“If you try to write for the market, by then, the market will have changed” laughs Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, former UEA Creative Writing MA graduate, whose debut novel tackles Truman Capote’s friendship with the ‘Swans’, a dazzling but troubled group of wealthy women. Kelleigh, as well as Mitch Johnson, Paula Cocozza and Sharlene Teo celebrated their respective novels at the Debut Authors Panel held at Waterstones Norwich on October 3rd. Andrew Cowan, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA, chaired the event.
When asked whether they could identify the moment when their idea for the novel started taking root, Mitch drew on his memories from working at a sports shop. One day, when he opened a box to double-check a brand-new pair of shoes for a client, he noticed a crumpled energy gel sachet that “looked out of place between these gleaming, glamorous football boots”. That got him thinking about who had made those boots and the exhausting process behind their fabrication. His first novel Kick tells the story of Budi, a young boy working in a sweatshop in Jakarta who dreams of becoming a football star.
One moment that sparked Paula’s idea for her novel was when she worked with her neighbour to clear a wasteland near her home in London. She had the distinct feeling of being watched and caught sight of a fox before it vanished beyond the bushes. “Everything we did,” she says “the fox seemed to have an opinion of”. Following that event, she felt a kindred sense of communication with the animal. Like Kelleigh, Paula maintains that nobody had told her to change anything with a view of the market and had complete freedom to explore her imagination.
One night towards the end of the term, Sharlene remembers having a vision of a woman in a tree. Although the woman had blood in her mouth, she had a “reassuring smile on her face nonetheless”. This episode sparked her initial idea for Ponti, which is set in Singapore and spans fifty years, capturing the clash between modernity and superstition. Sharlene denied having drawn inspiration from her own life: “I feel like this always comes up with female writers,” she continues “that there is this gendered aspect and women aren’t allowed to have their own imagination”.
However, Kelleigh, who spent ten years researching the material for Swan Song, cannot pinpoint one precise moment when the creative inspiration hit her. In her case, the extensive research preceded the ‘Eureka moment’ and it was done in the hope that it will propel the creative momentum.
How can an author know when a story is truly over? “Deadlines push you to be done” replies Kelleigh. She explains that the MA programme also gave her the structure required to write the story. For Sharlene, reaching the end of a manuscript is like “running from a fire”. A tip for her fellow writers: “if you put a coffee machine at the end, you are done”.