The following conversation with the award-winning poet, author, climber, runner and mother, Helen Mort, was carried out over two months via email. I should warn those looking for fast food words that you won’t find them here, and that is probably something to consume over several sittings, being over 8000 words long.
As with the last conversation with Hazel Findlay, we cover a broad range of subjects, from poetry to religion, from the miners strike to how to get paid as a writer.
Sometimes there were gaps of a week or two in the conversation, so sometimes things get dropped or forgotten, so consider this when reading, but in amongst all the waffle and rambling (mine), there are some real gems (all Helen’s).
Being a poet and author, you might have written a poem or a book on this already (just cut and paste it in), but can you think back to your first experience of nature?
This isn’t my memory but it has become one of those stories that I’ve internalised so much that I can picture it in vivid detail - its become a false memory really…. My mum devotes her life to her garden and our house backed onto a field, so there was this slightly wild patch at the bottom where I liked to go and hide or play. My mum says that when I was a small child, she once found me there absolutely absorbed with a bucket of water I’d found in the garden and some stones of different sizes. I was throwing the stones into the bucket and giving each one a character (‘here goes the princess, diving into the pool’, ‘here’s the mermaid slipping back into the water’). She thought it was so lovely that she came over to me, picked up one of the rocks and asked gently ‘and what’s this one, Helen?’. I fixed her with a look of total contempt and said ‘it’s a stone’. So that was a promising start for my life as a writer! Not exactly Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’.
That’s a great story!
It’s funny that you’re there with your child (I’d better find out of it’s a boy or girl and its name!), writing about your mum, which makes me think of my mum, and my child. She’s 20, doing maths in Leeds, and I hardly see her, and somehow I can put that in a box, but today I heard a girl laugh in just the way she does, and that box has been slightly ajar since (just writing this is bringing tears to my eyes). Basically, you’ve gone and done it now, Helen: created a living breathing, loving thing, but also a source of all your future guilt and worry.
It’s a daft question, but have you found the world is a different place now you have a child, like how a love song makes no sense unless you’ve had a broken heart?
That image of the box being slightly ajar is such a beautiful and precise way of putting it. I can’t imagine what it’s like when they leave home. My partner’s son just left for uni in London and when he went I cried loads and he’s not even mine! Having a son of my own probably contributed to that outpouring. I feel as if I understand other people’s relationships to children in a way I didn’t before and as if I must have been a bit of a zombie all my life until now, walking around with this abstract appreciation of what that kind of love could feel like without knowing it at all.
The world is changed. It’s even more frightening and alive and precarious and dazzling and exciting than it was before. And for the first time in my life I feel as if I’ve encountered something I don’t know how to write about. Maybe one day I will, but not yet. I spent my whole pregnancy being stupidly anxious and one day I was driving past The Works and allowed myself to be happy for a second imagining what it would be like to do nice easy climbs with my son. Next moment, that had switched to “oh God, what if he got into climbing? What if he died in an accident?”. It was a bit of a “welcome to the brain of a parent” moment.
Now, as a fellow writer, I hope you’re not going to hang around coffee shops with mums (where writers are trying to work/watch YouTube), and talk about ‘baby’? If you find yourself there, you’ve got to promise to pull back from the edge, and pull them back as well, to try and remember when you had dreams that were more than going to sleep.
Have you heard the story about Francis Ford Coppola, how someone asked him how he came to make the Godfather when he was so young. He replied that by age 27 he was married with kids and he had to.
Do you think Alfie will have both a positive and negative effect on you as a writer like God has put his finger on your temple and given you an insight into all mankind, but cursed you with not having one free moment ever again to process it.
Hahaha. I often have an urge to start a baby group for parents of small children where the only rule is you aren’t actually allowed to talk about babies. At the moment, I still feel as if my brain isn’t working like it used to, it’s still so full of nap times and all the sort of stuff I never thought I’d be preoccupied with. But the ‘pram in the hall’ thing has to be a bit simplistic doesn’t it because even if you can’t write in the same way in the short term, any new emotional experience or change in your life is part of your life as an artist, or it can be if you’re determined enough….?
