London Lit Lab – Lily Dunn & Zoe Gilbert

I’m delighted to welcome London-based writers Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert to the blog.

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Lily Dunn is an author, mentor, editor and creative writing teacher. She has written three novels (Portobello Books), and a handful of short stories (Matter magazine), and is currently working on a PhD in creative non-fiction. She is a trained editor and journalist and has written for Time Out magazine, the Guardian, the Telegraph and numerous other publications. She has experience teaching teenagers and adults in class and workshops. As chair of North London Writers, she has many years experience in critiquing novel manuscripts and short stories. She is co-director of London Lit Lab.

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Zoe Gilbert is an author, creative writing teacher and mentor specialising in short fiction. Her stories have been published in anthologies and journals around the world, and have won prizes including the Costa Short Story Award 2014. She is working on a PhD in Fiction and Creative Writing, focusing on the influence of folk tales on contemporary short stories. As host of the Short Story Critique Group at Waterstones Piccadilly, and co-host the Short Story Club at the Word Factory (where she is Associate Editor), she has many years’ experience of critiquing fiction. She has also taught creative writing classes to adults and teenagers, and is co-director of London Lit Lab.

There are two reasons for hosting Lily and Zoe on the blog: the first is that I try to cover a variety of excellent writers from huge names to the lesser known and the second is that Lily and Zoe have set up London Lit Lab in order to support new writers. Herein lies another reason; before I applied to do an MA in Creative Writing, I went on a new writers’ course to see whether I could actually write or not. It gave me a huge amount of confidence and ideas and I was successful in being accepted on an MA so I’m pleased that Lily and Zoe have identified that there’s potential here for supporting people who might feel the same way. (I realise that not everyone can afford to go on a course, which is exactly why Kerry Hudson established The WoMentoring Project. Details on the link.)

Tell us a bit about London Lit Lab and why you decided to create it.

Lily: The idea for London Lit Lab came out of a conversation between, me, Zoe and Julia Bell, my PhD supervisor. Julia suggested there was a gap in the market for a friendly, affordable London-based writing course and reading/critiquing service. So, Zoe and I, who’d become friends through North London Writers, decided to have a go at setting up a mini business. We thought we’d start with a beginners’ course (which we’re leading in June) and follow with an intermediate course, which might appeal to those who can’t afford an MA, or have just finished an MA and have a body of work that they need help with developing. Both Zoe and I have experience in teaching, and saw this as a great way to develop our vocation.

Zoe: We’ve both spent so many years giving critical feedback on short stories and novels, teaching here and there, and mentoring fellow writers through projects, it seemed a natural step to put all that in one place and create a home for writers. I think we both feel we’ve benefitted so much from the help and inspiration other writers have given us as we’ve developed, we also wanted to give that back. Courses that get you thinking differently, or learning how to use feedback and editing advice, have been invaluable to me, and have kept me going and hopefully progressing. London Lit Lab aims to provide the same for London’s writers.

Why do you write? Are there any reoccurring themes or ideas in your work?

Lily: Writing for me is a kind of personal expression, and a way of understanding the world. I tend to write about whatever I am living at any given time. An idea for a book often starts with a moment or emotion that I might have experienced, and then through the process of thinking and developing it turns into its own story, hopefully with wider resonance. But there will be themes in there that relate to me, and my view of the world. There will definitely be complex family dynamics, a few disillusioned love affairs, an overriding sense of loss and longing…

Zoe: Most of my work in the last few years has been driven by my fascination with folk tales – not just their stories and fantastical worlds, but also their structures and styles. They have a flatness that is unlike what we look for in a novel, for example. I love experimenting with this. I keep writing because I feel funny if I don’t. Writing is scary but not writing is worse!

You’re both working towards PhDs in Creative Writing, Lily in Creative Non-Fiction and Zoe in short stories. Why did you decide to pursue a PhD and what affect do you think it’s having on your work?

Lily: I didn’t really pursue a PhD – it just kind of happened to me. Again, from a conversation with Julia Bell, when I told her about an idea I had for my next book and she suggested I apply to study with her. I had, of course, thought about it, mainly because I wanted to teach, and jobs in higher education, particularly, are so hard to get these days unless you have a PhD, but also because I welcomed the opportunity to go deeper into my interests and discipline. I also liked the idea of returning to an institution. The combination of writing and mothering can be isolating, and I saw the PhD as a way of stepping back out into the world. I remember when I did my Masters how good it felt to prioritize the writing, to take it seriously; and I suppose the PhD is the next level. It feels like a bit of a wonderful indulgence, but I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

Zoe: The appeal for me was similar – to make a commitment to my writing, and also to get such high level critical feedback from a supervisor for several years. I didn’t do a creative writing MA, so it was a plunge in at the deep end, but as soon as I found out you could even do a PhD in creative writing, it clicked. I went on an Arvon tutored retreat with Alison MacLeod, found out that she supervises PhDs, and approached her afterwards. I was lucky that she had a space and wanted to work with me. Doing the PhD helps me feel qualified to talk about short stories both academically and creatively, and hopefully also makes me a better teacher!

