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Interview with creative writers Naomi Kruger & Yvonne Battle-Felton


Creative writers giving an interview
Naomi Kruger and Yvonne Battle-Felton
Peter Clarke
The literary life - An interview.

Dr Naomi Kruger, lecturer in Creative Writing and Dr Yvonne Battle-Felton Associate lecturer in the Dept of English and Creative Writing have developed numerous literary initiatives within Lancaster and the University. These including the excellent monthly Stories at the Storey open mic event. They agreed to give up some of their valuable time to be interviewed by Peter Clarke of Virtual-Lancaster.

Interview recorded at the Storey on Tuesday 8th August 2017.

Yvonne: Peter was saying something like, on Campus, he felt there was a big divide between the campus and the town and they don't really have a lot of connections. Wasn't that part of the reason why we started Stories at the Storey?

Naomi: I think so, and it mainly took you [Yvonne], being more of an outsider than me, to make me realize that. I was here as a mature student. I was twenty-three when I started so I wasn't that mature, but I was married and I had a house in Preston and I was always on the campus so for me Lancaster was not a massive part of my life. I liked being on campus, though I never lived there and I never lived in Lancaster either. So I was never deeply involved in the city. I used to go into the city and looked in at the Dukes, but I traveled in and went home. And when you said 'We should do a literary salon' I think my first reaction was oh no, [laughter]. And I think it was actually just by doing it, which is Yvonne's great commitment, that it felt like something that we didn't want to stop doing. It did feel it was bridging, I think that became apparent in the audiences that we had. We would have people from the university but also the community and you get to see those two. The things on campus tend to exclude people a little bit perhaps.

Peter: Geographically it [Lancaster campus] isn't far away, but somehow it feels it is and maybe there is a sense of trepidation for people wanting to go onto the campus. There is a barrier there.

Yvonne: I think for me, I lived on campus and I think you are right because, a lot of it, is that I am an outsider, and when I came here for my Ph.D. it was like my first time in my academic career when I could just be a student, or rather a student and a mom. I needed other things in my life. I needed to feel I was a part of something. I wanted to be on campus and do things, but I also wanted to be in town. So for me I it was really important to do things off campus because I needed to feel at home.

Naomi: Did you feel a lack of community as someone who was on campus, like a craving for those two things.

Yvonne: I think I did because I'm an older student, and so there's a lot on campus if you were younger and even if you are in a bar; there are nine bars on campus; which would be great if any of them had raspberry martinis. But even if they did, I don't necessary feel comfortable drinking around my students. Because I can sit there with my drink and they are going to say 'so about my grade' and I'm going 'yeah'. So its not something I want to experience in that sort of a way. At least if I'm off campus, and you approach me and you want to talk about your story, its clear that I'm off duty. Whereas on campus you always feel that you are on [duty], or at least I did. See, I felt that I had to move [events] off campus and be in a community that wasn't part of the university. So thats what being off campus did for me. But I really wanted to do the literary salon and then we did the Stories at the Storey.

Naomi: Which was even more community based. We did Stories at the Storey before the literary salon and this was even more community based as its all about that openness that anybody can come and tell and a story. And we never know, well we know because we have a list and we know that we are going to be speaking, but we never really know actually whats going to happen and what stories are going to be told and what mix. And I think it is a lot more, we kind of deliberately don't do the bios thing where people get up and introduce themselves and say so and so. Because we do get a good mix. We have had university lecturers from campus we've had Ph.D. students and people from all walks of life, but I think it's quite important that when you get up there, there is an equality about it.

Yvonne: I think you're right. When I go to other events that do have the bios, you do know whose who and think this will be really good because you really want to hear this person talking about this. But there is always the chance that they won't talk about the thing you want to hear about. But whey you don't know who it is, its all on an equal footing and it could be anyone. You don't know what you are going to get and I do think this is one of the things that makes it feel so welcoming. It's inviting. It's saying, it doesn't matter what you have done in the past, we just want to hear the story that you want to share.

