[Interview] Harry Whitehead

by Nick Edgeworth, The Grassroutes Project*

Harry Whitehead is a novelist, a short story writer and a creative writing lecturer at the University of Leicester. Before that, he worked in the film and TV production industry.

His novel, The Cannibal Spirit (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) is set among the First Peoples of Canada at the turn of the twentieth century, and has been described as "“Unflinching and rigorously unsentimental ... a thought-provoking and impressive read.”

His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies that include London Lies (Arachne Press, 2012), The Storyteller Magazine and Whimperbang.

In this interview, Harry Whitehead talks about the concerns that inform his work as a novelist and a creative writing lecturer:

To start off, thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed.


My first question is: where did the creative writing process begin for you? When and why did you start?

Well, I used to win the prizes at primary school at creative writing exercises and competitions, and I think that started it for me. And I always wrote. I never took it seriously I don't think – but I guess everyone who writes stories sort of does take it seriously, don't they?

I did an undergraduate degree in Anthropology when I was 24 – I had been in the Far East for many years – and I read a story whilst I was there: an anthropological story that stuck with me. I won't explain it immediately because it might go back to a question you ask me later, but that story just played in my mind and I ended up doing a Masters degree in Anthropology to follow the story, and then it wouldn't go away, and I did a Creative Writing MA as well, and got sidetracked and wrote a load of other stuff before I eventually came back and wrote that. So I've always written, and enjoyed storytelling from the earliest days, and I got serious about it in my thirties.

Anthropology is a big part of your début novel The Cannibal Spirit. Do you think you're the sort of writer who looks very widely for ideas in interdisciplinary fields?

Yeah, for sure.

Before I joined this department [UoL's School of English] I had an O Level in English Literature so I haven't come from a focused reading past, in the way that English Literature trains you, at all. I come from a much broader space and have read much more multifariously, shall we say. But living abroad for so many years and then studying Anthropology has made me look all over the place for stories.

My book has been reviewed well and badly, and when it's been reviewed badly it's often in terms of its cultural authenticity and arguments about that. I was treading on some pretty delicate ground writing about First Nations people in Canada and people either loved me or hated me for it. Which is all right – that's fine by me.

What was it that attracted you to that setting at that point in time?

Well, I was 25 and I'd just broken my back, and I read this story, actually in a piece by Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the founders of structuralism – so a pretty unlikely spot to originate. I read this story about a nineteenth-century north-west coast shaman who wanted to become a shaman in order to expose the lies and trickery of shamanism. And he learns all these acts of prestidigitation and fraudulence as he saw them, and then a local chieftain has a dream that only he can save his sick grandson. So very reluctantly the guy performs the ritual, and lo and behold the child is cured.

So, this guy, whose name is Quesalid in the story – Quesalid's dilemma fascinated me. It was about belief; it was about the placebo effect; it was about what healing means; it was about rationality – all these kind of things. And it was that story that just wouldn't go away. So I decided when I did my Masters in Anthropology that I wanted to find out who this shaman actually was. And what I learnt about who he actually was was that he was half white, half Native Canadian; he was an anthropologist's assistant as well as a shaman and a chieftain; he was tried for cannibalism in 1900 – and there I had a great story of a man who exists between worlds, as we all do to one extent or another. How do we fight those conflicts that we have inside ourselves?

So it was that that really kind of stuck for me. And it was 18 years, really, from when I first read that story to when I was published.

Was it quite research-intensive?

Yeah, it was. I wrote a draft of the novel in nine months, so in a flash really. My wife, who you just heard texting me, I had just met and I was doing this Ph.D. and I was trying to write this novel, and I'd been researching for 10 years. Just about everything: into the life and the history of the region, the history of the Canadian First People. And I was sat in the British Library surrounded by books piled high. I'd just met her and I was sitting there going, [mock-sobbing] “I can't write my novel! I can't do it – I don't know what to do!”

And she said, “All these books: send them all back,” like that.

