Author Spotlight: James McGovern

An emerging writer, James studied English Literature (BA) and Creative Writing (Master’s) at the University of Oxford. His work, spanning multiple genres, has appeared in Boulevard, Litro, the Oxford Review of Books and the Oxonian Review. In 2019, he was selected as one of The Best New British and Irish Poets 2019–20 (Eyewear Publishing, forthcoming) and longlisted for the Calibre Essay Prize.

‘Truly cracking social media seems to take a lot of time and energy, and I don’t see that there would be much of a strategic benefit in return for the effort’

Many thanks for finding the time to do the spotlight, James. Could you tell us a little bit about you, your writing background, and your current projects?

I’ve been writing virtually all my life, but I’ve only started to be able to write reasonably well in the past couple of years. I’m currently working on a novel and a poetry pamphlet; the novel’s outline is fleshed out, but it’s far too early to share anything about it.

What influences your style? Which poets do you admire?

I’m afraid my favourite poets look too much like a fruit salad of dead white males: Heaney, Larkin, Marvell, Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats. Christopher Reid is good, but his body of work is inconsistent. I discovered Linda Gregerson recently; her poems are written for both the eye and the ear. Most poets can only get the hang of one or the other.

‘good writing straddles the intellectual and the sensual: not dry, not merely a feast for the limbic system’

What are your aims as a writer and a poet? Do you have any specific artistic concerns that you seek to address through your work?

Martin Amis has always said that he wants to provide pleasure at the level of the sentence, but that kind of claim is quite exposing (why aren’t these sentences giving me the promised pleasure?). I wonder if good writing straddles the intellectual and the sensual: not dry, not merely a feast for the limbic system.

English novelist Martin Amis

You are a graduate of a formal Creative Writing programme at Oxford. Geoffrey Hill, Professor of Poetry at Oxford a few years ago, was quite sceptical of formal training in the composition of poetry and fiction – what was your experience?

I wouldn’t describe the Oxford MSt in Creative Writing as formal. It’s primarily a collaborative workshopping program. It is very useful to be able to force people to read and critique one’s work for two years, but I would actually like to see creative writing master’s programmes include more formal components: the nuts and bolts of writing explained by the top practitioners. The risk is the one some MFA programmes have succumbed to of turning out identikit authors—surely there’s a balance to be found between prescriptiveness and looseness? It helps if older writers don’t try to perpetuate their own writing styles or scupper new methods. The poet Harry Man stood out as an excellent teacher on the MSt, giving space both for pedagogy and discussion.

‘I would actually like to see creative writing master’s programmes include more formal components: the nuts and bolts of writing explained by the top practitioners’

Although you’ve only published poetry with us, your work covers a variety of genres. Do you find yourself drawn to one above others? If so, why?

I read a great deal of literary fiction, science fiction and poetry. I enjoy writing anything, but I find that I tend towards the literary no matter the form. The Oxford MSt course requires all students to experiment in unfamiliar genres, such as screenplays and radio drama, which I found rewarding.

James on Creative Writing courses: ‘agents and publishers will automatically take you more seriously’

As an emerging writer, you seem to be taking a more traditional path – by publishing in established journals and not keeping a social media presence. Do you think there is a disunity between traditional literary circles and ‘Insta poetry’ and similar movements?

Truly cracking social media seems to take a lot of time and energy, and I don’t see that there would be much of a strategic benefit in return for the effort. Despite the advances of technology, the dominant publishing pathways for literary writing remain quite conservative. I know there are examples of social media leading to writerly success with a traditional publisher, Rupi Kaur, for example. I admire her achievements, but I’m not that kind of writer.

If you could impart some advice on any new or emerging writers, what would it be?

Creative writing courses are much maligned, but if you can get on to a good one, such as Oxford, UEA or the Manchester Writing School, they do provide tangible benefits. For one thing, agents and publishers will automatically take you more seriously.

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