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David Belbin

27 March 06 words: James Walker
"Buy poetry. You won't be any good unless you've read loads and one of the reasons it's in a bad way is because so few people buy the books"

David Belbin on LeftLionSherwood resident David Belbin is a man of many talents. Not content with running a prestigious creative writing course at Nottingham Trent he is also a well established author. His Young Adults novels include 'Denial' (Hodder Children’s Books 2004), 'Festival' (Hodder Children’s Books 2001), 'Dead Guilty' (Five Leaves Publications 2000) and the short story collection ‘Haunting Time’ (Five Leaves 1998). Since 1989, he has published over thirty short stories for both adults and younger readers. One of them, ‘Different Ways Of Getting Drunk’, from Ambit appeared in Best Short Stories 1993 edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes (Heinemann, 1993). Leftlion thought it about time to catch up with this merry man of fiction.

So when did it all start for you?
I started writing seriously about twenty years ago. I’d just qualified as a schoolteacher and discovered Young Adult Fiction, which has since become my main field. It took me five years of writing every spare evening, weekend and holiday before I got published.

Love Lessons would appear to be your most popular publication to date and, arguably, your best, but is it your favourite?
My favourite is Denial, my first young adult novel with a first person female narrator and the only one set in Sheffield, where I was born and still have family. It was a tough one to get past the publishers as it deals with very controversial areas (I don’t want to give away the plot, but the title gives you some idea). It’s a disturbing novel but the role of Young Adult Fiction is to present life in all its unsettling complexity, not to offer saccharine comfort pills.

You may have been born in Sheffield, but it is clear Nottingham has had a direct impact upon the setting of your books
Indeed, I’ve written thirteen books that are specifically set in Nottingham: Love Lessons, Avenging Angel and the entire Beat series, which are about the lives and investigations of young officers.

The Beat series acts as a good reference to how the city was changing in the late nineties, does it, or any of your other work, contain references to real life local characters?
I gave one or two friends small cameos in The Beat, notably Carol Ward, who used to be my job share partner when I was a teacher. She starts out as a paper girl in Avenging Angel and reappears in the final Beat novel, Fallen Angel where she’s shagging the husband of one of my sergeants on the side. There’s a bit of Ken Clarke in my politician character, Roger Wellington. But I’ve learned through experience that if you base fully realized characters on real people, you’re asking for trouble in the writing. Far better to pick and mix characteristics, even better to invent.

What kind of local literary events would you recommend?
I go to the Shoestring Press readings at the Flying Goose Café in Beeston, which are at 7.30 on the first Tuesday of most months. I’ve seen some great poets. It’s a terrific atmosphere, very convivial. Now that the Maze has reopened (at the Forest Tavern on Mansfield Road), there are likely to be some literary events there. And look out for a series of readings from this year’s MA students’ new anthology, 3D, in May or June. Further afield, there are some great writers coming to Southwell poetry festival in March, including James Fenton. Then there’s Lowdham literary festival in July, which always has lots of cool stuff. I’ve been promised that none of it will clash with England world cup games.

When you are not writing you are of course running a Creative Writing MA, sell it to us in under 100 words?
The course pretty much sells itself.

That’s only six words, please sir can we have some more…?
The MA was set up in 1992 and is the third oldest Creative Writing MA in the UK. I took over as course leader two years ago and we get more and better applications every year. We have shit hot tutors, all professional writers, and visiting speakers. That said, the heart of the MA is intensive small group workshopping that relies on our attracting dedicated, articulate, talented writers to make the work happen. I wish a course like this had been around when I graduated. I spent a lot of time in a chilly top floor flat on Wellington Square, tapping on a typewriter, making every mistake going.
David Belbin on LeftLion
So how long has it been running and what are the benefits?
I took over two years ago and I was persuaded to accept the job on a permanent basis last summer. I’m still part time and it’s a good match with having a writing life, especially as most of the teaching takes place in the evenings. Running the MA means I travel the country less doing school and library visits, which is fine by me. I like doing that stuff but the travel gets tedious and I get bored with the sound of my own voice, telling the same story again and again.

