Q&A | James Higgerson

James HiggersonJAMES HIGGERSON LIVES IN MANCHESTER. He’s a writer, music reviewer and urban health researcher, currently finishing his PhD. His debut novel, The Almost Lizard, will be published in spring 2013 by Legend Press. His story ‘Noise’ is his print debut.

Do you enjoy short stories?
I must admit I rarely read short fiction. When I do, I’ll read only one or two, rather than a full anthology, because I find they lose their impact if I read lots back to back. I like to get attached to characters. It’s the same with writing. If I had more time I’d follow up the short story ideas I have, but that only usually happens if I don’t have a novel that I’m writing.

Is Manchester an inspirational city?
Manchester’s a great city. I moved here straight after uni, mainly because I’d been coming over for gigs for years and loved the place. I have a few bars and coffee shops that I like to write in (those which haven’t closed down and been replaced by a Tesco and/or Gregg’s), but the city itself is inspirational. There’s a lot going on here; so many different people, different lives – it’s amazing for people watching. That said it is detached from the writing industry, which effectively lives in London, so there is that fear that you’re in the wrong place if you want to make progress (it’s not true, but it’s easy to believe at times). There are some good things happening at the moment – a group called Bad Language have recently appeared on my radar. They’re doing lots of interesting events so I’d like to investigate that more.

Where do you write?
I’ve been really lucky this year and have travelled a lot with work, so the novel I’m currently writing has been penned in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Oslo, Ljubljana and Portugal, as well on various planes. Because of the travel I’ve returned to writing in notebooks, which has been really good. I spend far too much of my life in front of screens so I’m going to stick with the pad and paper. It’s given me back the freedom to write where I want, which I hadn’t realised I’d missed until recently. Still, the majority of my writing is either done at home or in the bar next to work at lunchtime.

What made you want to become a writer?
When I moved to Manchester, I was living with two musicians and felt like I was a lacking a creative side, so I thought I’d give it a go. I hope it wasn’t just a cynical attempt to fit in, but I don’t think it’s possible to commit the time and effort to writing a novel if that were the case. I’d written a few books (long lost, sadly) in my teens but fallen out with English at A-Level, mainly because analysing the shit out of books I only mildly cared about was predominantly tedious. I’m tone deaf and had no rhythm, so I thought I’d give writing another go. So it was those two musicians who initially made me have a go at writing. It was writing my first novel (some fictionalised but largely self-referential badness that will never see the light of day) that made me want to be a writer.It was coming runner-up in the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award in 2008 that made me realise that I stood a chance of becoming a published writer.

The Assembly Hall (Roof) from Still Roelof Bakker
The Assembly Hall (Roof)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

Why did you select this photograph?
I was torn between a few of the photographs, but the one I chose (which I do now refer to as ‘my one’) jumped out of me because there was so much potential in it. Many ideas came about straight away, and initially was my story was going to be set within the space. I also liked that the space seemed very private compared to the other parts of the Town Hall – it provided somewhere for my character to escape to, if necessary. It was also one of the darker photos, which I’m often drawn to.

What was your approach?
Usually when I write, it isn’t directly influenced by one specific thing, like a photo, so this was a different starting point for me. Once I’d selected the photo, I then thought about what I could write about, or what it was that had drawn me towards selecting that photograph. I started off quite literally by setting the story in the room depicted in the photograph, in its current state, and trying to work out how someone would end up finding themselves in there. It appeared derelict, but through the skylight you can see that the rest of the world was scurrying on. So this room became a sanctuary from the outside world.

The first version of the story was about a man desperate to escape the Tory Government and finding this bolt-hole, only to come across a tramp who it turned out (at the end) had been hiding there since the previous Tory Government. With riots and recession and union crushing, their conversation would have revealed that little had changed between Governments. For whatever reason, though, it didn’t play out well for me when I tried to write it, so I changed the characters but kept the setting, then changed the characters and the setting. Then all it took was one bad day and the story came together very quickly.

Do you use visuals for ideas?
Not directly, but all of those things are incredibly influential overall. Most of my writing comes from things I’ve observed rather than things I’ve seen. Writing ‘Noise’ was certainly the most I’ve been directly influenced by a single photo, and also the name of the collection – Still – had an impact on the sort of story I came up with.

Have you collaborated with artists before?
A few years ago I ran a collaborative project called Bad Marmalade. We put on gigs in houses which we brought photographers in for (so the bands – who played for free – were rewarded with professional quality photos, and the photographers were able to add to their portfolios). We also ran a blog featuring commentary and short fiction. With the fiction I always tried to get an artist or illustrator to do something to accompany it. We had a good band of willing volunteers from all over the world and it all worked really well. I liked these collaborations between complete strangers. It was a shame we gave up on it when we did, because it could have really gone somewhere.

What are working on at the moment?
Another novel. This is about my eleventh attempt at writing this story, but I’ve been working on it for over a year now. Also the publishing process is slowly starting to kick in at the moment for my debut novel The Almost Lizard (had to mention it – surprised I waited until the last question!), which will be published on 1st March 2013. My PhD thesis has to be complete by December, so it’s more that than anything else at the moment. Writing is my ‘treat’ in between writing up sessions.


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