimate bliss. Reading anything helps writing. So I’m okay with that.
Did you feel – after the course had ended – that you wanted to become a published writer even more or had the course diminished your belief in publishing success?
Hmm. The thing is I never once doubted that I’d be a published writer since I first thought it when I was about five. It just didn’t cross my mind. Which is odd, I realise. Especially as I ended up being the first in my family to go to University and my family was full of builders, carpenters and care workers. I learned to read when I was very young. I was three. I loved books. I knew I had to write them. In short, I don’t think the course made me want it more, it just was a step I chose in order to get there.
How have you suffered for your art?
The question made me laugh, I’m sorry. I think that’s because we’re encouraged to apologise for talking about our writing as Art, but also, I know I see it that way. As art. When people tell me what will sell, or what readers might want, my reaction is to buck against that. I’m not interested in sales for sales sake, although sometimes I really wish I was.
I want to write something true. And original. That couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
Jar Baby didn’t sell badly, but it didn’t sell a lot and wasn’t widely reviewed. You put so much into the idea of having that one book published, and then it is, and then it’s, ‘Now what?’
So, instead of laughing at the question because that’s what we all do, I’ll answer it earnestly. The suffering I experienced as a child is what drew me to art in the first place. The urge to write has trumped all things at times, I’ve had so many jobs and found it hard to ‘settle’. I once worked on a burger van which had plants growing through the back of it, in the carpark of a DIY store. I used to take my laptop and talk about Jar Baby to the customers whilst their onion rings fried on the griddle.
I don’t know how to answer this question. When I’m writing, in the dark depths of a first draft, I find it hard to do the things a person needs to do in order to be out in the world, such as be clean and do my laundry or wash up. Since being a mum I make myself do those things, but I find that hard. My head is in the book and my body may as well be non-existent other than my furiously typing fingers.
What advice would you give to a writer thinking of applying for one of the UK’S many creative writing MA courses?
Three simple things. 1) Don’t do it thinking it will lead to a book deal. It won’t. 2) Make sure it’s not where your plan ‘stops’. Make a plan and do your research, and approach your writing as you would other things professionally. Don’t end your plan with ‘Do an MA…be discovered…live like Ernest Hemingway in Paris’. 3) Work out, honestly with yourself, your reasons for doing it. If the reasons are that you want to have time to practice and develop your craft, do it. If the reasons are shallow or about immediate success you’re going to be severely disappointed. And skint.
Oh and one more. If you DO go and do an MA. Enjoy it! And write, write, write.
What pitfalls would you advise graduates to look out for?
Thinking that by doing an MA it’s a shortcut to something. It really isn’t. And if you don’t write, you’re not going to have anything to publish. ‘I’ve done an MA!’ ‘What have you written?’ ‘Bits and pieces.’ Is NOT going to get you a book deal.
Who or what is your greatest influence and why?
My childhood. I know it is. It was a shambolic, magnificent at times, unusual, lonely, confusing and often terrifying mess that I’m still clawing my way out of. I feel I’m writing my way out of it, out of its legacy, and writing myself towards a truth that I can live with. I want to understand it, and myself. I also know I know a lot of stuff lots of people (fortunately) don’t know about because I’ve seen things and had things happen that a lot of people don’t want to believe happens. Nobody listened to me as a child and not many people believed things I said were happening to me when they were. There’s something in the idea of being heard, of making sure voices that people with power silence, in my work.
Me, aged seven to ten is my greatest influence. I’m trying to make everything make sense for her. And give her some of the care I didn’t receive but really needed.
What are you working on at the moment?
A novel in three voices set in present day and during the Norwich Blitz in 1942. It’s a book that started with me thinking about why everyone is so interested in male criminals such as murderers or rapists, and their motivations, or in finding their humanity, and yet the women are delegated to being victims and objects on a list. I am more interested in the women on the list than the man who put them there but I live in a society where a man’s journey is what we are all trained to care about.
I decided I wanted to write about those women on that list. I decided I was sick of those men’s stories. It was also in the aftermath of lots of people in the public eye being charged with sex offenses against women and children, and so many people saying, ‘How did he get away with it?’ and more blindly and dangerously in my view, ‘Why didn’t they come forward sooner?’
It’s a mystery, at its heart, like all my writing is, and looks at how people’s pasts affect their present, and whether it’s ever possible to escape the legacy of abuse. If it’s possible to truly connect if your starting place is one of fear and neglect.
Join Hayley on Twitter @HayleyBooks
Her website where she blogs about books, life and Mental Health, can be found at www.hayleywebster.com