Viccy Adams is a novelist, short story writer and researcher who has developed a portfolio career involving all kinds of literary work, from digital start-ups to project consultancy. In part one of this interview, I spoke to Viccy about the many professional hats she wears, writing routines and job security.
Can you tell me what you’re working on at the moment?
My creative work is very varied at the moment; I work on a lot of different projects in a lot of different roles. So with my writing, at the moment I’m working on the very early stages of a novel about a cleaner who makes friends with a robot; I’m in the early stages of co-writing a book with a friend in Newcastle; and I’ve been going through old short stories which I’ve never quite found the right way of editing, and trying to do something with those.
When did you start to define yourself as a writer?
It was during my creative writing PhD at Newcastle University, from which I graduated in 2011. I took a conscious decision to call myself a writer, though I felt like a fraud. But I didn’t want to call myself an ‘aspiring writer’. Terms like emerging writer and unpublished writer, I can get on board with all of those, but what’s ‘aspiring writer’? That’s a ridiculous and horrible term and I really hate it.
It’s something that comes up in writers’ discussions, that question of identity and taking control of it, and how building an identity as a writer is an important part of taking yourself seriously. So I’d call myself a writer, but people would say, what are you working on, and I’d say I’m doing a creative writing PhD, so I was very much defining myself as a student. I really loved being a student, so I was quite happy to define in that way. And when that identity as a student was taken away from me – that was actually really hard.
When did you stop feeling like a fraud?
Good question – I don’t feel like a fraud now, with the sub-clause that I’ll feel even more certain that I’m not a fraud once I get a book out, because that’s the holy grail. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it was. I think a turning point was when I decided to turn freelance and give up the safety net of the day job for a year. I’d been doing lots of part-time work to save up, and I eventually took the plunge. Part of that was moving from Newcastle down to London, because I was aware that if I stayed in an environment where I was seen a certain way and offered bits and pieces of project work, I’d keep taking them – and it was really important for me to be able to announce to people, I’m making this move and I’m just going to write. So whilst I did end up doing lots of bits and pieces of freelance work – because I can’t stay away from projects to save my life, it turns out – saying that writing was my primary goal in life was really important. And then I did get offered another role back up north, really beautiful work on a poetry archive, and I could only have said no to that because of the geographical change. There are some things I can’t say no to, even if they’re in direct conflict with what the things I want to be doing – so it’s just giving yourself that chance to focus on what you know you want to do.
Talk me through your writing routine.
I tend to fit things around things. Something I fight really hard for is time for reading, rather than time for writing. One of the best ways to get writing going for me is reading. And reading can be so easy to lose. So I’m making sure I’m reading something every day – but reading books rather than reading the internet. The internet and emails can really take things over – so there’s a programme for Macs called Freedom where you can turn off the internet, and that’s really helpful.
I go through periods of a really good routine. When I moved down to London I was at the tail-end of chronic fatigue, we were living in literally a cupboard in a shared flat, I didn’t have writing space and I was finding that a bit difficult, and using it as an excuse, and then my partner started doing an internship which meant he had to get up a six every morning and wasn’t getting back till half eight at night, which was when I was going to bed – so if I was going to see him I’d have to get up in the morning with him and have breakfast. The first morning I got up, had breakfast, he left, and I sat and wrote; and I was exhausted the rest of the day but I had such a good day. Everything was just easier and lighter. And then the following day I went back to bed after breakfast, and got up around 11am, and I was so grouchy. And this went on alternating for about a week till eventually my partner sat me down and said, you’re a total bitch on the days you go back to bed so could you maybe not do that? And so for the six weeks of the internship it was just glorious; that’s when I got the first draft of the last book done. If you write every day your writing muscle builds, and you expand into the story: it’s utterly true. I think particularly for long-form fiction, the fact that I was working on the same piece over and over and over, that really helped. So if I want to have a good day I know the first thing I need to do in the morning is focus on the work.
One of the reasons I like projects is I like the sense of praise from other people, and if you’re just working for yourself, writing, you don’t get that in the same way.
At that time, having just made the move to freelance, getting up in the morning and not feeling needed was hard. One of the reasons I like projects is I like the sense of praise from other people, and if you’re just working for yourself, writing, you don’t get that in the same way. So the fact that the first thing I did every morning was write, even just for five or ten minutes, that calmed me, and meant I was quite happy spending the rest of the day telling people I was a writer – because I’d already done that today. All the other things were less important than the novel.
I always carry a notebook, and I love going to coffee-houses to sit and write because you’re out of your normal routine, you’re away from distractions. But the biggest thing I have routine-wise with writing is less to do with timing and more to do with materials, and when I use pen and ink. I tend to put down ideas and first drafts in a notebook, and I’ll only use a computer once I’ve got a couple of pages worth to type up – mainly because otherwise I sit at the computer and then I’ll just check emails, or just see if anything exciting’s happened on Facebook… And I don’t find writing on the computer as creative, in the initial stages – I think there’s something about the connection between your brain and your hand when you’re handwriting down an idea where you’ve yet to find out what the idea is. Whereas with writing onscreen there’s such a big disconnect between you and the keyboard.