And as soon as I threw them all away and started to make it up, it flowed and came out in a burst. But without all those years of them filling me up and then stepping away and being free to just create, one would not have allowed the other, if that makes sense.

Did you find it difficult to arrive at what you felt was an authentic voice for George Hunt [the shaman], or was it more of a difficult labour to get something that sounded right?

This question has been debated since by people. There have been some critical responses to his voice, and some people loved it, others have hated it. There's about 40 years of his letters – of this anthropologist's – that still exist, but they're very tentative and very polite and rather obsequious, and actually not as interesting as the character I was reading about. They always used to put me off.

And then I read this story by Edward Curtis, this famous American photographer who worked with George Hunt, who said that Hunt was prone to murderous rages: he would lose his mind and come stomping down the beach to kill you sometimes, and he was this terrifying huge man. And as soon as that happened he came alive as a person to me - someone I could use and construct. And then I made up his voice.

There are bits of his speech from his letters; there are bits and pieces from the slang of the time; from other people's writings; and it kind of evolved as I wrote. The first draft I wrote in the third person actually, and it was only the second draft that I turned it into the first person. His voice started to come into being. But it was born of all those bits and pieces, and also the flora and fauna of the place and how I imagined the experience of being a hard old bastard of a man, like he was, who lived in these worlds; it would've made him gruff but articulate, if you like.

You mentioned a minute ago writing in the British Library. How do you think living and working in Leicester has altered your approach to writing, if it has at all?

Well, it means I don't have access to the British Library. [Laughs.] That's a pain, because I loved the silence amid the chaos of the city. My own office up here is not quite the same. But the book I'm writing at the moment is thematically a book about psychogeography, and it's set now, in the present. And it's set in the kind of edgelands: there are many different marchlands, edgelands; the urban countryside; the margins of the town, if you like, of the city; those bits inbetween. Everywhere that's inbetween; the forgotten bits around the back of new retail parks and the nowhere scrublands between one building and another. It's all about that.

Of course, Leicester is packed full of that sort of decaying, half-forgotten, inbetween places, so I've been sniffing out the underbelly a bit, walking along the canals and things like that. So it's been quite useful to me actually here. I mean, I'm a Londoner: I was born in Dean Street, above the Pizza Express, in 1967, so it's been tough moving away from what I know in the city, but actually as well it's been quite liberating because the subject of my novel fits the surroundings at the moment.

Would you like to say anything more about your new work?

Yeah, sure.

Well, it's called Nowhere. It's premise is, it's the story of a location scout in the film business who's set the brief to find Nowhere by a film director. And in the middle of nowhere he meets this lady anthropologist who has been diagnosed as having had a nervous breakdown, but actually hasn't at all – she's just seen through how everything is. And they have this furious love affair whilst searching for Nowhere along the edgelands of society, if you like.

It's all set in a very short period of time: a few days of their affair and this guy's location scout. So there you go: I've told you all about it now.

You recently organised this year's Annual Creative Writing Lecture with Laura Esquivel, the hugely popular Mexican writer. As an author yourself, what do you feel you gain with this dialogue, if you like, with authors from completely different cultures?

My remit in having this lecture take place each year is that Creative Writing as a taught subject here in the academy, the enormously popular subject that it is, grew up in the 1880s in Harvard and other American academic institutions and was born from English Studies, and has as its craft tools critical ways in which we approach literature in English Studies. So, it's somewhat blind to itself, given what its supposed universality is.

So, what I am hoping to gain from these kind of dialogues – we had Ben Okri last year, who is based in the U.K., but has a very broad kind of take on what literature is, and then Laura Esquivel, who I thought was fascinating actually in how revolutionary she saw creativity – I mean, real Latin American stuff – what a revolutionary take she had on it. She said we have to get away from telling the same stories, and when we are looking at archetypes, look in a quantum-mechanical way at the mirror of an archetype, the opposite, the negative charge, the opposite character to the character you're writing and see if that's more interesting. That was really something important and new that she had to say. It was all about what I'm trying to do in making a Creative Writing lecture bring people in from outside the Anglophone tradition. So I felt, even though she went off in all kinds of directions, and I think a few people went, “What is she on about?”, I thought it was great, you know. I thought she was really doing something different to what any British writer would've done if they'd been invited to give this lecture.

