At this years literary festival, it’s been arranged that the speakers will do a private Q&A with us MA students, and this week was the turn of Susan Hill It was extremely refreshing.

I made notes ages ago about Alistair Campbell’s Q&A* which was an utterly different beast: learnt absolutely nothing about writing fiction, but got a stand-out character study. His arrival at our Top-Secret Location (changed one hour before the event) was preceded by his security team, checking us off against a list of approved names and making sure we knew to keep our questions strictly about his literary endeavours. He was dressed as Alistair Campbell (navy single-breasted suit, red tie), and was almost vibrating with enthusiasm about his craft. ‘Once I got into it, I couldn’t stop,’ he told us. ‘Just couldn’t stop!’ And went on like this – quoting lines from his novel to us, pinching the air between his thumb and forefinger for emphasis as he repeated them for us to savour. Or lunging forward and exclaiming, ‘Oh! I must tell you this funny story…’

He used the word like a lot. And other positive words: he likes his novels. he enjoys the process. He pulls over onto the hard shoulder because he just has to write down this idea. I very rarely hear any author talk with such unbridled pleasure about their work, and of course I was very suspicious, him being who he is, but in person he was bizarrely charismatic. And I do think that his pleasure in the creative process was genuine, although if it really is the way he describes it I am surprised that he has completed three novels: he seemed not quite master of his craft. It was a bit of a runaway train, I thought, he was exhilarated by the ride but not really in control of the velocity or the destination. Of course not every writer has a hard-and-fast routine re planning, structure, scheduling etc, but it does seem to help.

Susan Hill, on the other hand, sat comfortably in our common room in an acid-yellow linen smock, and proceeded to dole out nuggets of the most no-nonsense wisdom. Eg, ‘you’ve got to be jolly careful with Virginia Woolf. I don’t let her touch me,’ and, ‘get used to the fact that you’ll need to have a job.’

She also provoked the cohort to suck in their breath three times in quick succession, by revealing:

i) that she only ever writes one draft.

ii) that she wrote The Woman In Black in six weeks, writing from nine til twelve noon, around her five-year-old.

iii) that no novel has ever taken her more than three months.

…I know some people were horribly daunted, once they got over the headrush, but I found it rather comforting. She was so sensible, and reminded me of my great-aunt Marigold with whom I shelled peas when I was quite tiny. On writer’s block she offered two pieces of advice:

a) ‘I don’t believe in sitting there trying to wrench the next word out of yourself. Go and do the dishwasher, have a walk or something. Perhaps later it will come right.’

b) ‘sometimes you will realise that the reason [a project] is no good is because it’s no good. In that case, OUT! You need to discard it.’

Well, this pragmatic woman made me very happy. Next week it’s Joanna Trollop which might be a giggle. Excited also for Emma Donoghue and Eleanor Catton, whose Q&A session I’ll be loosely facilitating. Our second session with Margaret Atwood is tomorrow, too – all these literary women! To say nothing of the post I badly need to write about The History of Emotions, but hopefully I’ll make time for that tomorrow.

*but did not blog. bad blogger.