Novelist and non-fiction writer Zoë Howe will be joining Newnham as our 2020-21 Royal Literary Fund Fellow – here to support students across all disciplines through their writing concerns.
The Royal Literary Fund Fellowship scheme was set up to place professional writers in higher education institutions to offer writing support to all students as Writing Fellows. Newnham has been fortunate to welcome many excellent writers over the years, from poets to biographers. We’re now delighted to welcome Zoë Howe, who will be sharing her writing experience – plus her interests in punk, the visual arts and radio – with the Newnham community.
We interviewed Zoë Howe about her work.
“A great deal of my work tends to focus on championing the work of women and cultural figures who might have been marginalised or underestimated in some way.”
How would you describe your work?
I’m primarily a biographer specialising in music and popular culture: my first book, published in 2009, was the authorised biography of pioneering female punk group The Slits, for example. However, I released my fiction debut a few years ago, and my current project is a non-fiction book focusing on the occult, so I have quite a broad range of writing interests! A great deal of my work tends to focus on championing the work of women and cultural figures who might have been marginalised or underestimated in some way. In addition to my work as an author, I am a visual artist, a musician (mostly drums) and I have a show on Soho Radio called The Witching Hour.
What is your role here as the RLF?
My role as an RLF Writing Fellow is to assist and guide students across all disciplines through their writing concerns, and hopefully make the process of writing and research more enjoyable. I’m available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and all sessions are one-to-one, free, confidential and tailored to the specific needs of the individual student. We can work through anything from essay planning to time management, from structure to working on improved flow and coherence and plenty more besides. Writing can be hugely rewarding but it can also feel overwhelming and isolating: it’s easy to get lost inside a writing project and before long we’re second-guessing ourselves and are unsure of how to get back on track. Just being able to knock ideas around or share concerns with an experienced writer can give some perspective and reassurance.
“Sometimes we have to spend time finding out what we don’t like before we can really settle on what works for us.”
How did you become a writer?
Writing was always something I loved. I originally come from a theatre and music background, but it was when I started writing that life really began to blossom. I combined my love of music and writing and eventually became a music biographer after a few years of freelancing as a music journalist. I didn’t fall in love with journalism, but ultimately it got me where I needed to be as an author, and helped me to develop essential skills such as interviewing and researching, not to mention working to a deadline! I prefer working on long-form projects and building relationships with people over time, so life as an author suits me well. Sometimes we have to spend time finding out what we don’t like before we can really settle on what works for us. Nothing is wasted!
Where and how do you write?
I have always felt privileged to be able to work from home – although given the current public health situation, working from home is becoming a lot more common! I’m quite self-disciplined so I can happily settle down with my laptop (and a teapot nearby), and off I go into another world. People often ask whether it’s difficult to work from home – I realise this may be different for people with children, but I tend to be able to get into the zone without feeling tempted to turn on the TV. One assumption people make is that home-workers are never out of their pyjamas! I always make sure I greet whatever project I am working on smartly dressed and ready – lipstick, perfume and all (and usually a bit of bling too). It puts me in a productive frame of mind, and I feel it’s respectful to the work.
“read your work aloud – even if you don’t have an audience”
What is your writing secret?
If I had to pick just one, it would be this: read your work aloud – even if you don’t have an audience. It doesn’t matter how many times you have pored over it on the page or the screen, the practice of reading aloud is merciless in exposing mistakes or issues you otherwise would have missed. No piece of writing leaves my laptop before being read out loud. It’s simply one of the best ways of checking flow, working through kinks and zoning in on mistakes or repeats.
“Effective time management and planning is essential for any writing project”
What’s the one tip that you’d share with our students for their academic writing?
Other than the above, I would say this: accept that you are going to want to revise and redraft a number of times, so give yourself plenty of time. Effective time management and planning is essential for any writing project. It’s very stressful to discover you haven’t given yourself sufficient time for the reading and research you know you need to do; alternatively you could spend too long trying to hoover up every text on the reading list, only to find there isn’t enough time to write the essay itself. Ideally, you’ll also want to give yourself a break from it for a day or so, so you can return with a fresh perspective. You do not want to feel rushed or panicked – we never do our best work that way. Plan your schedule and be disciplined about it: you will thank yourself when that deadline rolls around!