Read our in-depth interview with Derek at the bottom of this page....

Derek Neale

Derek Neale

Derek Neale is a graduate of UEA’s famous creative writing MA. He subsequently taught both script and fiction writing at UEA for a number of years, while gaining his PhD in creative and critical writing. He has won awards for his short stories, which have appeared in various anthologies and journals, and is the author of several books, chapters, essays and articles about writing, many written in association with The Open University where he is now Senior Lecturer in creative writing. During his time with the OU he has helped design and write a whole new generation of under- and post-graduate writing courses which have been studied by tens of thousands of students. He has recorded interviews with numerous writers about their creative process and also developed the OU’s hugely popular Start Writing Fiction MOOC. His acclaimed novel The Book of Guardians is a ‘detective story about orphans’, an ‘often touching examination of the philosophy of “care”, which tackles head-on the alienation and uncertainty of contemporary lives.’ (Victor Sage). For information about Derek’s writing and teaching see his website: .


Derek Neale in 60 seconds

When did you start writing?

8 Birmingham, UK.

What do you love about short stories?

The challenge of restraint and concision, and their infinite variety.

Do you write in other forms?

Novels, scripts for stage and radio, essays, poetry, academic articles and teaching materials.

What distracts you from writing?

Teaching, the need to earn money, a compulsion to procrastinate.

Outside of writing, what are your other passions?

I play tennis, I ride a bicycle and I walk a lot.

What is your favourite book?

Le Grand Meulnes

Who are your favourite writers?

Angela Carter, Raymond Carver and Ali Smith.

Where is your dream location?

Several, but in particular: where sky seems to fall into the sea, Norfolk, and where mountains meet.

What one item would you put into Room 101?

Committee papers.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Anyone can write, only writers can edit.

Work by Derek Neale:

The Barber's Victim
Derek Neale
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A boy is traumatized by what a haircut reveals.
Some Mothers
Derek Neale
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A mother, recovering on a psychiatric respite ward, recalls her own mother and her 'other mother', and sees vivid glimpses of hope in the past and present
Violin Lessons
Derek Neale
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A boy happens upon a furniture-maker in his workshop while waiting for his sister to finish her violin lesson; it's a meeting that will change them both.
She Shot My Chimes
Derek Neale
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A gun fires in the dark, but who is it? And what is she aiming at?
Land of Their Fathers
Derek Neale
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This is the story of two characters in a small town in Wales who only meet once, with shocking consequences.

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CUT chats with Derek Neale….


CUT: What led you to writing? Was there a key moment that sent you in this direction or do you think it’s something that has always been in you?

DN: I don’t think there was a key moment. There were certain things I liked doing as a child, for example I wrote poetry from an early age and liked reading it. I also really enjoyed classes in primary school where you had to write stories. One of the things the teachers used to do was to get us to prepare the day before by telling us to go off and collect words. It’s that collecting of words that I’ve always associated with the joyful process of writing and that has stayed with me.

Secondary school proved to be a bit duller, to be honest, but there were a few inspiring teachers and we wrote a few scripts and stories. However, it was in young adulthood that I found the tussle with language to be quite central to my sense of self. By that I mean that I always thought that I wasn’t quite on top of it and I that I needed to spend more time with language, and with stories as well. To me writing is always a struggle to find the right words; to leave out the right words and to include the right words. I also remember feeling that I hadn’t read enough and that in order to write I needed to read more.


CUT: And what has led you to focus on short stories?

DN: I write scripts and I’m also a novelist. However, short stories are central to the way I think about writing. I think they’re very much connected to novel writing, as well. I’m very interested in the crossover between what is a chapter and what is a story and whether or not they can be the same thing. One of the stories on CUT, a story called Some Mothers, is actually a chapter from a novel that didn’t make it into the final version and was also written in a voice that didn’t make it that far. This voice was an experiment and I almost needed to know that character’s voice, to know that present tense way of narrating that character for the benefit of the story, but then, having written about 30 to 40,000 words in that voice, it didn’t make the cut. But that particular chapter, in that voice, I decided actually worked as a story. It’s not true of all chapters but I like experimenting with that notion. Louis De Bernières said, maybe rather playfully, that for one of his novels, he laid out all the chapters on the floor and arbitrarily picked the order in which they would go. To his mind, they were all short stories and independent of each other. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I can certainly connect with the point he’s making, that relationship between stories and chapters.


CUT: What for you are the biggest challenges of writing?

