In conversation with the ‘Failed Novelists’

Culture Entertainment

Image description: A screwed up piece of paper on a desk 

Before we re-entered lockdown, I went to the Ashmolean rooftop, and met a group of three writers (Struan Murray, Alex Bryant and David Leon) who were meeting up to celebrate something rather unusual – they were no longer ‘failed novelists’. The three friends originally met in 2011 whilst studying here, as sometime members of the Failed Novelist writing society. Their friend and fellow writer Victoria Princewill, who I emailed, described it as an “Oxford literary community of aspiring and self-described terrible writers to published novelists who are presumably, less terrible at it. Or so one hopes.”

Now in their thirties, all with some form of finished piece under their belts, they have become reacquainted. I was unsure what to expect, and the tone of the meeting was – perhaps expectedly – a little odd: three writers meeting for the first time in a while and a (frankly inexperienced) student journalist, drinking cider and a flat white (guess which was mine) is not exactly the typical customer base of the Ashmolean rooftop.

three writers meeting for the first time in a while and a (frankly inexperienced) student journalist, drinking cider and a flat white (guess which was mine) is not exactly the typical customer base of the Ashmolean rooftop.

It was a strange sensation, to know they were celebrating, but also aware that things were not quite as they should be: the pandemic has hit the arts sector hard, writers included. I mentioned a Twitter acquaintance who spent lockdown obsessively tweeting about the writing of his novel, and they were unsurprised – writing, they acknowledged, could be lonely at the best of times.

This, then, was why they had been involved in The Failed Novelists in the early 2010s. The group was a supportive, seemingly rather chaotic writer’s group of Oxford students, undergraduates and postgraduates – less like a ‘serious’ official writer’s society, they met in awareness that their writing was not yet that good, and that they were not succeeding, but also read each other’s pieces aloud, finding support, friendly ears, and by now, lasting connections.

Meeting in random rooms in Teddy Hall, and publishing anthologies of disparate pieces (they self-published the Amazing Failed Novel in 2012), the Failed Novelists built themselves a community. Searching them on Facebook, it’s clear that group still exists, with over 400 members. It had been a respite from the imposter syndrome environment of Oxford. The authors look back on their time in the group as one of real fun, artistic kindness, and light-hearted chaos: the sense of nostalgia was tangible.

The authors look back on their time in the group as one of real fun, artistic kindness, and light-hearted chaos: the sense of nostalgia was tangible.

The variety of options for young, unestablished authors is obvious in the group – Alex has gone to the extent of creating his own publishing company, self-printed, commissioning the artwork for the front cover online. David has put his on his blog and says that this is the best way to publish.

The most understated of the three I met, Struan Murray – a lecturer in Biochemistry – has published his first book, Orphans of the Tide, with Puffin, and the second in the series with be published in March. A third is in the works, and his Twitter is full of parents and teachers gushing over the first already. The Times have called it ‘unputdownable’, and just from the cover and his brief description, I could tell it was the kind of book that I would have been reading under the covers at 1am when I was younger. The novel follows Ellie, and a mysterious boy washed up on the shore: if you’re looking for a nostalgic return to children’s books to get you through the rest of term then this might be it. Hearing him discuss the process of writing, getting it published, seeing the cover, and watching it turn into a real book was fascinating. That he’d not been able to have his launch, see it immediately in bookshops, and have the real experience was hard – he had the experience he was hoping for “snatched away”– “but tiny violins”.

The Times have called it ‘unputdownable’, and just from the cover and his brief description, I could tell it was the kind of book that I would have been reading under the covers at 1am when I was younger.

Victoria Princewill’s debut historical novel In the Palace of Flowers is now being released in February, having been pushed back from July. “These are small inconveniences comparatively speaking,” she writes to me: I get the sense that these four writers are just the tip of the iceberg of creatives who’ve been affected by corona. The other three gushed about Victoria in her absence, she and Alex being the only ones of the four who were undergraduates whilst in the group. The book, set in the court of the Iranian Shah in the 1890s, sounds genuinely fascinating. Following two enslaved Abyssinians, it is based on the only first-person account of an enslaved Abyssinian woman. A brief glance at Princewill’s biography shows a scarily accomplished woman: she has written for the BBC, the Guardian, been a consultant, and co-founded the TEDxOxford series. Perhaps by the time her novel is published we’ll be in a more normal place – or perhaps I’ll add it to the list of lockdown reads.

“These are small inconveniences comparatively speaking,” she writes to me: I get the sense that these four writers are just the tip of the iceberg of creatives who’ve been affected by corona.

Alex has just published The Identity Thief. He describes it as an urban fantasy, and he has been writing it for ten years – it was in the making whilst he was still a member of the Failed Novelists. Set in London, and featuring sorcery and a shapeshifter called Cuttlefish, the book is based partly on his studies of psychological delusions whilst at Cambridge. It clearly has an older audience in mind than Struan’s books, and seems rather dark in theme. It is available as an E-book on Amazon now, and is described as book one in the ‘God Machine’ series – presumably the second book will not take another ten years.

David Leon meanwhile has put his book on his website, and has no plans to stop writing. He told me his scheme; he’ll write something more autobiographical, then another novel. There was disagreement in the group as to what his book could be accurately described as: speculative fiction, magical realism, historical? David was the most eccentric of the friends, and to describe his website and its contents as unique would probably be an understatement. He quit his job around five years ago to write a novel and is now a librarian. Kaisha, whichever genre one might place it in, is historical, and set in Mongolia. Somewhat finished, it sits alongside more philosophical writing on the website.

When I mentioned that spending lots of time writing novels was hardly the typical university student experience, David told me somewhat melodramatically that the authors “lost [their] twenties to it”. Partly I think this is him striving for the feeling of a tortured-author (he compared himself to Kafka, and it was unclear if this was ironic or not) but in some ways I can understand what he means. They all seem to take writing as a vocation – not just something to do as a hobby or for a job, but a seemingly rather stressful mixture of the two.

When I mentioned that spending lots of time writing novels was hardly the typical university student experience, David told me somewhat melodramatically that the authors “lost [their] twenties to it”.

Given that they all seemed so nostalgic for their time in the Failed Novelists, I asked them what advice they might give to students trying to write now, in an earlier position than them: “just care less,” David says. He got himself overly worked up about it – he thinks it’s only when he stopped putting the pressure on that it worked. Struan, perhaps more helpfully, noted that having a group of kind critics was ‘formative’. If there are any aspiring novelists reading this, the lesson I think you can take is that there is no one way to be a writer. This group was certainly varied. Covid has not made it easy for them, but the message is clear: write if you love to write.

Struan Murray’s Orphans of the Tide is available online here and in all good bookshops
Victoria Princewill’s In the Palace of Flowers will be published in February 2021 and is available to pre-order
Alex Bryant’s Identity Thief is available as an e-book
David Leon’s website is www.davidleon.blog

Image credit: photosteve101 via creative commons

 

Sign up for the newsletter!


Want to contribute? Join our contributors’ group here or email us – click here for contact details