Although I’m agnostic, when I was living in Ireland, I started going to mass (being a Brit, you’ll maybe see this as being like attending a KKK rally), but I went as much to prove to myself that I wasn’t a bigot, swapping out some unhelpful cynicism for understanding (it wasn’t a KKK rally, but a very human gathering), and as a form of meditation (no phones, or hats), that the things you don’t want to do, are often the things you should. I liked it as first because you didn’t have to sing. Still, slowly I wished you did (I should point out I’d always been very hostile to religion, but that hostility somehow took me from Christopher Hitchens to Peter Hitchens, from Dawkins to Muggeridge, go figure).
One thing I liked, was your writers ear was always receptive to what was read, which although very old, often sounded like an idea bitlink: the process of digesting the words, say ‘lamb of God’, opening the link, and so it begins to expand, that someone is coding a huge amount of information into the smallest number of words possible. I started to see that this was the power of poetry, songs, stories, in that they allowed the shrinking of complex ideas into an easily transportable code, such as the classic: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. One line that always stuck with me, that I found really valuable, as a writer, parent, and having once been a child, and my own upbringing, was this: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”.
So what does your writers’ mind think about bread and stones?
I can really identify with your urge to do that. I’m agnostic too, but I used to really like going and sitting at the back of St Mary’s Church (the famous Crooked Spire) in Chesterfield just for the feeling of reverence and awe, the chance to be still and quiet. I think it’s something to do with the sense that there are still places in our frantic world where people go to worship. In fact, every December the church holds a Christmas tree exhibition and last year I went there to walk around when I was in labour because I found the church so reassuring - I was hobbling around and clutching the pews every time I had a contraction!! As for bread and stones, I’m really drawn to the idea that sometimes you don’t always get what you asked for but that it turns out to be a good thing. Stories are like that, aren’t they: they take you to the places they need to go, not always the places you wanted them to go. Poems are definitely like that.
I read the other day how books have a soul, and that when Google was trying to digitising every book that has even been published*, it was their souls they were saving, so maybe that’s why they go where they want, as somehow they already exist?
*[The dark side of the story, is Google was digitising every book that had been published, not for human consumption, but for AI].
Like giving birth to a child, who belongs to you, but who you don’t own, are the stories you write the same?
Yes, I think that’s exactly how it is. The best stories come from somewhere else. You can recognise your fingerprints on them, but there’s also a lot of strangeness in the words. I also found when I was writing a novel that the characters did things I wasn’t expecting them to. And poems can come into your head utterly fully formed, as if you’ve overheard them or something - very occasionally a poem has come to me in my sleep! That’s a bit annoying actually because it nearly always vanishes when I wake up.
A lot of writers struggle with the writing part of being a writer. Have you found it’s become easier over the years, and what tricks have you learnt?
I don’t think it has become easier, but I’m better at forgiving myself these days. When I sit down to write, I always have this inner editor or critic yelling ‘that’s rubbish’ as I type. I think a lot of us probably struggle with that. I haven’t found a way to get rid of the voice, but these days I go ‘yes, maybe it is rubbish, but that’s ok, I can worry about that later’. I do think you need to give yourself permission to write crap every now and then to get to the good stuff. You can’t censor yourself all the time. I also used to struggle with the idea that everything I had to say was really ordinary. But nowadays I think ‘perhaps it is, but people may relate to it’. The main ‘trick’ I guess I’ve used over the years though if my writing isn’t really happening is just to forget about it for a while and read and read until I find something by someone else that sets my world on fire and that makes me feel excited about the idea of writing again. Encountering good writing always inspires me in the end.
Yes I think new writers are always looking for big stories on a grand big, which in adventure literature is often the epic, the near-death, the transformative event, it’s as if they always want to be Picasso painting with a ten-foot brush on a hundred-foot canvas. Really, the art of writing often seems to be the small things, things so unimportant, the the dying warmth of a dead bird in your hand, how thin the skin in of someone who’s old, the way they have so much to say, but rarely do, as their lost youth informs them no one listens.
I agree on the idea of crap writing, which I guess is what blogs and social media are for, to grease the groove.
I think from the outside, people would view you are incredibly successful and accomplished, how often do you feel like a fake?
