An Interview with Wyl Menmuir

Each year, Falmouth's Writers in Residence programme brings students the opportunity to work closely with world-leading writers, to learn and explore new ways of crafting prose and poetry.

Since the beginning of the programme in 2012, the Falmouth has welcomed the novelist and non-fiction writer, Philip Marsden, playwright and poet, Owen Sheers, novelist and commentator, Lionel Shriver, bestselling author Matt Haig, and gifted novelist Emily Barr.

This year, the Writers in Residence programme welcomes acclaimed novelist and editor, Wyl Menmuir. Wyl’s bestselling debut novel, The Many was long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and in November 2016, Nightjar Press published a limited edition chapbook of his story Rounds.

In a short interview, Wyl talked to me about his experience with the residency and gave some of his best tips for aspiring writers.

AC: What got you started with writing?

WM: I think it was probably the first book that I read that transported me to a totally different place. I remember that experience of totally forgetting where I was and at the end of it, I remember thinking that writers had some sort of crazy magic and I wanted to be able to do that for someone else. I guess I've wanted to do that since I was six or seven. Obviously it took me a long time to find the right story, but it's really gratifying to hear people say 'I was totally engrossed in your book, I was in that world'.

AC: Where do you think your inclination towards landscape writing comes from?

WM: It's not really a conscious thing, I don't think of myself as a writer of landscapes. I think of myself as (simply) writer. I guess it just happened to be that The Many was set in a little coastal village, and I want to immerse myself into visiting lots of little villages on the coast and sitting and watching life there. I picked out little details from different places and wove together my own place. I'm doing the same thing with the new novel, but it's with a big city. So I'm pulling together little details from different places that I know quite well. As far as that, I guess I'm a landscape writer, but hopefully also a writer of characters within that landscape.

AC: How did you become this year's Falmouth Writer-in-Residence?

WM:  I've been talking with Niamh and with Luke about being involved with the university in some way, and they approached me about possibly becoming the WIR. I can't even remember when it was, but really as soon as that came up, I just thought 'I've got to take that opportunity.'  I thought it was a real honour to be asked to do this, and be alongside the previous Writers in Residence, really prominent authors like Philip Marsden, Emily Barr and so many others. I was looking to do more work with students as well, helping other people with their writing, while concentrating on my second novel, so it's been the perfect opportunity.

AC: Obviously, your presence here helps our students enormously, but how would you say this residency benefits you?

WM: I think partly because it helps me feel like I'm doing something useful for someone else. Writing a novel, you can quite often make you think 'What am I doing that's useful for the world?'. Until that novel comes out, it could be that I'll work on it for a couple of years and nothing will come of it. I think when you're teaching something, it forces you to look at your own practice, your own writing, and then think 'Well, how should I do things differently, how might other people learn from the things that I'm saying?'

AC: Does it bring back the struggles you encountered in the first few years of your writing?

WM: Absolutely. I think there are common things, but also everyone's got a different approach, or a different type of story that they're trying to tell. I remember trying to stir my writing in the right way and I had some brilliant help from editors and other writers when I was writing my novel; I wanted to do the same for other people.

AC: For those unable to attend your workshops, what three most important bits of advice would you give an aspiring writer?

WM: Number one, you've got to read. If you want to write, you have to read widely, but read really high-quality writers. I think that giving yourself something to aspire to, learning from the best writers, is the way of doing it, so everything from the classics, through to who's really at the cutting edge of writing now. Seek out those writers who are experimenting, who are pushing the fort forward, because really, what you want to be doing as a writer is not just repeating what's already out there, you want to be building on that and you want to innovate.

Number two, write the story that you want to read. I think that was the best bit of advice I was given. If you can find a story that interests you, is likely to interest other people as well. So find a story that hasn't been written or that you can tell in your unique way, and write that.

Thirdly, my overall best piece of advice is to finish what you've started. If you start that novel, see it through to completion. That's the important thing, to finish it. There are so many novels out there, just sitting in drawers, half finished. You don't want to be the one thinking in ten years 'I really wish I'd finished that novel'. Be the person who finishes it.

Two of Wyl's Creative Writing workshops with us in took place in classic, stunning Cornwall locations, Godrevy and Kennall Vale. These outings allowed students to draw inspiration from the amazing Cornish landscapes and write about them on-site. Although the elements were testing at times, everyone powered through, and in the end, some amazing writing emerged.

At the end of the residency, Wyl also delivered a public lecture on Fiction and the Search for Truth.

by Adriana Ciontea