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My First Time...with Nell Stevens

Nell Stevens lives in South London. She has a degree in English and Creative Writing from Warwick, and went on to study Arabic and Comparative Literature at Harvard as a Frank Knox Memorial Fellow. She received a Marcia Trimble Fellowship and the Florence Engel Randall Graduate Fiction Award for her MFA in Fiction at Boston University. She has just finished her Ph.D. in Victorian literature at King's College London. Her next book, Mrs Gaskell and Me, will be published in 2018.

Here's the blurb for Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World...

When Nell Stevens was given the opportunity to spend three months in a location of her choice in order to write her novel, she was determined to rid herself of all distractions. So Nell decided to travel to Bleaker Island (official population: two) in the Falklands where she would write 2,500 words a day. But Bleaker House is not that novel. Instead this is a book about a young woman realising that the way to writing fiction doesn't necessarily lie in total solitude and a clear plan. Nor does it lie in a daily ration of 1085 calories, no means of contacting the outside world and a slow descent towards something that feels worryingly like madness... Hilariously funny, painfully honest, and beautifully observed, Bleaker House is part memoir, part travelogue, part story collection. It is an exploration of the narrow spaces between real life and fiction and, in the end, a book about failing to write a novel, but finally becoming a writer.

Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.

I saw that Mslexia magazine was running a memoir contest, and I thought I’d try my hand at it: I wrote a 5000-word entry—the beginning of a book about my time in the Falklands—submitted it, re-read it the following day and decided it was so awful I’d never speak of it again. A few months later I heard I’d been longlisted for the prize; they wanted to see the full manuscript. I wrote Bleaker House in a sleep-deprived, remorseful frenzy.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?

I didn’t realise what a group-effort writing a book would be. We have this idea that writing is a solitary process—I was so convinced of this I took myself off to Bleaker Island to write—but there are countless people involved in bringing a book into the world: friends, family, agents, editors, publicists, other writers. I think if I’d understood this sooner, and started listening to all those people sooner, it might have been an easier ride.

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

Reading about Donald Trump.

What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing your book?

I wrote the first draft of Bleaker House in such a rush that I didn’t really have time for tantrums. I saved those for my editors, who made the unforgivable mistake of pointing out ways to improve the book.

Best thing about writing your book?

I no longer have an existential meltdown whenever someone asks me what I do for a living.

And the worst?

Before your book is published, nobody can say they don’t like it. You can believe you are god’s (undiscovered) gift to literature and no-one can prove you wrong. Now, people have informed opinions. They’re not always flattering.

Go-to writing snacks?


Who or what inspires you to write?

Other writers. Burning envy. The question, “And what are you working on now?” Books I wish I’d written.

The book that changed you?

Middlemarch by George Eliot.

Your pump up song?

I spend a lot of time lip-syncing to the Hamilton soundtrack, insisting that I’m not throwing away my shot.

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?

Elizabeth Gaskell. I love her so much I wrote my next book about her.

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?

This is frustrating, paradoxical advice, but I do think writing with publication in mind makes it harder. I spent most of my twenties absolutely fixated on that goal, and it was a distraction from writing good work. I wrote Bleaker House almost as an experiment, just for the purpose of entering the memoir contest – I told myself a hundred times while I was writing it that it would never be published. That was so liberating: I wrote something far more honest and playful than I could have done otherwise.

You can snap up a copy of Nell's exceptional debut here, and you should probs follow her on Twitter and Instagram too.

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