DN: I feel the most significant challenge is dealing with that sense of general inarticulacy in the face of what you want to do. You’ve got this great idea but you can feel totally incapable of putting words to it. So that’s the biggest challenge; finding the time to sit down and persevere with the idea. And really the other challenges are all related to that in one way or another: you’ve got to earn money; you’ve got to put food on the table; you’ve got to pay the rent… How do you do that and still find the time to write? My other career is teaching writing and that’s actually a very big job. A large part of it involves reading other people’s work which is rewarding, but also very time consuming. So in a way it encapsulates my own attitude to, and issue with, writing. The biggest challenges are all related to time and finding the head space necessary in order to do the work. Allied to that is having the will to live through the moments when you doubt yourself or you’re not enjoying it, and of course that’s something we all have to deal with.


CUT: And the biggest joys…?

DN: Well, I mentioned the idea of collecting words as a child earlier, and that enthralment with language continues to be one of the joys. Although now it’s a bit more nuanced because as a child it was about learning new words, whereas now it’s about omitting words. It’s about learning how to create beautiful spaces between words. Another joy is simply being involved in the process. I’m not all that interested in getting published and the bits around writing but being involved in the story, in the psychology and the emotional logic of characters, that’s possibly the biggest pleasure I get from writing. It can manifest itself in the construction of a single sentence, or a paragraph or even a chapter, but it is when you are totally immersed in the act. I think that might be the pursuit at its purest.


CUT: Do you write to music, silence, a personal soundtrack?

DN: It’s usually silence but I’m not immune to the sounds coming through the window, the traffic and birdsong, the baby screaming, all of it. Often that can be quite influential.One example of this is how I wrote the story Violin Lessons, which is also on CUT. My daughter must have been seven or eight at the time I was writing it, and every night, after we’d read her a story she asked to have Raymond Briggs’ The Man played on cassette. And while that was playing, I was writing. And in The Man there’s an inversion of normal sizes and the ways things happen. For instance, a boy finds a little man in his room. A little man who has got very conservative but distinctive tastes: he likes Guinness; he likes marmalade; and he likes full-cream milk. And this was a set-up that I inverted in Violin Lessons. My story concerns a boy who finds himself in a man’s space and the story develops from there. I won’t elaborate any further as it might give too much away, but I think that’s a good example of how the environment can impact on the work.


CUT: Do you schedule time to write or is it more of a spontaneous, as and when matter?

DN: It depends on what I’m writing and where I am within a project. If I’ve got to get something done before a particular time, then I can literally stay up all night to get it done. And that goes for all kinds of writing: my teaching writing, essays, scripts or chapters, or completing a final draft to send off to a competition. However, on a more everyday basis, it more regularly involves setting aside a particular time of day to start or continue with a piece of work. That also involves working first thing in the morning. I do write morning pages, as Dorothea Brande suggested a long time ago. And that process of connecting with my sleeping unconscious is very important to me. This is because my teaching work is so dominant in my mind at times, sometimes that time spent with my notebook first thing in the morning is the only writing I manage throughout the day, the only time I get to do the writing I really want to do. It’s a way of writing without care. You know no-one’s going to see it, yet it’s productive. There are things that arise in it that are very significant. It finds you out.

However, there is a paradox at play, because nowadays everybody writes all the time. Except of course, they don’t always call it creative writing. I think Lemn Sissay made a good point when he said that we live in an age where everyone is always writing something all the time, be it texts, tweets, emails, copy for work or what have you. So my whole day is spent writing in a way, but writing creatively is another matter.


CUT: Do you know the ending before you start or does it reveal itself along the way?

DN: It varies considerably, but I’d say that if you’re getting towards the end of your allotted words and you still don’t know the ending then you’ve got a problem! And this problem isn’t going to go away just because you’ve reached the end of your word count, it’s going to stay. And you’re probably better off working more on the end before you get to that point. William Boyd wrote, in The Guardian recently, that a good ending can redeem a mediocre idea while a bad ending can sink a really good one. From my own experience I’ve found that the ending doesn’t necessarily come at the end but I do know that I won’t be able to finish anything unless I know what it is. And yet, there’s a balance required, because if I’m too certain of the ending then I won’t have any reason to write what I’m writing. That’s the dilemma: you need to plan, but also you don’t want to lose the element of the unknown. E.L. Doctorow likened it to driving at night when it’s foggy. You can see the road markings but you can’t really make out anything else. You just have to follow the white lines and see where they lead you. Boyd’s idea is perhaps a bit more concrete than that: you don’t have to know exactly how the story ends but you probably need to have an idea of an ending, something to work towards, and while it doesn’t need to be there at the start, it needs to come relatively early on, at least midway through. For example, I didn’t know the ending with my story Land of their Fathers, but then all of a sudden I did. I’d essentially written two separate character stories that got cut up and pasted together. They weren’t originally written like that though.


CUT: Where do you go for feedback and constructive criticism? And why this source?

