[Laura Slingo | News Editor]
Creative Writing lecturer, Jane Purcell, is one of the most interesting people I have ever had the chance to interview. Down-to-earth and witty, she gave me a no-nonsense insight into the life of a lecturer at UH, but more so, into the life of a professional writer.
What classes do you teach at the University of Hertfordshire?
Dark Materials: Young Adult Literature, The Writer’s Art: An Introduction to Creative Writing and Radio Writing: From Page to Production.
With so much literature in the world, how do you choose the final reading list for each class?
I try to choose at least one debut novel which shows that unknown writers do get published. With student finances in mind, I also try to track down short stories online. When the students have to buy a play, I try to make sure it reflects some aspect of their lives. There’s still a lot of guesswork though and I change it about each year.
As a professional, have you always worked in a university? If not, where else do your expertise lie?
No I’ve only recently started working in a university. I spent years as a freelance journalist. I also wrote lots of comedy for radio and television and more recently, a number of plays and series.
What made you decide to teach at university level?
I sent in my cv to Hertfordshire, even though there wasn’t an actual job going because I liked their approach to teaching creative writing, (their tutors all work as professional writers). Dr Pat Wheeler called me in for an interview and asked if I could write a course on Young Adult literature. Before freelancing, I was an editor at Random House Children’s books, so that, and blagging, got me the job. I’d never written a university course before though, so I was petrified.
Are there currently other professional responsibilities you have alongside your teaching career? E.g. any writing projects you are working on?
I have a couple of professional projects going on. I don’t mean to be gnomic but I hate talking about them. Trying to explain and seeing people’s bemused expressions crushes my confidence, so I keep quiet. “Oh yeah that sounds er weird . . . ly. . .interesting.” Also talking about projects in my case, means not doing projects.
Taking a step outside of the professional-sphere, do you have any other quirky skills, qualifications or experience?
I’ve stroked a great white shark (from inside a cage!) and done a parachute jump from 12,000 feet. On landing, I rolled onto the grass and thought, I’ll never be scared of anything again.
Did you always imagine your career path involving writing and teaching? If not, what was your original career aim?
I always wanted to do something with writing but had no confidence. Also I thought that writing was a deeply serious thing and never considered writing comedy. (I was brought up in the seventies where comedy was stuck in a racist, and sexist phase) But looking back, having some life experience makes for a better writer, and I was definitely a late starter.
What’s your number one piece of advice for students trying to write in a professional capacity?
It’s perfectly acceptable to fail. It is not acceptable to give up.