Norfolk author Stephen Carver is a man at the top of his game
- Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Carver
Some say you can’t stick your arm out in the street in Norwich without knocking over a writer. Derek James talks to one of them about his latest book… and becoming an author
Authors. People of all ages and from all walks of life brought together by a passion for words and storytelling and many are inspired by the City of Norwich and the County of Norfolk.
We have more than most in our midst probably thanks to the University of East Anglia and because it is such a lovely place to live. Many people come here as students and then just never leave.
Norwich is a UNESCO's first designed City of Literature, home to the UEA's trailblazing and prestigious School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing…and the birthplace of 'creative writing' as an academic discipline (and nowadays a massive teaching industry).
Then there are 'local' boys and girls who have turned to writing and continue to produce books for the rest of us to enjoy. Fact or fiction.
One of them who has just written a fascinating and important new book called The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life & Work of W.H.Ainsworth is Dr Stephen Carver.
He is a glowing example of a local author at the top of his game, writing, editing and helping, advising and mentoring others.
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'There is also the National Centre for Writing (formally Writers' Centre Norwich), the independent publishing house Unthank Books (and its accompanying Unthank School of Writing where I taught for several years,' said Stephen, who was born in the city.
'Those lovely folk at the Norwich Writers' Circle, Café Writers, the wonderful Book Hive, and my mates Helen Rye, Ian Nettleton, Iain Robinson, Ashley Stokes, Sarah Bower, Gill Blanchard, Phyllida Scrivens, Helen Ivory, Martin Figura, John Down and Jane Markland.
'All tremendous writers, and many more who I'm sure I'm forgetting right now and to whom I apologise,' said Stephen.
Yes, it all sounds great but for most of them, even the published professionals, writing doesn't pay enough to live on so there's always the day job to work around.
For 16 years Stephen taught literature and creative writing at the UEA and he spent three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui.
His speciality is 19th century history and literature and he is the author of The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy and Corruption and Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liver, a historical novel about the wreck of the Birkenhead.
Today Stephen edits books and mentor writers for a living, then writes at night before passing out in front of the telly!
What is his advice for those with a wish to write?
'If you want to write, whether fiction or non-fiction, don't let the apparent mystique of famous and exclusive writing courses and the like put you off! Like any other skill, you have to start with pretty low standards, and then learn by doing.
'Think of it as a craft rather than an art for most of us,' said Stephen.
'All writers do one word at a time, and while people starting out tend to judge their own writing far too harshly because it isn't like that of their literary heroes, and then give up, these same heroes have tpo take a book through numerous drafts before it's any good,' he pointed out.
As Terry Pratchett said: 'The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.'
Once you understand that books and stories are made, not born, and that there's no such thing as a 'natural talent, just a lot of determination and redrafting, you'll be laughing.
'The best advice I can give, and this is as someone who publishes fiction and non-fiction, teaches creative writing, appraises manuscripts, and has a background in academic literature and publishing, is just, as the American poet William Stafford, said: 'Lower your standards and keep writing!'
The inspiration for Stephen's latest book about William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882} came from a visit to the much-loved Scientific Anglian Bookshop on St Benedict's, Street, Norwich, when he was a UEA graduate in the mid-90s.
Do you remember the man who ran that wonderful bookshop? A great character and a lovely gentleman. Dear Norman Peake. Once met, never forgotten
Anyway, Stephen came across a copy of Ainsworth's 1834 gothic novel Rookwood which included highwayman Dick Turpin, and much of the legends surrounding him actually come from this forgotten little book.
It led Stephen to discover more about Ainsworth, who had seemingly dropped out of literary history despite being Dicken's only serious commercial rival until the 1840s.
This was encouraged by Professor Victor Sage at the UEA to whom this book is dedicated.
This is a great read and Ainsworth's novel The Fall of Somerset (1877) is set against the backdrop of Kett's rebellion in 1549 (Somerset was Lord Protector at the time) and the novel dramatizes key events in the revolt such as the Wymondham Uprising and Kett's attack on Norwich.
'It's packed with local landmarks, impeccable researched and a bit of a bodice ripper,' says Stephen.
A fine book giving a forgotten author the credit he deserves.
The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life & Works of W.H. Ainsworth by Stephen Carver is published by Pen & Sword Books at £25 and is in the shops now.