I feel like a fake every day. In my day job (teaching at a university) and in my writing. It’s the constant fear that someone is going to come along and say ‘er, sorry, but it’s obvious you just can’t write’. No matter what, I always feel like the person at the party who is about to get tapped on the shoulder and asked ‘who brought you here?’. I was going to say it started when I was at uni but I think it probably preceded that. I’m not sure it’s possible to get rid of that feeling, but from my experience of others I’ve learned that many of the most competent people I know have impostor syndrome in a big way. Nowadays, it’s the people who never seem to have it that I question!
I pointed out the other day that in on the UK would anyone think the term ‘liberal elite’ as derogative, as in most places, it’s what people would aspire to such a labelled as. So I hate talking about class to people in the UK, especially now class is so divided into not-working class, slave-class, working-class etc., but seeing as you were born in the 80s, I’m guessing you’d be working class. Do you think it’s that working-class way of seeing yourself, and not the rich, that hold you back, that somehow there is something in your DNA you cannot escape from, like dirt that never washes off? I ask, as you often see this thing, where someone who has an upper-class attitude, would say “I was heavily involved in the moon landing”, when they’d done a week in the NASA gift shop, while a working-class man would say “I used to fly rockets” when he’d been to the moon.
When I was growing up in Chesterfield, I felt very middle class because my parents were teachers - they were both the first people in their family to go to uni and both came from working class backgrounds. At school, I got teased for sounding ‘posh’. Then I went to university in Cambridge and felt working class. I got teased for having a regional accent and not being able to afford to do things. I didn’t expect it because my school hadn’t really had experience of people applying to Oxbridge. And because I studied politics and sociology I remember writing this essay about whether class was more than just economic. I argued that it really was and that class identity is an important part of someone’s life and my tutor said I was totally wrong and it was purely economic. I had a massive chip on my shoulder all the time I was at uni and was quite aggressive towards some of the rich people I was meeting, argumentative really. What I hated I guess was a sense of entitlement and taking things for granted that I felt I sometimes encountered, whereas to me being there felt alien and miraculous. It’s sort of that example you’ve given about the moon…. Funnily enough, my response was the same as my response to being called a posho and a swot at school - I just studied and studied all the time because books and hard work were safe. I wanted to finish my course with the best degree I could manage and it was also a refuge because I found the social side so difficult and missed my friends from home.
There’s a lot I could say about this and I’m not sure I’m answering your question, probably just rambling on a theme.
Rambling is good, but this reminds me about how I told my daughter, Ella, that she was clever enough to go to Oxford to do maths, and she said “people like us don’t go Oxford”, to which I replied “that’s because people like us think like that”. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film “The Keep” by Micheal Mann, but it has all these German soldiers being killed off one by one by some supernatural in an old castle. Then they realize that the stones are bigger on the inside than the outside and that It wasn’t keeping anything out, but keeping something in. I think something like traps a lot of people, both working-class (as does offering 1980’s film references rather than some obscure piece of literature). I think the same applies to the middle class as well; only the stones are just set in a different pattern. The biggest strength of being a working-class writer, is that you don’t have the capacity to feel guilt or shame or sin, which is what keeps the middle class in order (Ella’s mum didn’t want her to go to York uni, as it was ‘too white’).
It’s typical of an academic to see class in only by narrow terms, it’s one of the many things that more easily stood if they’re reversed, such as crap food makes you poor, but in this case it’s being working-class makes you poor, not being poor makes you working class.
Is entering academia, have DR at the front of your name, the pinnacle of human achievement, as this seems to be the focus of the education system.
That image from ‘The Keep’ is a great metaphor.
This sounds really corny but as I get older I think that the pinnacle of human achievement is simply managing to stay kind to others even when it is difficult. Nothing to do with education at all. And surprisingly hard to achieve. It’s what David Foster Wallace says in ‘This is Water’, the speech he gave to graduating students at Kenyon College. Staying compassionate when you’re faced with the mundane, exhausting, frustrating business of life is one of the most difficult things to achieve. No academic qualification can make you better at that. I’d much rather my son was kind and relatively happy than high achieving, I guess.