Are there any up and coming local writers we should keep an eye out for?
I’m looking forward to reading MA graduate Nicola Monaghan’s first novel, The Killing Jar, just published by Chatto and Windus. Tough, tight writing set on a Nottingham Estate. I’ve already read a chunk of it in her MA dissertation. She graduated with a distinction. I’m not going to mention writers without publishing deals, as this would tempt fate and offend those I didn’t mention. There are fifteen good Nottingham novelists in the new anthology Sunday Night And Monday Morning and loads of great poets in its companion volume Nottingham: the poetry collection (both Five Leaves). That’s the best place to start. Nigel Pickard’s One (Bookcase) was a terrific debut. I’m looking forward to Jon MacGregor’s second, which comes out in the autumn from Bloomsbury. And I believe you yourself have had a couple of publications with Route and a novel is on the way!

It has been on the way for a long time, but whether it ever arrives is another matter. Anyway, what tips have you got for our unpublished poets out there?
Buy poetry. You won’t be any good unless you’ve read loads of stuff and one of the reasons that poetry publishing’s in a bad way is that so few people buy the books. Five hundred is a big print run these days. Subscribe to magazines. If everyone who wrote poetry bought one collection a year and supported one magazine, we’d have a thriving literary culture.

Talking of buying, we hear you have written a book on eBay. How does writing a factual account compare with fiction?
Writing a book about eBay was easier than writing a novel, and a lot more lucrative, but I’ve resisted turning it into a career. That said, I learnt a lot from all the media I did when the first edition of the book came out. Being live on Radio 2 for an hour while I sold Jeremy Vine’s tie for Children In Need was a buzz (it raised £950).

For those of us who don’t like leaving the house, what trade secrets have you got for eBay fame and fortune?
Always check feedback and never bid on anything from a seller with less than 98% positives. Use PayPal backed by a credit card as it gives you better security. As with all things in life, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Some sellers make their profit on rip-off postage charges, watch out for those.

If you were going to flog the slanty 'N' on eBay, how would you do it?
I’ve been in Nottingham since I was an undergraduate and it gets better and better as a place to live. Especially for live music, which is my passion. I’ve seen the latest NTU research and students living here overwhelmingly love the city.

And where would you recommend the winning bidder hang out?
Eating out: at the moment, Merchants is on top form if you're splashing out, but French Living is the best value, terrific food and wine. Wagamama is great if you're in a hurry, I eat there most weeks. The main places I shop are Selectadisc and comics specialists, Page 45, both on Market St. I love the Paul Smith flagship shop on Middle Pavement. To chill out, read or research, I recommend joining Bromley House subscription library on Angel Row. It's a lovely old building with a great garden at the back: one of Nottingham's best kept secrets. I don't drink in the city centre as much as I used to. It tends to be the bar at the Rescue Rooms, Broadway or The Peacock on Mansfield Rd. And The Gladstone in Carrington, near where I live.

Are you Forest or County?
County, though it’s a fair while since I’ve been to a game. There’s a lot of stuff about fictional footballers in The Beat, especially the novel Sudden Death.

Who are your personal literary influences?
In alphabetical order, the most important writers in the development of my work have been Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Robert Cormier, Charles Dickens, Ellen Gilchrist, Patricia Highsmith, Bernard Malamud, Ed McBain, Stanley Middleton and Brian Moore. That’s just the top ten.

Would you like to see any of your books in celluloid?
I’d like the money, but I doubt I’d enjoy seeing somebody else adapt my stuff for the screen. Maybe if it was written by someone like Paul Abbott or Michael Eaton, writers I really respect. I never write with an eye to adaptation.

If someone was going to play you in a film, who would it be?
My partner would opt for a bearded George Clooney. Philip Glenister with a beard and bald patch might be more realistic.

Last but not least. What are you currently working on and when/ where/ how can we expect to read it?
I’m loathe to discuss books I haven’t written yet, but I’ve just finished the copy edit on a short Young Adult novel for the publisher, Barrington Stoke, who specialize in ‘smooth’ reads for people with reading difficulties. It’s called ‘Stray’ and is about a lad who falls for a girl who belongs to a gang who exploit her terribly. Writing books with a low reading age requires very special skills. It’s my seventh book in this genre and by far the grittiest. Their test readers loved it, which is very satisfying.
Just because people can’t read easily doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given stories that are every bit as interesting as longer novels. I like to push the envelope of content in my YA fiction. There’s still a lot of timidity in schools, libraries and publishers about how realistic fiction for young people can be. I think writers have a responsibility not to bullshit young readers, to present them with the unvarnished truth about life, at the same time giving them ammunition to cope with the world and change it. To hear David on our Write Lion 2 podcast

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