How do you motivate yourself? Has there ever been a time when you’ve thought about not carrying on with writing?
Yes, I think after I finished the first draft of the novel I went to London to work on, I’d technically done the thing I came down to London to do, and I’d reached that exhausted stage – I just do not care about this piece any more, I hate it so much, it’s impossible – and I thought, if I wasn’t going to be a writer, what would I do? And I gave myself a little career chat, and I thought, alright, I have other options, within the creative industries probably – do I want to go and do those things? No, not really. So I just stuck with it. I think because I’m forced to make money by doing more than simply publishing books, to an extent I feel like I’m pursuing those other options anyway – and I’m aware of how much I get back from project work: it gives me a routine and brings me into contact with people, so I like that side of it. So – I’ve considered alternatives to being a writer, but I’ve never given it up.
Have you always been able to earn a living from work connected to writing – project management, literature development and so on?
Yes – I’ve never had a permanent or full-time job, it’s always been a series of part-time work and contract posts. Basically everything I’ve done has come from a period of volunteering or doing little bits and pieces, and that developed into something more. I did a lot of volunteer work at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts during my PhD, which meant I was well-placed when they needed a part-time creative writing development officer for a year when I graduated. I combined that with a Leverhulme Trust writer in residence position at the School of Informatics, Edinburgh University, which again was two days a week. Since then I’ve had small commissions on arts-based pieces, usually collaborative work. I send off millions of grant proposals, and some of them stick… I worked unpaid for three years collaborating with a friend in America, and then we got a grant from the Arts Council and the British Council that paid for flights and subsistence for us to work together in person for three trips – that was one of the Artists International Development grants. That grant meant that we weren’t out of pocket working together, but we weren’t being paid for our time – and that’s led to another grant and a residency in China where I am actually being paid for my time, which is amazing; it’s actually taken a huge amount of pressure off, because otherwise it’s a month not being paid. It was a huge boost for the collaboration, and we have a shiny new website as part of it, and launched an image/text iPad app in January too.
A couple of weeks ago was the first time I filed my tax return: obviously as a student I didn’t have to, and most of the work I’ve done since then has gone through PAYE, so then I turned freelance a couple of years ago and this was my first tax year. And that was just terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I’d thrown out some of the paperwork because I didn’t realise it was important… It’s absolutely ridiculous that I’m in my 30s and I don’t know what you’re meant to know for taxes!
Is there any down side to earning a living from projects that are all connected to literature?
Sometimes I’m sat in a room, and I feel sad that I’m on one side of the table and not the other side. It’s that thing of, I’m a little bit paranoid that you’re seeing me as a competent project manager rather than as a writer. But that’s something I’ve managed to change, to an extent. So I don’t think there’s anything I’m working on at the minute where I’m only in it on the admin side. Whereas obviously in the early stages there were lots of things where I was, and I didn’t want to get pigeonholed in the wrong section.
I think the main problem with that kind of piecework is the lack of job security. Depending on what kind of contract you have as a freelancer, you don’t get holiday pay, you don’t get sick pay; because you’re juggling so many different things you don’t get to focus on just one thing. It can be hard to relax.
Is security important to you?
I’ve just taken on a mortgage, so it’s going to have to be! Yes, I think so. I’ve started phasing out the volunteer work, or the work that’s unpaid. Partly because I’ve got to a point where I can, to an extent, but also because I’ve got to a point where I now have to. I can’t afford that kind of time any more. And that’s something where writing short stories becomes a bit unmotivated, because most publication opportunities for short stories are unpaid or exceptionally badly paid, and – I’m not going to say it’s never worth my time working on a short story, but I’m aware that unless someone’s paid me to write it I’m not going to get any money from it, whereas with the novel there’s the magic dream that someone’s going to give you a million pounds for it. Or at least five hundred pounds, or something.
When I say I’m good at taking risks, I’m good at having things in place to take risks from.
I’m very good at taking risks; I like risks, saying yes to things and seeing where they go. But I wouldn’t have moved to London without having built up my savings. When I say I’m good at taking risks, I’m good at having things in place to take risks from. And I’m lucky that if I was to turn round to my loved-ones and say, I can’t afford to pay my rent this month, they’re not going to come down on me like a ton of bricks and tell me I’m being stupid trying to be a writer. I’ve not had to do that, but knowing I’ve got that back-up is quite important – and I think that’s where having an independent, loving family and generally being very middle-class and having a good education behind me puts me in a really fortunate position, that other people with different responsibilities, particularly financial responsibilities, don’t have: people who have to be carers for their parents, or financial providers for their wider family, they don’t have that kind of luxury. And I’d like to have a family, and when I have kids my attitude towards risk might be a bit different.
Coming up in part two of this interview: building up to writing a novel, learning to edit, and Viccy’s advice to her younger self…