Peter: I think Stories at the Storey really is a great success. Both in terms of the event itself, its truly entertaining and its good to go to and it's also a bridging event between Lancaster and the university. Do you feel the event is still growing or is it kind of stationary in terms of numbers. Do you have ambitions that are still unfulfilled for Stories at the Storey?

Yvonne: Yes, we always have ambitions. There are always things that we went to do. We want to be sure more people feel they are welcomed and involved and I think part of that is letting more and more people know about it. I know that with marketing thats online, its on a lot of the arts and cultural sites, and things like that. But if you're not going to those sites then your missing it. And what I notice is that where I put flyers up they tend to be really close to coffee shops, and so if you don't drink coffee, then you're still your not going to hear about it. We do try to put flyers in the library every once in a while if they let us and like Waterstones. But even so there are certain people who use Waterstones and certain people who don't. So its kind of going out to communities and saying 'here we are and this is what we are doing', because we definitely want to get more people. We want to reach those who are not typically in cultural centres. We would like to do things with age UK as there are so many lonely people as well who, at least once a month, could be around people with different ages and backgrounds and that would be awesome. We are going to offer writing workshops so we can get more people comfortable with telling their stories.

Peter: Will that be at the university or ...

Yvonne: That going to be in town.

Naomi: I think thats really exciting. I think [Stories at the Story] has been a success and we are really proud of it, but this is something that might have constrained it growing more. It's just personal circumstances as well. We met at Lancaster, didn't we? I was just finishing up and Yvonne was just starting a Ph.D. Since then I'm now full time teaching in Preston so my time has just disappeared. Yvonne has finished the Ph.D. plus vivas and things so its an interesting point now because I'm a bit more settled in my job and Yvonne, you are raring to go on lots of projects and we are on the cusp of something. We are finding our feet again at a new stage, though continuing a project we went to do. But it feels like a beginning as well so there may be things, for example, we talked about this recently, I'm not great with social media and marketing so I haven't really done my fair share, partly because of time and partly because of different things and I think there is a chance maybe to have a new push and a new development stage. But we are really proud of where it is I think and how we have balanced it alongside life.

Yvonne: When you pause and think of all the different things that fill up time, Motherhood and working and studying and writing ...

Naomi: And at one point you know, there was a salon every month and there was Stories at the Storey every month and thats a lot to maintain alongside jobs and family and ...

Yvonne: I think that's where the organization came from, to be able to launch the literary arts. For me its like a really exciting venture. So if thats going to include all the projects that we have been through and some new things to like the workshops then eventually either a pod-cast and an audio book and publishing an anthology and creating opportunities for other people .... in our creative practice and building community, so I think the heart of what we do is community. It's engaging and its also stories and we need those as much as other people need them.

Naomi: Because we write a pair of true stories every month for Stories at the Storey, to be part of that community. I have to say I'm always the kind of negative one, almost every month I think my God I've got to write it and I'm so busy with this that and the other every single month. I feel whatever stress has gone on to get to Stories at the Storey, I feel its been a gift, it's nourished me and I'm glad that I've done it. I've got a really interesting collection of true stories and also I feel like I've been part of a community and there has been an exchange happening that is really important and its really nourishing. Yes, It's been a bit of a journey, to use a cliche, yes its exciting to ...

Yvonne: I know that when we started, I wasn't sure what to expect in promoting it and getting it to where it is now. It has been true stories and some people are really scared. They think we are asking for tax information or their private life. We never want to know something that people don't want to share, so we are not asking for something like 'have you had an affair?'

Naomi: But people tell us though.

Yvonne: It's not the sort of things that we ask, and when we do ask for people's stories they don't have give them. There is no ideal story in my head. We don't have an ulterior motive behind it, we just want people to share the stories that are important to them. I always tell them its like a story you would share in the pub, only better and sober as well. So I never run around Sainsbury's and see someone going like this [Yvonne covers her face] because of something they said that they didn't want to share. It's done with respect, and at the end of everyones presentations, I just feel so energized. The stories that people will share with us are just amazing.