Do you see yourself as a positive person, i.e your picked the best time ever to be born, or less positive? Also, do you feel you’re more risk averse with a baby in tow?
I’m usually extremely pessimistic because I’m an anxious person - I always imagine the worst case scenario for everything and that has been exacerbated by having a baby. But I’m good at bouncing back whenever something bad does happen and I respond pretty well to disappointment so perhaps I am positive after all. I don’t think I’m especially risk averse with Alfie in tow either. He went up Blencathra and Snowdon with me when he was small in some wild and windy conditions and I didn’t feel scared. Having said that, the few times I’ve tried to do some easy soloing since having a baby I’ve been even more wimpy than usual (and that’s saying something).
It’s really interesting how some thing changes in people, and they think more about not dying, which is odd, as I’m sure they didn’t want to die before having a baby. Maybe it’s because they really want to stick around, like they really want to get the end of the story? Can you imagine dying before you read the last Harry Potter book, you’d die not know (I should add I’ve not read any Harry Potter books).
Do you think you’re anxious or you just tell yourself you are, like it’s a fake thing, that what you always believed about yourself. I used to think I had low self-esteem, until someone who I trusted said that was rubbish, and I was the most confident person they know, and he was right. I think from the outside any anxiety you have is as a result of not being anxious, but the result of someone who’s incredibly motivated. I’m sure Elon Musk gets anxious every hour of the day, yet he’s not anxious.
How much pressure did you feel you were under when writing Black Car Burning?
I agree that we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves that can become unhelpful and restrictive and too easy to fall back on. And other people might not recognise those stories at all. But no, I’m definitely anxious - I have panic attacks and other symptoms when I don’t take medication to keep it under control! The most helpful thing a doctor has ever said to me about anxiety was ‘I’m not going to tell you not to worry because you’re always going to. I’m just going to say ‘don’t let worry make you ill’’. I found that really useful as a way of looking at it because actually, as you say, being anxious can be quite a useful and motivating thing. It’s ok if it’s driving you but less ok if it’s stopping you doing things.
Funnily enough, I didn’t feel any pressure at all when I was writing my novel because I hadn’t tried to do something like that before so there was no weight of expectation like I felt with poetry. I just thought ‘if it doesn’t work then it was an experiment that failed’. It’s the same way I felt when I started rock climbing as someone who had been obsessive and competitive as a distance runner. I was able to enjoy it because it was different. I like things that I can relax into because I don’t think there’s anything to prove and it’s ok to be crap. Not that there should always be something to prove anyway but you know what I mean!
Every now and then, I get back into running and make the mistake of joining a running club. Nothing wrong with clubs! But I really must learn they’re no good for me. As soon as I start to think that other people are counting on me to succeed, I get really obsessive. A few years ago I joined a club and had a goal of running a sub 3 hour marathon. By the time it got to race day I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to, I was doing it just so other people wouldn’t think I was shit. Is that something you recognise from mountaineering or is it totally different? Or do you think the idea of ‘doing it for yourself’ is a naive one anyway and that whatever drives us to achieve things is a good thing? I can’t decide! I do know that when I get back into competitive running lots of other things in my life suffer. And I suppose I think you’d have to be world class to make it worth that and I’m just not that good.
I don’t think people who are competitive can just be competitive, they’re just competitive, but only see it played out in one dimension. It’s plain to see you’re very competitive in anything you think you have a chance at winning at, be that races or poetry awards. You aspire to be the best at everything you can be best at, which is a good thing to understand (if it’s true), as often it leads to neglecting things you can never win medals in, relationships being the best example. I think maybe this is part of why super talented people are viewed as self destructive, look at Ginger Baker for example, the best drummer who ever lived, but also a terrible human being. Maybe he realised he could win at being the best drummer, but to be the best human being was impossible, so he just neglected it. Also, being the best at something often requires the sacrifice of being a good person. Maybe your anxiety is just smoke coming out of the steam engine of ambition. I’ve had panic attacks in the past, waking up and not being able to breath, thinking I was going to die, and my kids would find my body in the morning (isn’t that typical of a parent to have that as their last thought?), but I think there’s something in my nature – maybe it’s a man thing – that instead of outsourcing the fixing of the problem, I wanted to fix it myself, so took myself to bits.
