Professor Patrick Flanery
Internationally acclaimed author Patrick Flanery has joined the School of English and Drama as QMUL’s first Professor of Creative Writing. We caught up with him to find out how he develops creativity in his students, plans for his fourth novel, and his first impressions of QMUL.
You are QMUL’s first Professor of Creative Writing, can you tell us more about this role?
I was appointed earlier this year to lead the new Creative Writing Pathway in English. In September, twenty-three first-year students arrived as the inaugural cohort on the English with Creative Writing degree, and we hope those numbers will grow in coming years. These are very bright and engaged students who already seem to be cohering as a group and it’s exciting to see the work they’re producing, even at this early stage. I’m working now on planning the second and third years of the pathway in finer detail, and also building a series of events with visiting writers that will be open to people across the university and to the public. On 15 December, acclaimed American essayist John D’Agata, who runs the University of Iowa’s renowned Nonfiction Writing Program, will be with us for a public reading and Q&A, and next spring we have other visiting writer events planned that we’ll be advertising soon.
Later this academic year we will be making another appointment in Creative Writing, looking specifically for a published poet to expand our areas of expertise. With the recent agreement between QMUL and Arts Council England, the return to the university of the international literary magazine Wasafiri (under the leadership of its founding editor, Professor Susheila Nasta, and her team), the recent appointment of acclaimed playwright Mojisola Adebayo to a post in Drama, and with the launch of the QMUL Arts and Culture strategy initiative led by my colleague Professor Andrea Brady, it feels like an exciting time to be joining. The university is already the locus of a diverse array of cultural practices, and we can continue to develop these and other activities, including the formal academic work of teaching, as well as projects that draw in the wider community. I’m hoping we can also set up a student branch of English PEN at QMUL, and would be happy to hear from any students—whether in the School of English and Drama or in other departments—who might be interested in getting involved.
English with Creative Writing is a new pathway available to students in the English Department. It sounds really exciting. Can you tell us about what you have planned?
There is clearly a hunger among undergraduates in English (and I know in other departments, too) not just to find creative outlets, but to think about how their creative impulses can be directed and refined. In the first year, students on the pathway experiment with a variety of forms (poetry, drama for stage and screen, prose fiction, and creative non-fiction). As they continue in their degree they will hone those skills and begin to specialize in a couple of areas, culminating with the opportunity to write a creative dissertation in their third year. Alongside the Creative Writing syllabus, they take a range of modules in English that work in concert to develop their sense of the long history of literatures in English, and to equip them with the critical and theoretical tools that will make them better readers and better writers.
How do you develop creativity in your students?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s fair to say that some students come with an already quite assured sense of their own voices—even as first-year undergraduates—while others arrive with really powerful raw materials (in terms of life experiences, a gift for language, or a certain arresting aesthetic sensibility) but need to find ways to marshal the desire to write and the talent they have in a more considered way. In teaching writing, I keep returning to the fundamental importance of wide and deep reading: as a writer, you have to survey a broad field of what has been written and what is currently being written, and when you find work (by a particular writer, or from a particular country, or region, or even language tradition) that really inspires you, read as much of it as you can to understand what the characteristics are that make you feel such a spark of connection.
Of course, when it comes to inspiration and fostering creativity, it’s not just a matter of reading. I encourage students to look at visual art (some of my most successful doctoral supervision sessions have ended with a walk through an exhibition at Tate Modern), or, in writing poetry, to think about the ways in which music can help us understand how rhythm might change over the course of a single short work. I hope what I manage to do, with undergraduates in particular, is sketch a field of possibilities, to point in the directions where they can look for inspiration, and to demonstrate ways of nurturing and shaping one’s own creative impulses, while also insisting that you cannot wait for inspiration to arrive: creativity flourishes when it is pursued as a sustained practice, something that becomes as critical to a writer’s everyday life and sense of wellbeing as eating.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing revisions on a novel, which will be my fourth, that explores the experiences of a group of people caught up in the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s in Hollywood. It’s told from the perspective of a politically engaged screenwriter who is in a clandestine relationship with a closeted gay actor. I’m also at work on a creative non-fiction project that combines memoir and other forms of life writing with critical readings of literature, film, and television.
What were you doing before joining QMUL in September?
For the three years prior to joining QMUL I was Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Reading, where I taught undergraduate modules, as well as supervising an amazingly talented doctoral student who has now transferred to Queen Mary to finish her degree with me; she’s writing a ground-breaking novel about transnational British-Latin American experience, and I predict great things for her. Previously I have been a full-time writer, a part-time lecturer at Sheffield, a PhD student at Oxford, and an executive in the film industry in New York.
How would you describe Queen Mary based on your first few months here?
I’m a Londoner by choice (as I was, two decades ago, a New Yorker by choice), and it’s stimulating to be back in a city university, with students who are either lifelong Londoners, or who have also elected to come here. In getting to know my colleagues in the School of English and Drama, I’ve been struck by two things in particular: the refreshing way in which they approach their work with a sense both of passion and absolute seriousness, and the various means by which a sense of political engagement, of responding to the changing world around us, is reflected in their research and teaching. The SED is also exceptionally well run—its administrative team is the best I have encountered anywhere, and as if that weren’t enough, people are also genuinely friendly, which makes a huge difference. Looking beyond the SED to the Faculty and the university more broadly, I’m excited by the range and depth of scholarly excellence here, which has the potential to inspire and intersect with creative work in interesting ways, and by the global outlook of the university as a whole.
What are you reading at the moment?
I always have a few books on the go. I’m reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain for the first time, as well as the Argentinian writer César Aira’s most recently translated book, The Lime Tree. In preparation for her upcoming lecture at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, and as part of the research for my nonfiction project, I’m reading Sianne Ngai’s fascinating study of affect, Ugly Feelings.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
The curious thing about writing is that it’s hard to see where work ends and life outside of work begins. But when I force myself to disengage a little, I enjoy running and going for long walks in South London, where I live. And since my first degree was in film and television production at NYU, I try to keep up with what’s new and interesting in those areas—an almost impossible (but pleasurable) task given how much is now being produced.
Patrick is the author of the novels Absolution (2012), Fallen Land (2013), and I Am No One (2016). To find out more about his work, visit: www.patrickflanery.com.
Recent vacancies advertised on the HR website include a Lecturer in Creative Writing (part-time). For more information, see jobs.qmul.ac.uk.
Post originally posted on the QMUL Connected Staff Intranet: http://connected.qmul.ac.uk/news/qmul-people/professor-patrick-flanery.html