Fiction, non-fiction and creativity – an interview with writer and academic Bill Hughes

hand writingWelcome to a new interview in my series on creativity in non-fiction writing, and today we’re talking to Bill Hughes, who I first encountered via a mutual friend on Facebook and who has been hugely encouraging about my own writing, specifically my research project. He’s even promised to explain some remote bits of literary theory to me one of these days. Bill’s achieved something not many people do, going back to studying after another career and gaining a PhD. But as well as academic writing, he started off working on fiction and he’s very interested in poetry, so covers both aspects of writing in which we’re interested here. Let’s find out what Bill thinks about creativity in non-fiction writing, and whether he agrees with most of the other contributors to this series …

Hello, Bill, and welcome to this occasional interview series. First, please tell us a bit about yourself and your books

I’m an IT developer who has recently gained a PhD in English Literature. I’m now publishing academic research and aiming to get a research post. I am working on the proposal for the monograph based on my research, Conversation, Discourse, and the Dialogue in the Formation of the English Novel: The Commerce of Light. I have, however, had other academic articles published (or awaiting publication) in books and journals. I’m also co-editor of and contributor to ‘Open Graves, Open Minds’: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present Day, ed. by Sam George and Bill Hughes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013). And recently I’ve rediscovered writing poetry; I’m preparing a collection and aiming to have it published.

How did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction?

I wrote imaginative fiction even as a child. I always wanted to be a writer—I read a lot, was good with words; I was also often praised by teachers for my writing, so that helped for me. Our house always had books—a strange mixture of classics and pulp fiction, and I read them all indiscriminately. My mum—who was a tremendous influence on my life—made up stories for us and was a lover of Dickens, so I absorbed that early on. Later, I wrote (as many bookish teenagers do) introspective, pretentious poetry in my teens and at university.

As an IT developer for the past 30 years, I’ve done a fair amount of technical writing. Programmers notoriously hate doing this; I get laughed at for saying how much I love it.

Then, about 20 years ago, I did an MA in Cultural Studies, but taking most of my modules from Literature (my first degree had been in Philosophy and Literature). This led me to doing a part-time PhD in eighteenth-century English literature, which I was awarded in 2010. Since then, I‘ve been pursuing that research and writing conference papers and journal articles. But I also got sidetracked into research on contemporary vampire fiction and paranormal romance, which I’m also writing and publishing on. I’m joint editor of a collection of articles on this and of a special issue of the academic journal Gothic Studies. From my work in this area, I’ve recently been appointed to the editorial board of a new journal, Monstrum, for research into monsters and monstrosity in culture and will be co-editing the inaugural issue.

Did you always want to write fiction as well, or was this a relatively late development?

Yes, always. I’ve had grand ideas for novels several times. But I’ve always been both lazy and over-ambitious so the epics that I planned never got written. However, a bad accident, illness, and various sad things in the past year or so have led me to write a very long, sustained, ambitious (and possibly unreadable) piece of poetry.

I recently blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?

Of course there’s a sense in which all writing is creative. You’re adding something to the repository of human artefacts  that wasn’t there before. But—and this will probably not please everyone—I think there’s a danger in trivialising the word by applying it too uncritically. As with any word, it loses meaning if you allow it to be all-embracing. So my technical writing isn’t really creative, though I’m exercising choices there over structure and vocabulary (sometimes in a manner inappropriately baroque and literary for my readership!). But it’s assembly rather than creation, I’d say.

Academic writing—in literary studies, at least—has more of creativity about it. It’s an individual exploration of the language that you’re analysing, and a bringing forth of new ideas and perspectives into the world. And yet, it’s parasitic upon an original in a way; I’d rather say that it has an element of creativity rather than calling it creative writing. (Although Oscar Wilde’s idea of the critic as artist and recent notions of intertextuality can unsettle that distinction somewhat.) But I’d reserve the term ‘creative writing’ for fiction, poetry, and drama.

I’ve heard it said that memoir should be considered as “creative non-fiction” – do you agree with that description? How do you think writing memoir differ from writing fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other?

I’m strangely uninterested in biography or memoir as genres—I rarely read it, for some reason. So I’m not sure that I can answer these questions in much depth. I would think, though, that despite the craft of shaping that inevitably takes place and the skill in using language involved, the more literal and accurate biography or memoir is, the less you could call it ‘creative’. But good biographers may give you an insight—or the illusion of insight—into their subject’s characters; is that creativity? I don’t really know, and it raises many philosophical questions. And the best memoirs are probably outrageously, creatively dishonest! And I would say that imaginative fiction, if it uses material from memoir at all, is the most creative when it distances itself from the original, transforming it to the point of its becoming irrelevant. (That’s why detailed biographical criticism rarely sheds much light on texts as literature.)

If you use your own life in your fiction, was writing a memoir different from doing that?

I’ll be able to speak with more authority on this when I’ve actually written one of my many half-conceived novels!

Have you got anything else you want to add about creativity and writing (with particular regard to non-fiction)?

I should qualify what I’ve said above by reference to, say, writing philosophy, or even original scientific writing. Something is being created here. But I would still argue that this shouldn’t be confused with aesthetic creativity; perhaps ‘discovery’ is better than ‘creation’ here.

Tell us where we can find your books!
You can find our edited collection on vampire fiction at:
Details of most of my other publications are on my Academia web page (a few are still awaiting publication).

I loved this detailed and very thoughtful pondering on the subject, and actually it crystallised what I was thinking – that true non-fiction writing such as my own is, indeed, creative, but not creative in quite the same way as true fiction. Maybe memoir does fall in between the two a little more, as does the original scientific writing and philosophy that Bill mentions. I like the ideas of ‘discovery’ and ‘synthesis’ and am glad that we have found different viewpoints in the series as a whole.

You can read new interviews in the series, either by subscribing to this blog (see the links in the top right if you’re viewing on a PC or on the drop-down menu if you’re reading on a phone or tablet) or clicking on the “non-fiction creativity” tag at the top of this post, which will give you access to all the interviews published so far, as well. Happy reading!

My own books are all firmly in the non-fiction area, but I do involve aspects of my own life and experience to make them more accessible and welcoming. Take a look by exploring the links on this page, or by visiting the books pages.

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