You’ve been posting a writing exercise on your website each week for people to have a go at. Can we see what you came up with for one of the exercises? (It doesn’t have to be the same one.)

We had a bit of fun with these exercises. We wanted people to get involved and be free to play around with them, not to take it too seriously. The main aim was to get people writing. We posted a brief exercise a while ago, and here is a rather silly London Lit Lab response:

Create a hybrid of a politician and a pop star, and then converse with them in a lift…

David Cameron and Lady GaGa. He-She is wearing a black leather jacket with studs, has a peroxide quiff and high-heeled brogues, pinstripe trousers (cropped).

CamGa says: ‘Yo!’
I smile.
CamGa: ‘I can see you staring there.’
I say: ‘What?’
CamGa: ‘From across the block with a smile on your mouth.’
I realise we’ve passed the second floor, and I’ve got four floors to go, I frown.
CamGa: ‘And with your hand on your huh?’
‘Ah,’ with a gracious smile.
CamGa: ‘So which way?’
I say: ‘The only way is up.’
CamGa: ‘The political system is broken, the economy is broken and so is society. That is why people are so depressed about the state of our country.’
I ask: ‘So you’ve found a better way?’
CamGa looks down at his spangled garb and say, ‘Garage Glam Baby.’
We ping to the sixth floor, and I say: ‘Ding dong.’

Zoe: here’s one I did, which involved attributing a magic power to a normal kitchen object, and writing the opening of a story about it. I decided my antique teapot could catch thunder and then pour it out when required:

It surprised me the first time. Looking from my window at the rain lashing the street into darkness, the gutters streaming, the drains gurgling, I saw a woman amble out from number 5. She stood, letting her clothes drench and her hair plaster to her head, while she stared up at the sky. Then she began to jog, awkwardly, because she held an object out in front of her. Just then the sky flashed with lightning, and a second later the thunder cracked from the West, somewhere over the industrial estate I guessed. The woman started running faster, towards the rumbling, and as she passed my house I saw that what she held was a teapot. Even through the squalling rain, I could see the pink rose pattern, the gold detailing. A nice teapot. I worried she might drop it. She put one hand on top of it, to steady it, I supposed. But no, she lifted the lid and as she ran she held the teapot high over her head. That was the first time. I love watching storms, but now there’s an extra reason to stand at the window, and watch the woman from number five come striding out with her teapot, tracking the thunder…

What can people expect if they enrol on one of your courses?

Lily: Above all, they can expect a warm and friendly atmosphere, which we hope will be conducive to the production of some good writing. We want people to feel comfortable and at home. Our classes will be challenging and informative, but also fun. In our beginners’ course we will use a mix of exercises and texts, and will be pulling together all the best bits Zoe and I have learned at various courses we’ve attended over the years, combined with our own wisdom from our quite different writing practices. We’ll also take inspiration from the lovely Leila’s Shop.

Zoe: Friendly and inspiring classes – deciding to go on a writing course at all when you’ve never been on one is a big deal, and I remember how I felt the first time I did that. Terrified! I thought, that’s not for me, they’ll all be writers, and I can’t even say that about myself in my head, let alone out loud… I had such a positive experience and that’s what I want to provide at London Lit Lab. The initial fear will disappear behind a great puff of new ideas, and ways to get your writing going. For the advanced course, I’m looking forward to both giving and guiding critique, and introducing writers to fantastic examples of novels and short stories as a way to learn what works.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Lily: I find it difficult to answer this question, as I’ve never been obsessed with certain authors and read all that they’ve ever produced; though, of course, there are plenty of writers out there who I’ve loved, been inspired by, have returned to again and again. Anne Enright’s fiction never fails to give me that tingling feeling. I found the Gathering a masterpiece in innovative storytelling and voice. I am also very interested in this new wave of critical memoir/autofiction, in the more idea-led works by Chris Kraus and Katherine Angel, and I’ve read quite a few of Rachel Cusk’s works, both fiction and non-fiction, a writer who intrigues me. I am also interested in Elena Ferrante’s early works and her unashamed bare-all tone. I think this is an exciting time for female writers. There are some very interesting books being published, which are asking important questions, pushing at the boundaries of fiction and genre.

Zoe: Helen Oyeyemi, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter spring immediately to mind – they all have wild imaginations and voices which are impossible to imitate. I would add Scarlett Thomas for the same reasons. All of them get away with breaking the rules, and perhaps that’s why their fiction is so memorable. I admire George Eliot, too, for completely different reasons. I recently reread Middlemarch, and was blown away by her perceptions and expressions of human states. I hadn’t remembered that at all from reading it as a teenager! It was like having a light shone on the human mind at intervals throughout the book. I wish I could do that.

Thanks to Lily and Zoe for their responses. You can find out more about London Lit Lab here.

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