What do you think? Do you agree?

I would agree: it was not what I was expecting at all, but I found it a really interesting, a really original take on it.

Yeah it was. She was as mad as fish, bless her, but also fantastic! I got to spend a couple of days with her and talking to her, she was so wonderful and engaged, and she really does absolutely believe in what she was talking about. And flipping things upside-down; inverting them, turning them round; you know, not repeating ourselves and how that's actually an answer to the social condition of supermodernity, of the modern condition, a passive consumerism. And how the creative process of writing stories can actively become part of that.

It's not something we talk about in Creative Writing classes in the Anglophone tradition. We just talk about point of view and doing this and doing that. We don't – I don't as a teacher – I've not been taught to say to you guys, “Let's use this to tell some story that really is about something else.” To really plunder the depths. I'm hesitant to do that: classes I'm teaching tend to be introductory classes and I don't want to scare people off, but then after watching Laura Esquivel a bit of me thinks that actually, yeah, maybe I should be scaring people off and engaging the people who want to be engaged.

You know what I mean? What do you think about that? Interesting to throw that at you, since you're one of my students.

I think the classes so far have been valuable and I think I would've felt a bit out of my depth. But then it's interesting to think – I was about to call them the “basic tools” of creative writing, but is that an objective thing, or is that something ingrained in how we think about it in the Anglophone tradition?

I started on about it a little bit in the class on Monday. With Jamaica Kincaid, everything is kind of like what I've been explaining – until it ain't. But when it still works, it still works.

And Alain Robbe-Grillet's take on the nouveau roman – I don't know if you guys have come across him or not - but he says, “I'm not interested in character or plot, point of view, structure, any of this kind of thing. I'm interested in tone, colour, suggestion,” - all those completely different things.

For someone who comes along to these events, or the Grassroutes exhibition and thinks, “That looks fun – I want to do that”... what advice would you give to an absolute beginner who wants to write?

Be wary of your own ambitions. Be absolutely honest that you're not fooling yourself by your ambitions.

Isak Dinesen said something that I have pasted up in my office. She said, “I write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” And that's it.

I mean, Laura Esquivel says, “What should a writer do? Write.”

If you're an absolute beginner you think, “Oh I'd like to be doing that.”

“Why aren't you?” is an important question. What is it that you want? Because there is a degree – not so much in universities, and I haven't found it so much in reality in my students as I thought I might – but there's a degree of a culture of narcissism at writing schools.

In a secular age, how do we answer our extinction after 4,000 weeks of life? By showing the world how authentic, deep and meaningful we are by writing a Great Novel.

Like Nick Cave says, “We call upon the author to explain.”

My advice for a starting writer is have a good look at what it is you want to do. Don't fantasise it too much too soon.

Don't become a writer before you write.

Yeah, that's exactly right. Don't seek to become a writer: seek to write. And then ask yourself what it is you write: what is your purpose? Why? Do it without hope or despair. [Laughs.] Because God knows it's a long process!

I got lucky. I did an MA from 2004 to 2005 and I got my first novel published in 2011: six years, I mean, that's remarkable. I'm not bigging myself up, I'm just saying it's remarkably fortunate how quick that happened. Also, I'd been writing since I was eight and I've always written stories, hundreds of short stories that are rubbish.

So, it's a long old grind and you've got to enjoy the process.

I met this guy when I was on this book tour in Canada who did a survey of 1,500 novelists, and he asked them how old they were when their first novel was published, and the mean age was 42, which is a real surprise I think.

Thanks very much.

A pleasure.

*Nick Edgeworth is a volunteer at Grassroutes: Contemporary Leicestershire Writing, a project that aims to promote Leicestershire's diverse literary culture.

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