Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Green Light in the City

Interview: Pippa Hennessy

13 March 14 interview: Aly Stoneman
illustrations: Ian Carrington

Pippa Hennessy is a one woman whirling dervish of creativity whose diary alone is enough to make a busy person’s head spin. She lets us in on the
secrets of her success...

So who is Pippa Hennessy?
First and foremost I’d describe myself as a writer. Apart from that, I’m just someone who wants to know everything and do everything. Almost everything, anyway.

Everything includes Assistant Publisher at Five Leaves, Development Director at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (NWS), lecturer at Nottingham University, mature student, and mum… how do you keep all the balls in the air?
Not sleeping helps! My roles are flexible, so I fit tasks into the chunks of time that aren’t allocated. It’s easy to turn into a workaholic if you genuinely love your work.
Your background is in science, how did you end up working in literature?

I came to Nottingham in 1984 to study Psychology, then did a PhD in Computer Science. By 2008 the corporate IT world had driven me into severe depression, and then it spat me out. My therapist (bless her!) bullied me into signing up for creative writing classes and subsequently I enrolled part-time on the Creative and Professional Writing (CPW) degree in 2012. Setting up and running the first year of the annual student anthology gave me the experience I needed to get the job at Five Leaves, and the rest is history.

Describe your typical week…
There really is no such thing, but they all have this in common: I work every single day, I’m out at work or writing-related events at least three evenings a week, and my diary is an incomprehensible mess of pencil scrawls. My body clock has sprung all its cogs and is stuck at five minutes past thirteen. I’m not complaining though. To counter all the chaos there’s the excitement of starting a new project, or pride in the latest book I’ve edited or typeset, or pleasure in hearing about NWS members’ achievements, or the buzz of listening to what people have written in one of my workshops.

How do you tackle the challenges of being a working mum? Do you feel there are specific challenges faced by women working in the arts?
It’s much easier now my sons are grown up. I’ve been a single parent for a long time and I certainly couldn’t have the working life I have now if my children were younger. A lot of people who work as arts or literature professionals need the flexibility to work long and erratic hours, and that doesn’t fit well with family life. I know this is a gross generalisation, but I do believe this makes it harder for women, especially single mothers, to build successful creative careers. And even women who have partners are still coerced by society into feeling guilty for ‘abandoning’ their family to put their career needs first, whereas it’s expected of men. Add to that the lack of value placed on careers in arts or literature… Things are slowly getting easier though, as it becomes more acceptable and there is more support from people and technology.


You are also involved in a number of exciting projects such as the Dovetail Project…
Dovetail is an EU-funded project I set up in partnership with 5K Központ (of Budapest) and GEDOK Karlsruhe, which uses creative writing in various ways to increase adult learners’ confidence in written communication. The German and Hungarian partner groups visited Nottingham in February, and as well as visiting the Festival of Words, took part in lots of activities around the city. Our visit to Budapest in June further cemented friendships with our partners, and we’re looking forward to a trip to Karlsruhe this year. It’s not the travel that touches my heart about this project, it’s all the people involved, who are unfailingly enthusiastic, friendly, willing to embrace new ideas and different cultures.

And then there is your teaching work…
Although teaching is something I never thought I’d do – my mum’s a teacher – it’s become a large part of my career. I teach at Nottingham University on subjects as diverse as the writing industry and the Victorian workhouse system. I’ve led writing workshops in libraries, art galleries, museums, prisons and schools, and given talks and workshops on ebook production all over the country. The bonus for me is that I always learn something from the people I teach, and I really enjoy it. I’m not sure who’s more surprised – me or my mum!

I didn’t expect a publisher to be so enthusiastic about e-books…
The invention of movable type and the printing press revolutionised the publishing world in the fifteenth century. Today’s revolution is, if anything, even bigger. The form of books is changing radically even as I type, with new innovations coming daily in digital literature, ebook technology, and even the ways we think about books. They can now include audio, video, interactive features, they can be socially networked, linked to each other and to websites, they can change before our eyes, they don’t even need to be linear. No-one knows what’s going to happen next in the world of publishing, and, especially with my computing background, I find that thrilling.

What inspires your writing, and how do you find time to write?
I find inspiration everywhere, but particularly from places and people I love. Lately, however, I’m more interested in what poetry can do – for example, can it explain the inexplicable, such as quantum theory, or create buildings out of words, like places of worship? A lot of writers find their day job and other demands push writing to the bottom of the priority list, and I’m no different, so I’ve signed up for the MA in creative writing at Nottingham University - part-time, of course - to force me to make time.

It’s notoriously difficult to get published. Do you have any tips for developing writers? 
Read a lot, write a lot. Write what you want to write, rather than what you think will sell. Learn the craft of writing from everyone who’s willing to teach you and join a good critique group. Send short pieces or poems off to journals and magazines – any published work does your confidence no end of good, and you’ll get used to the constant rejection every single writer has to learn to deal with. Alternatively, consider self-publishing if you can’t find a traditional route to print or ebook. You can publish your work easily these days as an ebook, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to produce print copies too. Whichever route you go, it’s always worth paying a professional editor to edit your book. And don’t forget all the marketing will be down to you, so you need to know how to make your target market aware of your book.

Do you think Nottingham deserves its reputation as a ‘happening place’ for literature?
Undoubtedly. We have the only member-run organisation for writers in the country (NWS) and two top-class universities offering creative writing BA and MA degree programmes. Lowdham Book Festival is celebrating its fifteenth year and Nottingham Festival of Words is taking place again in October... and that’s before I start to talk about our literary heritage (Byron, Lawrence, Sillitoe, Bromley House Library, etc...), our current crop of award winning writers (Jon McGregor, Alison Moore, Sarah Jackson, Anne Zouroudi, Nicola Monaghan, etc...), the plethora of local independent publishers (Five Leaves, Pewter Rose, Candlestick Press, Shoestring, Angry Robot, Leafe Press, Crystal Clear Creators, Black Library, etc...), Mouthy Poets are storming the performance poetry world, and the thriving Five Leaves bookshop, which is planning a radical book fair in the autumn. Not to mention LeftLion. Need I say more?
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst that is an ‘old’ library book with annotations and ephemera that tell a whole different story, which is fascinating and shows that print isn’t dead. David Belbin’s second Bone and Cane novel is on my laptop I’m in the process of producing the ebook. Andy Rigley’s The Lost Dark on my new iPad mini, which I bought so I could investigate Touch Press’ innovative apps for Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Eliot’s The Wasteland, among others. I love them all. Sometimes I think there aren’t enough books in the world, then I look at the piles all over my house and think... well... yes... there probably are.

Any plans for 2014?
My main focus will be on NWS. Now we’ve secured funding for the next two years, we can develop our activities to promote our writers, such as the NWS Journal, which we plan to establish as the go-to place to find new talent for publishers and agents. Apart from that, funding applications, teaching, and studying for my MA. I hope 2014 is as exciting as 2013 – whatever happens, I’ll be ready for it.

Pippa Hennessy's Blog


We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

Christmas at Wollaton

You might like this too...