I don’t have much faith in doctors and mental health professionals, they’re OK, but it’s generally just a job, and you’re trying to discover a problem that someone has failed to understand after a lifetime, so most of the things you hear from people who have been told what’s ‘wrong’ with them, such as they have a chemical imbalance, always sound like Holy communion to me: here’s the blood of Christ, now bugger off until next week. I think what troubles some is a single piece of grit inside them they can’t fish, while for others, it’s that they have no grit. I live downstairs from a Ghanian woman, and I asked her if they had depression or mental health problems in Ghana, and she laughed for about a minute. It’s at this point I have to add, that comparing what happens in the head of someone in Accra is very different from someone in Accrington, but we know that’s just avoiding one of those big questions we’re too scared to talk about.
With Black Car Burning, did you ever feel like you were stealing anything from people you knew, their stories, things they said? I ask as I think a lot of good writers as actually just stalking and lurking, like spiritual paparazzi!
I don’t see writing as something competitive actually. Which doesn’t mean I don’t worry about what people think or feel a sense of expectation, but I don’t ever feel a sense of competition in writing, it’s a bit different. I think a lot of poets find the concept of poetry prizes a bit weird (not that it stops us entering them of course so perhaps we’re all hypocrites).
Hmm, there’s always definitely an element of saving things up that you notice or hear and writing them down. I once saw a man walking down the road in Glossop wearing 3 hats at once (one woollen hat, one baseball cap, one flat cap) and I put that in the novel but it probably sounds like I invented it!!
Isn’t that just the way, that the stuff that’s true sounds made up and vice-versa.
I’ve always thought I could write anywhere and scribble poem ideas down on my phone or in a notebook on the bus and stuff but last year I used my savings up building a shed (it’s an office really, I can’t call it a shed) to write in at the bottom of my partner’s garden so now I always write there if I get the chance to have some time! I was always going ‘I don’t need a space to write’ and then now that I have one I think I do need it. I guess we just always justify whatever we’re doing at the time don’t we!
I hope the Roald Dahl estate gets some kind of commission from all these writers sheds. I tend to work in cafes and move on once the staff know me by name, and at least, in a shed, people don’t come up to you and tell you how J.K bloody Rowling wrote her books in cafes!
Apart from yourself, who is your biggest critic, either directly, or by being some sort of nemesis?
That’s such a good question. I definitely imagine my editor when I write I think. Or my mum! I’d like to be better at taking criticism without feeling defensive. We all need critics. Funnily enough, I sort of think having children probably makes you better at dealing with criticism maybe….? I can imagine that when your child complains about you it’s different somehow. Alfie is already my harshest critic. If he’s not impressed by what I’m doing, he lets me know very loudly. And he did come to one of my recent readings from the novel and did a massive audible poo in the middle of the event so that’s surely a verdict on the book.
I always hated it when parents try and just go on as they did before they had a baby, sort of handing the child backwards and forwards as they attempt to carry on. I took my kids to a few lectures, but they’d often be a total pain, so I started just putting them on the stage, so I could keep an eye on them. One time I said “ignore these two, they’re adopted” to which Ewen said, “I wish I was”.
Yes. There would be no point in trying to carry on as you did before because your life has changed irrevocably! Actually one thing I enjoyed about having a novel come out at the time when Alfie was only a few months old was that I basically couldn’t do anything to promote it because of being on maternity leave. It was nice to sort of let the book go forth into the world without too much of my presence. It probably sounds disingenuous but I always feel like I want people to pay more attention to the book than to the author anyway (and yet here I am answering questions about myself, haha).
Who would you view as the mentors, the people who helped you build your present reality?
OK, thank you!! I still hadn’t thought of a very good answer.
In terms of writing, the book which has probably had the biggest influence on my current work is ‘Climbers’ by M John Harrison. It’s such a strange, brilliant and surreal piece of writing, one of those books I feel I could read forever and never exhaust, never understand just why it affects me so. I have a very emotional reaction to it each time I read it. And it’s a climbing book which is about much more than climbing. When you discover a book that you feel so connected to it’s a magical moment.
