6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Surrey Life today click here

Brick Lane author Monica Ali on North Downs Way walks, tips for new writers and the University of Surrey

PUBLISHED: 08:34 02 May 2017 | UPDATED: 08:34 02 May 2017

Monica Ali, writer-in-residence at the University of Surrey

Monica Ali, writer-in-residence at the University of Surrey

Archant

Bestselling author of Brick Lane, Monica Ali, has returned to the University of Surrey as its distinguished writer in residence for the second year. Here she talks to Rebecca Younger about why she loves the job, walking the North Downs Way and learning to ignore what’s in vogue

University of Surrey campus in GuildfordUniversity of Surrey campus in Guildford

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2017

***

You’re now in your second year as distinguished writer in residence at the University of Surrey. Was it a role you ever expected you would take on?

“It’s not something that I planned or expected! Sometimes in life opportunities just present themselves, and this was one of those occasions.”

How did the role come about?

“I first came into contact with the University of Surrey through my work with English PEN, the writers’ organisation. PEN works to promote and defend freedom of expression, and is part of a global literary network. In 2012, I was trustee, and was invited by the student branch at the university to come and give a talk. Three years later, the head of the School of English and Languages got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in this newly-created role.

I’d actually just turned down an invitation for a similar role at the National University of Singapore, rather reluctantly as I’d have loved to have done it in many ways but I didn’t feel it was the right time to be apart from my family. So although I hadn’t been looking for something else, it felt like a moment of serendipity

Surrey is thriving as an academic institution, establishing itself in recent years as a top 10 university in the league table rankings. On top of that, the creative writing department is a very dynamic. I think the Surrey New Writers’ Festival, which they organise each May, is evidence of that.”

How has the experience been so far?

“Well, I’m back for a second year so I guess that speaks for itself. It’s always good to break out of your ordinary work routine, I think. Especially for writers, because we spend so much time at our desks.”

So what’s in store this year that is different from last?

“I teach a series of masterclasses entitled Aspects of Craft, delving into the fundamentals of how to create characters, or how to plot a novel. This year we’ll have the time to drill down into more aspects, including dialogue, and how to revise or edit manuscripts. I also have one-to-one tutorials with students, based on their own creative work.”

What aspects of working with students at the university do you enjoy the most?

“Teaching offers the chance to share what you know - what you have learned over the years - with others. Actually, it affords the opportunity to find out for yourself what it is that you know. When I write I don’t think about process or technique. It’s only when I’m forced to stand back and examine it that I start to analyse how I really do the ‘day job’.”

Since you have been in position, have you had time to explore the county of Surrey at all and if so, where are your favourite places?

As a keen walker I love the North Downs Way. I’m sure there’s still plenty more to explore though, and I look forward to doing that now that spring is in the air.

What are your main pieces of advice for aspiring writers?

“Firstly, read. Secondly, read. And thirdly, read. It always amazes me when aspiring writers, as happens all too often, confess that they don’t find the time to read. That’s the main apprenticeship. You have to read with a critical eye too – always evaluating how the writing is creating (or failing to create) the world on the page.”

Who did you look up to as you were starting out on your writing career and who do you look up to now?

“Some of the writers to whom I return time and again include Tolstoy, Flaubert, Austen, Dickens. Also Graham Greene, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, RK Narayan and VS Naipaul.”

What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out as a writer?

“On a book tour, particularly overseas, you will lose the will to ever write a book again. Maybe even lose the will to live. Do not worry. This is entirely normal and it will pass as soon as you get your feet under the desk again.”

What is the main thing you hope to pass on to students from your own experiences?

“Pay no attention to what’s in vogue, what you think has ‘bestseller potential’ or any such nonsense. Write the book that you want to read. Inhabit your characters, walk a mile in their shoes, see the world through their eyes. Finish each writing day at a point where you’re eager to find out what happens next, the lure to begin again the next day should be irresistible.”

Having the success you did with Brick Lane must have been wonderful but it must also have had its challenges. Was it a tough act to follow?

“When people come up and say ‘I read your book’ I know which one they’re talking about, nine times out of ten. There was a time, probably after my third novel, that I wished I couldn’t be so certain. Now I’m fine with it, having belatedly come to realize that most writers spend a lifetime waiting for the kind of success that came to me somewhat instantly. I’m grateful for the success and I’m grateful that the book reached so many readers.”

What are you working on now? Do you have plans to write more novels?

“I’m working on a number of television drama projects, and beginning to think that none of them will ever see the light of day! I do love doing new things, and have been relishing the chance to work more collaboratively. But it’s meant that progress on the current novel has been slow. I do hope to finish it before the end of the decade!”

