Joe, what were you doing before you came to UEA? Did you come straight from school?
I took a gap year and, predictably, went to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the US. I was away for six months. I had a good time but I'm not sure how much I value those experiences. It was kind of like being a student, but without the education bit. Having said that, when I got to UEA I felt like I benefitted from being a year older.
You did very well on the undergraduate course. Can you talk about how the course was structured, and who taught you and what sort of things you were writing?
We had informal writing classes in my first year, which were fantastic. Bernadine Evaristo was our tutor. It was great fun and, at that time, I was experimenting with lots of different styles of writing. From failed attempts at very clever post-modern stuff, to fantasy, to poetry, to ghost stories, to scripts. This was a great time for forming relationships with other young writers at UEA. We used to help read and edit each other's work. In the second and third years I took normal Creative Writing units - both prose and poetry - and these were great. I've always found it useful to get lots of feedback from the other students. Hearing lots of differing opinions forced me to make up my own mind about what I was trying to write. Plus, I had many inspiring teachers: Tiffany Murray, Andrea Holland and Doug Cowie.
Did you publish anything at that time?
Some poems, here and there: The New Writer magazine, The May Anthology, Smith's Knoll, Concrete and campus writing magazines. I was always "publishing" my work online as well. I used, and still use, a website called ABCtales.com where anyone can publish their work.
Then you came on the MA. How did that compare with the BA in the way it was organised and taught and so on?
For me, there wasn't a massive amount of difference between my third year prose class and the MA writing classes. It was a continuation of the workshop format. There was a bit more pressure and a higher standard. The teaching was still brilliant. Andrew Cowan, in particular, taught me the importance of putting pressure on each sentence - making sure each one is worthwhile. Michele Roberts gave me invaluable advice on how to solve problems in my novel. My lifestyle hardly changed because I was still friends with, and living with, all my undergraduate buddies. But the big difference with the MA was the other units you could choose. I did Poetry, Poetics and Writing with Denise Riley and Jon Cook and that still remains the most difficult, the most rewarding and the most inspiring course I took at University.
Were you already working on Submarine?
I started working on Submarine at the end of the third year of my BA. I wrote it all the way through the MA.
How would you describe your experience on the MA?
Brilliant. Fantastic support and advice from my tutors, Michele Roberts and Andrew Cowan. Great to be in a community of writers. A whole year to concentrate on writing. Amazing.
Again you did very well - you came out with a distinction, and won the inaugural Curtis Brown Award. What happened next for you?
I used the Curtis Brown prize money to live off while I finished my book. That was really helpful. Then, I spoke to a couple of agents who liked my work. I went with Georgia Garrett at A.P. Watt - and she sent my novel off to publishers. Luckily for me, some of the publishers liked it. I was very chuffed to end up with Hamish Hamilton and Penguin, where lots of my favourite writers get published.
You write poetry too. Can you say a little about that - how it compares or relates to your fiction writing?
I love writing poetry. It's fun and sociable. You can experiment and not worry. If a poem's bad - so what - throw it away. Whereas prose feels like much harder work. If I'm in the mood I can write ten poems in a day. Nine of them will be appalling. But one might have a few good lines in it, and then I'll focus on the good bits and try and make a decent poem out of it. Also, with poetry, I get to do readings (we delude ourselves and call them gigs) and they're great fun.
Had you always thought of yourself as a writer, is this how you imagined you'd be earning your living?
Nope. I always thought of myself as a rock star in waiting, until I realised I had no sense of rhythm. I only started seriously thinking I could be, or would want to be, a writer when I was at UEA.
What are you doing now?
Writing short stories, working towards a second novel and trying to finish a collection of poetry. I'm also walking around bookshops to look at copies of Submarine on the shelves.
Interview: February 2008