Another writer I really admire is Ed Douglas. I think he’s a superb writer with a huge amount of integrity. ‘Regions of the Heart’, his biography of Alison Hargreaves which he wrote with David Rose, was one of the first books about mountaineering that I fell in love with and I go back to it constantly. He’s also given me some excellent advice about writing and been very supportive.
However, the people who have helped me build my present reality most are a group of mums I met in Sheffield through an NCT group. We’ve been through some pretty raw experiences together over the past year and I’ve learned so much from them and gained so much confidence. I’ve always been a bit scared of groups of women because of experiences of girl groups at school, but it has been such a source of friendship and affirmation at a time when I’ve really needed it. When my novel was published in April, loads of them, turned up with their babies and that was amazing!
Finally, my gran. She’s hard as nails, warm hearted, hilarious and amazing. And she’s about to turn 90. I could learn so much from her about survival and maintaining a sense of humour.
I remember reading ‘Climbers’ when I was a kid, and it really had an effect, it was sort of grubby and real, erotic without being sexy, empty of all the shite poetry and beauty filler writers add when they don’t really understand climbers, just day-trippers, ending up like a pint of tea with whipped cream and marshmallows on top. I remember seeing John Harrison climbing at Mile End wall when I lived in London, but was too scared to tell him I like the book, and have found myself in some places, and situations he describes so well. Have you ever read GB84 by David Pearce? I always thought he could write a great climbing book, as he captures the North so well.
Agree about Ed, although I think being too good can be a problem if you’re a writer, as well as having too nice a house, and know a lot of people who could have been great writers, who just got their legs under the table too early.
Have you ever talked to Robin Barker about naming Black Car Burning after his route on Stanage?
That’s such a good description of what ‘Climbers’ does. I absolutely love GB84, it was one of the novels I read that made a real impression on me. The way he always manages to write about real historical events but in a fictionalised way sort of makes his portrayal more ‘true’, somehow. I’m about to start reading some novels by Gordon Burn because I’m told he does the same kind of thing….? The novel I want to write next is vaguely to do with the ‘Nine O’Clock Service’ rave church in Sheffield and I think the only way to tackle a subject like that in a novel is to make it complete fiction inspired by real life…..otherwise you should just write a piece of investigative journalism!
I haven’t talked to Robin about it but I talked to Jon Barton! I love the names of routes on Stanage. Have you got favourite route names? Black Car Burning is the one that stuck with me because it’s so strange and powerful. Sadly I’m not good enough to climb the route!
That ‘Nine O’Clock Service’ book would be great, and I think it ties back into what we were talking about faith, the need to be part of something, to believe in something, for someone else to bang the drum.
I wonder if to write a book like that, and fully understand the story, you would have to go to the dark side? I ask, as I just saw a piece on Nick Cave this morning, where he said: “Living in a state of enquiry, neutrality and uncertainty, beyond dogma and grand conviction, is good for the business of songwriting, and for my life in general”. I wonder, as a writer, if he’s only half right, that you must find a way to embrace dogma, grand conviction, the ugly and repellent and contaminating, yet still be able to step back into your own shoes when it’s over. Maybe the only way to do this is to take possession as a pure spirit, not to be blocked by your own dogma. I guess Lester Bangs put it best when he said: ’You cannot make friends with rockstars”. Of course, this means you’re always on then outside, socially agnostic, and people won’t like you because you can see the truth, like how heavy drinkers hate it when you want to stay sober.
I think one thing British people are bad at talking about is money, which is not good for people who are trying to find their way in the creative industries. An example would be listening to four people who work for TV at a symposium, the audience full of young people looking for hard data. No one ever really says anything of practical value, generally, as these things are very must nepotistic and who you know (you learn this when you work on any film). What you want people to say is: “You get £1000 per minute of footage”, or “Unless you live in London, forget it”. I found in Hungary, people would just come out and say “How much do you get paid for an article in Alpinist”, and direct questions without all the dancing around. So I’ll put you on the spot, but without going into figures, how do you square being a writer and poet?
Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth in that….. and that’s one of the reasons we often put off big writing projects (well, I do anyway) because we know they will lead us into difficult terrain.