DN: This has varied throughout my life, really. At times I’ve been a member of a workshop where people have given me feedback on things, other times I’ve had regular readers for the specific form I’m working in, for example if I’m writing a script I’ll give it to a scriptwriter and so on. Other times I’ve had reason to show it to academics or to people who have professional reasons to read it such as my agent or an editor. So there’s a lot of different people who might give very different feedback. I’m not a member of a workshop at the moment but I have been in the past and I think it’s incredibly important. Another point is that it’s really very necessary to pause on the feedback you get and not act on it immediately, be it criticism or praise. You have to take some time to reflect on it and weigh it in your mind. It’s also important to assess who is giving it and why. A fairly typical response to feedback we get from some students at the Open University is something along the lines of, “Well I don’t understand how I’ve got this mark because my mother loved the story.” The source needs to be taken in account although, of course, most know they need to get a wide range of opinions.

Another joy of having someone else read your work is that sometimes they notice things in your writing that you didn’t know were there, and that’s wonderful. Also sometimes they make something explicit that you knew was there but you never quite crystallised in your own mind. And again, that’s really special. You’re in a privileged position when you ask someone for their opinion about a piece of work you’ve written, as you’re asking for a reader’s direct response. You’re asking a reader to climb into a piece of work, to inhabit the spaces between the words and to co-imagine it, in a manner of speaking. And what you’re getting feedback on is whether they can happily co-imagine it with you or not. Maybe they feel crowded out, or maybe there aren’t enough clues there, in which case it becomes too enigmatic. What you’re looking for is balance and that’s what good feedback helps you achieve.


CUT: Do you get distracted? Dispirited? What keeps you going during these moments?

DN: I think the memory of brighter days is something that helps get me through. There are fewer of them of course, but having that memory of them is a real asset during the low moments. That and a wish to know how to solve a particular writing problem or journey. How do you take it further? How do you pursue this emotional journey or character? Even when you’re dispirited, you still want to know. I think there’s an element of enquiry about all writing. Sometimes it’s explicit and sometimes it’s just implicit, but it’s always there.


CUT: You have a number of stories on CUT. Do you think that there’s anything that links them, any thematic similarities or connections?

DN: Well in terms of themes, I think it’s more for someone else to say probably. However, there are things I can see as linking them. For example, all of them are formal experiments, in a way. Land of their Fathers was an experiment in post-production editing: a cut and splice story. However, Some Mothers was related to an experiment in present tense writing, while She Shot My Chimes is an experiment in trying to write as little as possible. They may not be thematically linked exactly but I would say that often when you write something, it gives rise to the next thing you want to work on. If you’ve tackled a particular technique or style in one story it’s not unusual to be drawn to something else afterwards. I’m not saying that the stories I’m mentioning here were written consecutively, but they are at opposite ends of my experimental narrative spectrum. In a way they are reactions to each other: one, Land of their Fathers is a big story with a big landscape, and yet quite a parochial and folklore-ish setting, and the other, She Shot My Chimes is based on the fact that my partner used to hate our neighbours’ wind chimes and I think she actually might have said once that she’d like to shoot them. That stayed with me… but was then transferred and transformed to another landscape, to another character and to another narrative method. The idea in that story was to make it dialogue-led, with little bits of narrative, and to have it be very visual, even though it is set in the dark. In fact, that was part of the challenge, how do you make something visual that is set in the dark? And that echoes the theme: there’s a lot of enigma in the information that’s given to the reader. It might not be for everyone, but it’s a momentary story, it’s at one end of the short story spectrum, whereas Land of their Fathers is at the other end, the Alice Munro end of the spectrum, not in style but at least in terms of length.


CUT: You read a lot of other people’s work as part of your job, but also what do you look for when you read for pleasure? What makes you rate someone’s writing?

DN: I suppose I look for what I can’t I see, and to explain that, I’d say I look for subtext. And I look for sub-textual elements: things that I’m seeing and feeling from reading the story that aren’t actually written. Things that occur in the spaces between the words and in the silences. Alan Ayckbourn said of his plays, you’ve got to allow the actor to act, and if you overwrite the lines and give them too many stage directions, then you stifle them. However, if you put in a space around the line, then there is room for the actor to manoeuvre and interpret. I think the same goes for readers, at least the kind of readers I’d like to read my stories. If you provide that space, they will enact the story and imagine what has been omitted. Of my work I think perhaps She Shot My Chimes allows the reader to do that more readily, but I think there are also spaces in Land of their Fathers and Some Mothers, just different kinds of spaces. Sometimes it’s the gaps between the words and the sentences, and sometimes it’s the gaps between the sections of the story. Of course the aim is always to give your reader enough inspiration so they can hear, see, touch, taste and feel. For it to be there without hitting them over head with it.


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