Naomi: And its a brave act as well. I think it's something about the true story aspect of it that actually can be terrifying. Because it is more personal, well it can be, ... more personal than sharing a more fictional piece. But also I think it makes it's more accessible. Not everyone is an artist and not everyone has a novel in them. But everyone has experienced something that is worth telling and for some people it is the act of telling it that is more important than what they actually said. We get that, and people kind of hover between they are not doing it, then they might do it. Yvonne is fantastic at inspiring people to get up. They don't think they want to get up and then ... . There have been some really powerful moments where lots of humour, interesting moments shall we say and also some really powerful emotion. Yeah, moments where you feel like it has been a real privilege to have listened to someone and that they have given part of themselves. Its about short short stories, fictional short stories and how many different ways there are to story and you can have a mystery or a story that full of car chases and bombs going off, you could have an equally interesting story that's about an internal change or an internal realization. And I think so its the same for true stories and its just a matter of knowing how to structure it, knowing how to tell it, which is why we want to do the workshop.

Yvonne: Thats a good link.

Naomi: Because some people may have an amazing history in terms of events, things that they have lived through. While other people may have lived a quiet life. But I think everybody can construct a narrative that is true to them, that is interesting. That can be done in different ways. Sometimes is just knowing how to tell it.

Peter: When do the workshops start and what is the next step for that. Are they up and running yet or are they still in the planning stage?

Yvonne: We are still in the planning stages. For that we have a few things to talk about like how many sessions there are going to be and how we are going to structure and plan for it. Because this is one of the few things that we actually charge for but we still want to make if affordable and accessible. We don't want costs to be a barrier. So we are applying for funding so we can remove some of the effects of these barriers. We really want to get out to some communities as well. We want to do the workshops in Lancaster, Morecambe, Preston, and we want to try to do some on-line as we get a lot of feedback from people. For some people, Lancaster is not a convenient location for them and neither are the other locations for whatever reason. So if we can offer them on line in some sort of form that feels comfortable for us and comfortable for them.

Peter: On line is good, but I think it is quite nice to have the fix of personal interaction.

Yvonne: And that what we are going to do. Some people prefer to have the balance of the two so that maybe some of the exercises and things are on line but sometimes they can come in and do things in person. We feel that we can do that naturally because it is a true story. We get feedback on paper and that is one thing. On line is another thing. But being able to hear us say this is this and that is that, I'd like to be able to offer that but we can do that online as well with Skype.

Peter: Have you have a date for that, even tentative?

Yvonne: Definitely this year. We don't do well with waiting, thats both of us. Personal flaws, we don't wait. I would say in the next few months. We have been talking to the library about the possibility of doing it there and of course that would be the face to face one. But we have to think about how we want to grow it.

Peter: One thing I'm curious about. Obviously you are both in full time employment. You have just done your Ph.D. and you are lecturing. How do you manage to find time for all these initiatives. I know that your Ph.D. is over. Does that mean there is going to be a new stage in life, where you will have different priorities?

Naomi: I really struggle with that. I'm still finding a balance. I think that's because I've just finished my second year of teaching and as a lecturer. I was an associate lecturer at Lancaster, I have all the admin responsibilities. I'm settling into it better now, but it is a bit tricky. But I think you have to love it. Its like anything you have to love it. So finding time for my own writing, finding time for projects, you have to love them and have to really want to do it. I've had to take a more back-seat role to Yvonne's. I think you have been doing more of the work but I'm hopefully I'm a support still. We will have to re-balance and find the right balance because we really like working together. It's tricky, I don't know yet. You manage don't you.