***

University of Surrey: celebrating 50 years

This academic year, the University of Surrey celebrates 50 years in Guildford and 125 years of heritage. To commemorate, a special birthday party will be held on Saturday, May 13. The Festival of Wonder will celebrate all things wonderful that have and continue to happen at the university. The local community, and the university’s 100,000 alumni worldwide, are invited to attend for a free day of fun, celebration, imagination and discovery. The full-day event will be jam-packed with a full programme of activities including music, comedy and dance performances, talks with special celebrity guests, the chance to train with the pros at the university multi-million pound sports centre, hands-on workshops, and exhibits showcasing the science and technology of the future. Plus there will be local food stalls, a kids zone and a vet zone. For more information visit surrey.ac.uk

The Wonder Talks

As part of the Festival of Wonder, there will be a host of talks recognising ‘moments of wonder’ created at the University of Surrey over the past 50 years. From world-changing innovations and inventions, to the development of inspiring programmes to support the growth of society, the Wonder Talks will bring to life some of these exciting discoveries and inventions. At 2pm on Saturday, May 13, Monica Ali will be hosting a Wonder Talk entitled: Custodians of Memory: How to write your family memoir, which will include fascinating tips on how you can capture the amazing stories and social history of your family and ensure they live on for generations to come.

Taste of Surrey

Surrey Life is delighted to be partnering with the University of Surrey to manage the Taste of Surrey food zone at the Festival of Wonder. The area will showcase the best food and drink suppliers in the county including some of our previous Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards winners so please come and say “hello”.

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Surrey visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Surrey staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Surrey account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

With Woking Food & Drink Festival taking place at the start of September and summer in full flow, we catch-up with some of the Surrey foodies taking part in their new ‘bite-size’ talks to find out their top BBQ tips

Read more
Wed, 14:25

A restaurateur with a passion for gardening, French chef Raymond Blanc is set to jump out of the frying pan and into the perennials to open the 25th RHS Garden Wisley Flower Show.

Read more
Wed, 12:34

In her latest instalment of Are We Nearly There Yet?, best-selling author Adele Parks finds escape from life’s stresses and strains by climbing, jumping and swinging through trees at Farnham’s Go Ape!

Read more
Wed, 12:21

Even those who spend their days celebrating our Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty can be surprised by what they find down the country lanes, as chairman of the Surrey Hills Society, Christine Howard, discovers when she visits the GASP Motor Project in Albury

Read more
Wed, 12:06

Contrary to common belief, an increasing number of men are taking up the centuries-old art form of embroidery. Surrey Life’s Pete Gardner visits the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey to take up the challenge

Read more
Wed, 11:40

As chief executive of The Grange Centre in Bookham and landlady of The Queen Victoria pub in Shalford, Sally Lines’ weekends are a mixture of re-charging her batteries, completing a masters in voluntary sector management and pulling pints...

Read more
Tuesday, August 8, 2017

In life, you may sometimes look at others and think “I wish I could see what they see; have the same experiences in life; feel what they feel; enjoy what they enjoy”.

Read more
Wednesday, August 2, 2017

No stranger to controversy, comedian turned actor Rufus Hound lives something of a double life. Born for the stage, he grew up in Surrey as Robert Simpson. Matthew Williams catches up with the famously facial-haired raconteur to chat school days, showbiz and, well, modern politics

Read more
Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Some useful points of interest when choosing a home for a loved one (or yourself)

Read more
Wednesday, August 2, 2017

We strongly believe that high level of quality and personalised care is at the heart of our daily endeavours. In this respect we consider that individual stimulation enriched with a full programme of daily activities will encourage our residents to pursue an independent lifestyle.

Read more
Friday, July 21, 2017

How time flies when you’re having fun! It may be a cliché, but for the Guildford Fringe team it rings true as they celebrate their fifth anniversary festival with a bumper year of vibrant theatre, comedy and a sprinkling of magic. Tinx Newton catches up with festival director, Nick Wychsna, to discover what’s in store

Read more
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Always happy to tackle the issues of the day, it’s no surprise that Andrew Castle’s smooth tones have led him to become a talk radio staple. Tennis, however, is the former British number one’s first love and Wimbledon is his second home

Read more
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

With voting open for the 2017 Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards, here we catch up with a selection of last year’s award winning foodies to find out what success has meant for them

Read more
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

In the absence of a no-fault clause getting a divorce is not always easy

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad
Surrey Life Application Link

Local Business Directory

Surrey's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area



Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search