I absolutely agree with you - the embarrassment around talking about money is so unhelpful for people trying to get started in creative industries. I’m afraid my solution to squaring life as a writer with making a living has been to almost always have another job as well. For years, I worked in admin which I liked because I felt it left many brain free to roam to thoughts about writing. More recently, I teach in the English Department at a university, so I’m doing something much more closely connected to my writing. I’ve pretty much never been freelance. I’ve kept it so that I have a steady employer who I work for and then my self-employed work as a writer is like a second job which I never expect to get paid hardly anything for, it’s a bonus if I do. That would probably be a bit discouraging for young aspiring writers to hear! The benefit is that I don’t have to say yes to freelance work that I’m not passionate about, I guess. The obvious problem is that is squeezes my writing time and takes a lot of my energy. Now that I’m a mum, I’m thinking much more seriously about trying to make a go of it as a freelance writer, but that would be a learning curve I suppose. I find it really difficult to say no to things that are basically a favour (so much in the poetry world is unpaid or badly paid and it’s usually someone you know who is asking you to do it!) and I’m not good at putting a value on my work which would have to change if I did it full time. I honestly think that poetry may be the most bad paid of all the writing genres, so perhaps life as a novelist might be ever so slightly more lucrative but who knows!
Someone once told me that in the 80s, if you had ten books in print, you could make a decent income, but I think what was a ‘descent income’ in the 80’s would be viewed as being quite poor now. I watched an interview with General Montgomery the other day, probably from the early sixties, and he was bemoaning how young people are obsessed by making money, and not doing what they love, so maybe poetry and writing as the last vestiges of another age. At the same time, I think there has never been a better time to monitories your talent (even if that talent is self-promotion). I think I made money out of niche print on demand books I sell via Amazon, then books by Random House that have sold tens of thousands of copies, as one has a return of 13% (minus 20% for your agent), and the other 70%.
When you meet young writers and poets, can you identify something in people that sets the successful and the disappointed apart?
That’s such an interesting question. I meet a lot of talented young writers and I think something that I’m always impressed with when I see it is when somebody just makes things happen, gets things done even if it means having to find their own way rather than waiting for something to come along. I worked with a poet called Warda Yassin in Sheffield a few years ago and I remember knowing from our first meeting that she would be successful, because she was such a keen reader, so motivated and so determined to get things done. Now, she’s won competitions, published a collection and she’s got funding to do workshops with Somali women in Sheffield. She just had a lot of energy. I think the desire to make things happen your way is a form of creativity in itself. I think lots of people think ‘successful’ artists have been lucky but very often they’ve made their own luck.
Sometimes when you talk to school kids, you can see what the future holds for most of them; well not so much the middle, but the ones at the top and the bottom, the ones who you can tell their mums smoke and drank through pregnancy, who were on their X-box all night, and the ones whose mums brushed their hair and won’t let them have a mobile phone. It’s the same when you go to special units, where each child has ’teaching assistant’ and every door in the school is locked. You can just tell that 95% of those kids are fucked and there is nothing anyone can do for them. It fascinates me how some children can grow in such stony ground, how others just throw it away, how inside us there is a germ of greatness, but it needs someone to help to fertilise it before it dies. Have you heard that idea that people go through life with half a good idea, and have to find the other person with the other half to realise it. I think the same applies in some way to life, that maybe for Warda Yassin, she was drawn to you because you helped grow that germ of greatness, you saw in her what others saw in you.
I’m not really a jealous person, but I find writing such a lonely occupation, and so have always looked at your life – which through an Instagram filter, seems to be filled with festivals and events – with envious eyes. Do you think that writing is more a lifestyle choice than a job?
I think writing itself is probably a vocation, not a lifestyle choice. It’s more something that you feel you have to do to express yourself. It’s easy for me to say this after I’ve had my work published now, but I think that I would still be driven to write even if nobody was ever reading any of the work. When I’m writing I feel as if I’m saying what I mean for once, or I’m drawing on the best parts of myself, or its all I have to give. Most of the time when I’m speaking to someone or sending emails or whatever, I’m not managing to convey what I feel properly. But in writing I can manage it, a small percentage of the time at least. I’ve always found comfort in writing stories since I was a kid. But it IS lonely and sometimes it’s actually most lonely when you’re at festivals and events and things like that! I suppose I’d say that writing is a job or a vocation but appearing at festivals and the like is a lifestyle choice. And I pretty much never feel like a writer when I’m on stage talking about writing, I feel like some other person who is just commenting on myself, performing in a particular way.