Yvonne: Yeah you do it because you love it and it's trying to prioritize. At least I have now completed my Ph.D. But part of the thing about staying in the UK is launching a business so that a really good motivation to get the organization up and running. So, I mean in the sort of businesses I could run, there is a lot of things I could start that I wouldn't be passionate about. Like I always wanted to run an arcade, [laughter]. I've already named it, its the Wii cafe. Because I do enjoy video games an awful lot, and there's nothing really for the young people to do. Young people could play games and buy coffee and they could just hang out in a positive sort of space and be in a safe environment. That could be a business. A part of it is motivation. A part where time comes in. I have to start an organization or a business of some sort to stay in the country, on the visa that I'm on and I have the university supporting me, which comes in handy as they endorse my visa. The rest of it is leg work and passion.

Peter: So the implication of that is, you can't really make a living as a writer. Is that what you feel?

Yvonne: Oh yes you can, there are writers that do it. So can you make a living as a writer? Yes. I don't know if I am the sort of writer who would be happy if I wasn't also engaging with actual real people. But even, when I picture myself winning my Pulitzer Prize, ...

Naomi: You do that a lot. [laughter]

Yvonne: I've already said I've written my speech for that. But before, I see me going into different book events, so part of my marketing plan would be going out and having literary salons, where there is local food and local atmosphere because I need that in my life. So while ideally I would make a living with my writing, I also always need my community, so I will always be doing that.

Naomi: The thing is difficult. Obviously there are writers who earn a huge amount. There are writers who earn enough. There are freelance writers. I think most writers have to diversify, that is the word of the day. For me I couldn't have that job that I have, as a creative writing lecturer, unless I was writing, and was getting published and it was at a certain standard. So in that sense it all supports my career. And I love teaching, I love what I do and that's why I've found the right balance for me. But I couldn't earn enough money to live just by writing. Maybe in the future that will change but for most writers it takes a while. It takes a while to find the confidence, to get your writing to the standard that you want it to be. And it depends on the kind of writing that you are doing as well, Some writing is more commercial, more marketable. It's a tricky thing, its definitely possible, but most writers have to do more than one thing.

Yvonne: I think it also depends on how you define it. Because when you think about the literary salon, I think we will reach a point where we are making an income from that. Then that will still be making a living from our writing because we get people through the salon because they know us or because they feel welcome so its kind of like its our circle. Our writing will get more readers and we get more people that way. But then also the connections we make from hosting events like that will help out writing and build relationships and things like that. So if you look at the different ways that you make a living with your words, I think it just depends on how you define it. Everything feeds everything really. Even the Stories at the Storey, it started as non fiction, but I also write non fiction.

Naomi: Yes I think you are right we are really lucky that everything is tied in together and it's all relevant. Because a lot of writers do jobs or end up doing jobs that don't connect with their writing. I look at the way that my writing feeds into my teaching and things that I'm doing with my students feed back into my writing. So its a circle. I've just signed up to do a short story course, even though I've got an M.A. and a Ph.D. in creative writing. I feel there is so much to learn and that cycle of teaching and learning and growing as a writer. So I feel really lucky that I'm able to do relevant things that tie together, but not all admin at University feels creative and relevant.

Yvonne: But it's still writing [laughter]

Naomi: That true.

Peter: With 'Stories at the Storey', is there any way of recording the stories that people give? A couple of sessions ago You were looking at the option of having them recorded and put on a website. I don't know what the uptake of that was. The material was really excellent, but do people really want this to be recorded?

Naomi: That is a question. I know that if we did record, I would think very carefully about my story. It's not that it's anonymous because we do get to know each other and there is no talking from a black screen with their voice scrambled.

Yvonne: We could do that.

Naomi: But there is a sense that this feels like its a sacred space where, what happens at Stories at the Storey stays in that room. So the thought of being recorded really did make me think twice because I do talk about things that are quite personal. I have to think of the effect on people were they to be published in print, accessible, able to be re-tweeted or re-shared. So I think that's an interesting concern. You can still find good stories that don't touch on other peoples lives in an ethical way but it does have an effect.

