As a writer, journalist, poet, editor, consultant and literary entrepreneur, Cathy Galvin has a long list of accomplishments. Slightly star struck, I was fortunate enough to catch up with her over the phone. Classily sat on my bedroom floor, we chatted about the gloom of the dark winter weather.
After a stint as deputy editor for the Sunday Times Magazine, Cathy set up what is now the UK’s leading short story promoter: Word Factory. However, Cathy initially started her career by reading Political Studies at Leeds, fearing that studying English would “kill it for me”. With an academic background in politics, I asked whether it influenced her approach to writing and how she wanted her work to be received.
In one sense no, and in the bigger sense yes. I loved studying politics, I’ve always thought quite philosophically and politically in terms of ‘why do things work the way they do’ and ‘why does this group have power’. In that very broad sense, the kind of journalism that I was attracted to was political. Once I found my feet as a journalist, the pieces I liked writing and commissioning were always asking questions; asking why things were as they were. I wanted pieces that dug deeper beneath the surface of social problems and trends in society. But in the sense of being a lobby correspondent or something like that, really no, not at all was I interested in that.
Do you therefore think that writing, in any form, has the potential to influence the political sphere and be a force for change?
I do, very deeply. I think journalism is an expression of that at its best. I’ve come to realise a bit later in my life that literary writing can also have the same reach. On a day to day level, finding your own voice within whatever it may be is vitally important to thinking precisely about language and applying that to the world around us. I think we’re all aware now of the disconnect between public discourse and private feelings or thoughts, the gap seems to get wider.
As a consequence, should books with a political agenda be prioritised over literature written for literature’s sake?
I don’t think you can apply a narrow category like that around literature. There are awards already that do recognise political work very specifically, like the Orwell prize, and that is great. But I think we just need to read the writers we like and respond to them individually. Within that there are some that really create waves and others that aren’t received in that way.
For example, Anna Burns’ Milkman won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Here you have a Northern Irish writer writing about a young girl in what you assume to be Belfast and the strange relationships around her. I think it is one of the most fascinating and brilliant analyses of power and politics that I’ve ever read, I absolutely love it. It was perceived by a lot of critics to be a difficult book, but I found it to be completely accessible. Then you have writing by novelists, let’s say by Tessa Hadley, which are set in a very middle-class, domestic setting. Yet, just by writing very deeply about worlds of more ordinary people, it’s not fashionable and doesn’t seem overtly political, but there’s a kind of subversion in her writing. I suppose deep down I think all writing is political. Or at least all good writing is political. It is a reflection. It’s trying to get to the truth of what one or two human beings are seeing in the world around them and that truth is often very different to the consumerist position of how the world should be.
Do you think people often conflate the political impact of a book with how good it is as a piece of writing, believing something to be secondary if it doesn’t make a statement?
That’s difficult and dangerous all of that. Obviously, recently people have made great strides in making people aware of the voices not being heard and the need for more diversity, which is of course extremely important.
But to be limited by not wanting to write about particular characters or a particular tone of voice is to stop being true to yourself. There are writers like Michel Houellebecq who always causes controversy because his writing is pretty misogynistic. I don’t like that position, but I love his writing. What he is saying is important because that kind of view is out there, whether we like it or not. It’s not the place of literature or writers to hide from that and limit what they are saying.
Have you seen such a limitation or censorship in writing recently?
I’ve seen a lot of change in what appears to me to be a limiting of voices in traditional newspaper journalism, largely because there are fewer resources to cover the range of issues in a depth that you want to. That’s the sad reality. It does concern me that the BBC has huge output, but repeatedly puts out very basic news. I’m pretty shocked by its limited view of politics. However, having said that, there are so many more outlets of news, perhaps too many. Nonetheless, the voices are there, the quality is there, it’s just a period of massive change and now it’s so easy to just consume news in a way that is quite lazy.
The aim of Word Factory is to make literature and specifically short stories more accessible within this politicised and polarised environment. How did its origin come about?
Simply enough, I was compiling short stories for the Sunday Times Magazine and it was a completely life changing and surprising thing to do because I found that I really enjoyed the whole experience of listening to writers read their stories, it was captivating.
I also think the fact that parts of my family are Irish and there is that tradition of singing and storytelling. When I started to run my own events, I wanted to replicate that intimate feeling. I realised that the experience with literature that I had was not enough, I was very aware of a literary hierarchy that is very posh and London-based. I didn’t want that atmosphere and I found that the writers invited to read didn’t want it either. They wanted to share their work with like minds who were just as passionate about it.
Regarding the formation of the Word Factory, I thought it would be a good idea amongst Brexit to put together a festival. It was the first festival of its kind, drawing together ideas of citizenship and literature. The idea was to open up the conversation and bring in people who were questioning what home meant and where they belong: all fundamentally human things.
Within Word Factory, there is a huge emphasis on collaboration. Why is the idea of writers supporting writers and having a community behind them so important?
I know the reality of setting out to create this organisation, possibly rather naively. It grew fairly organically, it made sense to have masterclasses and mentoring. Therefore, that emphasis was natural. It has been an amazing journey to watch people who turned up and stayed grow as writers. Consequently, on a personal level, I’m very aware of collaboration because Word Factory would not exist without what happened between a group of people who wanted to share really good work and learn something.
The literary world is a difficult one. You have to find that help amongst yourselves. Later in life I did my MA at Warwick on their writing programme and also started to write more creatively. I became very aware that the great thing about these courses was the workshops and the feedback that you get in those environments. Once they’re over, you haven’t got that community anymore. I just feel writers should help each other, otherwise it will be ‘me, me me’. Obviously, it doesn’t work for everybody as some will need to be solitary and aren’t comfortable collaborating, but when people do, good things come of it. It also means that whilst the Word Factory can’t live forever, strands of what people learn can live on in another form and generate further ideas. I’ve seen it work and it’s good for everybody involved.
Finally, any advice for emerging writers?
The reality is I’m only just beginning to write my own poetry. When I started the Word Factory, I wasn’t writing poetry. I still had this sense that it wasn’t for somebody like me. So, [Word Factory] was a great gift for me. I know all the difficulties of confidence that emerging writers have because I suppose I am one myself, not in a journalistic sense, but in what I’m now doing much later in life. It’s just as hard for me to send things off and follow people’s advice. I’ve learnt a lot doing it and maybe that’s another example of collaboration. If I hadn’t set up the Word Factory, I probably wouldn’t be writing poetry.
It is unfortunately very, very unlikely that you’re going to make a living from being a writer. Some people will, but it won’t necessarily be the writing that they want to do. But it doesn’t mean that you should stop writing. These things have a natural momentum, people usually find what they want to do in the end. It’s also important to remember that it’s not just about getting your books on a shelf, but still continuing to write in a way that continuing to give you your voice, however that may be.
– Abi Smuts