I love the idea of people going through life with half a good idea and having to find someone else with the other half, that’s beautiful.
When you were a child, did you liked to order things, to put things in a row? I ask, as I often wonder if people who have chaotic brains, who can’t contain their thoughts, just write as a way to fix their ideas, what they think, to put them in place, so they have a record. They can then stop thinking about those things, like a human-computer, and move on to something else (a book or poem that record).
Hmmmm….. that’s really interesting…... I think I probably did. I remember that I had an obsession with arranging all my toys in a row or in a circle and pretending they were at school assembly. And one of the things I always find most difficult when I approach writing a new poem is how to stop my ideas from spiralling, seeing too many possible connections. That’s why I quite like working with loose kinds of form, using stanza lengths or line breaks or syllable counts or even a bit of rhyme to sort of limit my options and help me contain the idea. There’s something about putting words into a particular shape on the page in the way poets do that provides an illusion or order and control! Perhaps plot serves the same function in a novel?
Maybe Nobel prize winners have chalkboards and supercomputers, while creative people have sheets of paper, but fundamentally, whether it’s black holes or love, everyone is trying to apply some order to the universe? I think this is one reason why I’m so hostile towards this obsession with the categorization and labeling of children as ‘suffering’ from some form of disability: dyslexia, ADHD, asperges, autism, dyspraxia, and the use of drugs to treat them, to make them ’normal’, when normal is the worst thing you can ever be. When people talk about gay conversion therapy, or about the chemical castration of men, do they ever stop and consider they’re doing the very same thing to their kids, that just as it was hard to be a gay man in the 1950s, it’s impossible to be intellectually non-binary now. I once gave a speech at a special school, for their prize day, a school that focused on dyslexic kids. I said “Well done for being born different”, and you could see half the parents nearly fall off their chairs. It’s funny how kids often hate English, but when you say “do you like stories”, they all nod their heads like crazy, but how that word education sometimes kills the magic. Having been married to two teachers (not at the same time), and been involved in education, I can’t help feeling that teachers are magical creatures, but are put in cages by people who are afraid of things they can’t input.
Last question: If I’d build a time machine, and decided to go back to the 80’s – not sure why I would – and said I’d take a letter back, from you now, to you then, what would you write?
Your speech sounds brilliant! And I couldn’t agree more about the problems kids and teachers face in the education system.
That’s a killer last question. I love it. I think I’d say something like this:
I know you find books safer than people and you’re worried that nobody will ever like you the way you like the characters in those books. I know you prefer imaginary friends to real friends sometimes. That’s alright. You ARE awkward and over-sensitive and a bit strange. But so are lots of people. One day those traits will get poured into writing poems and books. And yes, you’ll still find things unbearable for no good reason some days and want to hide from the world and you’ll turn to your writing for comfort. That’s ok. You can’t and you shouldn’t escape from other people, but taking a break from the world in your imagination is ok every now and then. You might even make a career out of it. Jesus! And very occasionally the things you write might strike a chord with someone else. Life is messy and heartbreaking and silly, but if there’s one thing I can promise you it’s that you’re going to have some really, really good conversations along the way, conversations that will change your life. Enjoy them. Those moments of communication are what this is all about.
Love from Helen
P.S. The patterned trousers you will wear in the 1990s will definitely be a mistake
P.P.S. Ditto haircuts in the early 2000s
P.P.P.S. You should go on that trip to Greenland
P.P.P.P.S Don’t drink Tia Maria and Orange Juice in Chesterfield bars at 16 thinking it’s sophisticated. It’ll just make you throw up in the taxi.
Thanks for talking Dr Helen!
I would highly recommend Helen’s first novel, Black Car Burning, as well as her book of poetry, Division Street, and you can find out more about Helen at helenmort.com. If you enjoyed this interview then please support my work (buy a book, or make a donation).