Yvonne: The first time we tried it, we learned from that. It was very last minute. We said 'hey lets record it', but you are right. Some stories that were read might not have been the story that they would have shared if it wasn't recorded. But we had to have the option of having us record it or not. The next time we planned that months in advance. We told people that they could choose what to share and they still had the option of being recorded or not. I think the way would be, every once in a while, we could do a podcast. But it does feel like being a place where I can talk about what I'm going to talk about, and not have to worry about the implications. In that space it's kind of like you are forgiven. But even saying that, I would still like to do an audio book. This would be commissioned stories that people will write and construct in a way knowing that they will be shared. I think it is important for there to be an audio book and not a print book as you still want the quality of someone talking to you in conversation and of someone sharing a true story and that's what I absolutely love. I don't always get that when I'm reading something. If we did an audio book, that would be in a studio though, so it wouldn't necessarily be like us at the Storey with the microphone or the dictaphone or whatever we were going to use. It would not be that sort of thing. We want to put resources into it. Its just like when you are publishing anything you want it to be the best it can be so we would work with audio equipment. It wouldn't just be me in my room.

Naomi: I think when you create an audio book I see that we would be quite selective about the reader, and choose those who can project in an engaging way. I also think for the workshops that we want to do, one of the elements, one of the aims of that, would be to help people not only to write, but to confidently perform their stories. To help coach people to do that, with the aim of sharing with an audience.

Yvonne: And it gives them the possibility of being published in the audio book because we will be able to hear them and see who is potentially ready.

Peter: Do you think there is a necessity for a strong academic role for someone who takes up writing or is it just more a question of building confidence? Perhaps academia is not an essential component of being a writer.

Naomi: Thats a hard question to answer. I think I have to be open about my background and that is I always dreamed about being a writer from an early age. I loved reading and I dabbled with stories. I didn't have much confidence, and was a little bit lazy, still am. So I went to university to do English Literature. I was always going to be an an English literature professor and I was going to marry an and English Literature professor and we were going to talk about Jane Austin over dinner.

Yvonne: Only one conversation? [laughter]

Naomi: It was at university when I had the chance to do creative writing as a minor in my first year at Lancaster and I almost didn't do it. It was my husband, who is not a literary professor, who said 'You've always wanted to be a writer, what have you got to loose. Give it a go'. But I almost talked myself out of even trying it because I was so scared, that I wouldn't be good enough, that I wouldn't have anything to say, that everybody would think I was rubbish. So for me having that opportunity at university level to really delve into it, to get some feedback, to start exploring, to let people hear my voice for the first time as a writer it really did change the course of my life. I know that sounds like a cliche. I improved my confidence through that process. I don't think that's necessary, there are plenty of writers who don't come through an academic route. So I think what's necessary is to have, at some point in your life, a community or some kind of feedback so that you can ... its really hard in isolation. It's quite an isolated process, writing, to learn to edit, to learn to connect to your work. To learn how to structure and to push your writing to the best that it can be. And you just need that nourishment, that encouragement from other people. That's what it was for me. But I do have quite an academic background so I did really enjoy the sense of stepping back and thinking about it. In terms of theory, in terms of the writers and what they have done and how they affect readers and how certain techniques create certain effects. I don't think you have to do it in an academic context but for me that really worked and it was valuable and I wouldn't have written a novel otherwise. There are all different kinds of routes.

Yvonne: For me when I started writing, I was on my track through college and then life happened and I stopped. But when I went back to college I knew it was for writing. So it gave me the confidence. So I went through undergrad and I started out at community college. It was great for me because it was a really challenging sort of environment. They had their own publication for the creative writing class. So that was a chance to work as an editor and accept different things and go through submission processes and to write for them. So that was really really helpful. From that point it was just always something that I wanted to do. Then I did my masters, that was at Hopkins and then I did fiction and creative non fiction. I went to a class in Italy. It was a nine day intensive writing class that was in Florence and while I was there, I fell in love with creative non fiction. So that opened up even more doors Thats what academia did for me, it opened up my eyes to other things and like you said, the workshops, that was really helpful. Otherwise, I would just write something and my internal editor just loves me. [laughter]

Naomi: Mine hates me.

Yvonne: So mine is always like 'this is just awesome' -  sends it off to the New Yorker. I can't tell you how many things I have submitted to the New Yorker. So our academic courses gave us support. They gave us the networks and it's great to be around other writers and see what other people are doing to. Work-shopping and teaching and being able to share and watching and even learning from your students. I feel like, no, you don't necessary have to go to academia. But to find a community who will give you honest feedback and who you can support as well and that network of people that you can share opportunities and information with. I think thats crucial no matter where you go.

Naomi: I also think writing is a craft as well and I think things like fine art and dance and music have been part of academia for a long time. In the UK creative writing is still relatively new and there is a kind of snobbery about it where you go through this cycle, all the time you know, 'it can't really be taught, you've either got it or you haven't' and there is an element of truth in that. Not everybody could go and study music at university. You need to have a certain amount of talent. But I do think you can learn a certain craft, you can grow, you can learn from other writers and it's that opening out that you talked about that was really important for me. During my Ph.D., I wrote about dementia and the novel that I produced was a lot different than if I hadn't been in that environment. I was really pushed to experiment, to think deeply about the ethics of what I was doing. Now you can argue that is not always a good thing in fiction. It should be about telling a good story, not necessarily telling an ethical story. That struggle between, is it ethical - is it a good story? Somewhere between that I found something that I think, I hope, worked and that I would be proud of, something that I wouldn't have reached otherwise.

Peter: So is there anything we should have covered that we haven't?

Yvonne: We have launched our Patreon.

Naomi: Yes, we should cover that.

Yvonne: So we are giving that a try because we have reached a point where we want to continue providing great engaging events, and we want to provide great platforms and publishing opportunities. But we can't do that alone. So we need support. We are applying for arts council funding and different foundations and things like that. We are also trying a 'pay what you decide' model, based on Annabel Turpin, ALC Stockton. They have been trialing this for a while now. So instead of saying this ticket is £25 and this one is £12, the audience can just come, experience it and then decide what they can pay. Not necessarily what it's worth as they don't know what it costs. But they pay what they want to pay. So we are going to give that a try. The Patreon is also important, because we are at that point now, where we have been applying for grants and I think one way is to get support from fund raisers. Maybe a way to try that out will be with the Patreon, so we have launch it virtually some two weeks ago. We will launch it offline at Stories at the Storey just to let people know what we are doing, and this is how you can contribute.

Naomi: I think while we were both studying, Yvonne was great for getting support from the university and the graduate college which has supported the Storey from the beginning and continues to do so. But now that we are both finished, we can't necessarily connect with Lancaster university funds. Though we might be able to, we don't have that automatic connection. It's that sense of the time that we put in is valuable and what we do is valuable. We still want to do it but there is that practicality. But it's not always been subsidized. There have always been patrons, that's where Patreon comes from.

Yvonne: With the university funding that we have been fortunate to get, that will pay for the writers and pay for the caterers and the musicians for the salon. That would pay for the space, pay for the food at the Stories at the Storey. But the funding from the universities, they don't seem to pay for your time. They are very clear about that. They will pay for everybody else's time, but not your time. I think, especially with artists, it's very easy to get to that idea that for my time, I shouldn't be paid for it. Everyone else should be. Except when you come to pay for your rent, or your mortgage or your phone or your car. They expect money and you can't say 'I pay everyone else, but I couldn't possibly pay me'. To me there is a weird disconnect between the value of time and who maybe places that value on time. And who says, 'no, you're a good organizer, you wanted to do this, you enjoy it.' So you need to do it for free.

Naomi: There is a hard balance where we work for the salons free, give hours free and they could come and take a risk on it.

Yvonne: And I'm a mom and as much as the kids know that I love them I can't feed them that well. It really is interesting, you look at funding and they say we want to be sure that everyone is paid ... but not you. But the arts council don't say that, they want you to be paid. Its like wow, that so lovely.