Ella Dove, a University of Southampton alumni and published novelist, gave a talk to the students of Southampton at the Nuffield Theatre on the 11th of October with her agent Richard Pike, also an alumnus. After Ella read out her first chapter of “Five Steps to Happy”, she went on to explain how her awful accident inspired her novel. She touched on trauma, anger, loss, and the effect it had on the people around her when she fell while jogging along the Thames and broke her leg, resulting in amputation. Ella used the fictional character of Heidi, and this event to give a moving and beautiful journey of recovery and self-discovery. Richard and Ella then described to us the process they went through together to get her debut novel “Five Steps to Happy” edited and published. Together and feeding off of each other, they also spoke about how they landed their respective jobs in the literary world and gave some valuable advice on how to progress from university to the world of work.
At the end of the talk, I had the pleasure of asking Ella some questions about her writing process and her course which she took in London through CBC (Curtis Brown Creative), a creative writing course lasting three months) and her background in creative writing. We also discussed tips of the trade for all the creative writing students at Southampton who want to improve their craft.
Interview with Ella Dove, by Tilly Roberts
What sparked your interest in creative writing at University?
I have always loved writing. When I was a child, I used to write plays and I would get my sister to act in them. She was always annoyed because I would give myself the best parts. I was always writing something, short stories, plays and I went through a stage where I would write emo poems.
When I started Uni, I knew I always wanted to do creative modules, because I really enjoyed it. I would always keep a notebook with me so when something funny happened, I would write that down, even in lectures I would notice things that could be in a book. All sorts of crazy things happen at university.
After Uni, how did you find the Curtis Brown Creative the novel-writing course in London? and how was it different from your University course?
It was really different because it was an evening class, once a week on a Tuesday night. The tutor was also more informal and practical, so it was less of an academic environment and all about how to get an agent, and into the industry as well as the publishing process. For example, how to write a cover letter and attract an agent.
We would have 15 people in each class where we would do workshops together, and then critique each other’s work. It was more like a seminar I would say than a lecture. At the end of every week, we would all meet at the pub which was nice.
After you finished your debut novel “Five Steps to Happy”, how does reading it make you feel?
When I did the national novel writing course, I tried to just keep writing and not look back, which is quite disciplined. Otherwise, I think you would drive yourself mad, looking back and wanting to change bits. Even now I haven’t actually read my book, because I looked through it so many times in the editing process. I rewrote it so many times. I am almost scared to go back because I might find a mistake in it, and then I won’t be able to go back and change it.
In my opening to book two,(Ella’s next novel which is currently in the pipeline) I read it a few times, and I think that’s good and I like that. But sometimes I read sections that are weaker and I feel like I need to change that. A lot about being a writer is using your instincts, and when something feels right to you, and then believing in yourself.
Here at the University of Southampton, we are trying to create an academic community, with a hub on campus where people can work together/alongside each other, to foster an environment where students feel safe and supported in there learning. Would you have any advice for students who want to share their literary work with others, but do not feel confident enough yet?
I think writing is quite a private thing, Richard actually advised me not to show my book to too many people, because sometimes having too many opinions isn’t helpful, because it makes you think you could do this or something else. So, having a couple of really trusted readers is really good. And if you would like a confidence boost, you can always show it to your family, because they are never going to say it’s rubbish. However, if you want some constructive feedback, this will come from people who are not as close to you. On my writing course in London, I am still in touch with a writing group, and we share our work with each other because we are not close friends, we can be honest with each other about our writing, because that’s why we are friends. People like that are very useful.
If it comes to speaking, and you are worried about reading it aloud. Sometimes I just sit in my flat on my own and read it out a few times to see how much I want to read. It may feel silly, but it really helps to rehearse what you want to say.
Where do you love to write? and what kind of places make you feel focused?
My favourite time to write is early in the morning, at the weekend when I don’t have anything to do. I really love waking up, getting out of bed, making myself a coffee, and then getting back into bed and getting my laptop out. And I love that, it’s all cozy. That’s my favourite place to write. However, as I have a full-time job I don’t get to do that very often, it’s definitely a big treat. I also have a desk in my flat where my sister and I live together. It’s really nice to sit there and write. I have lots of plants and a nice lamp as well. I will be there for hours!
Also, on holiday, I went to Saville when I found out I had a book deal I was visiting a friend who was learning Spanish so he had classes during the day, and I just treated as a writing a retreat. And I love, it may sound poncey, but I love sitting a little café and writing.
I have heard that you have been to a few retreats in Devon, is this something that people can do independently?
I haven’t been for a couple of years and it has changed management, but it’s called Retreats for You and it definitely does still exist and you can find it easily if you google it. It’s a beautiful house in Devon, and you pay a flat fee where bills are included so you don’t have to worry about anything, the focus is just writing. It’s a really lovely way to get inspired. I have also done some writing retreats in Greece, which were a bit different. The author Victoria Hislop I interviewed her for Good Housekeeping Magazine, and we became friends after that. So, I went to her house in Greece, which was amazing. So that was a very different experience too, but the Devon retreat was so nice in the evenings we would sit next to an open fire and have a glass of wine.
A writer’s dream!
It is quite difficult sometimes because I am really social and I love being around people, but also, I love being on my own and I think writers have to love that alone time because the craft is quite solitary. So, I feel bad if I go away with my boyfriend or my sister and I want to do some writing, even if they are fine and they are doing something else, I always have in my mind that we should be doing something else or exploring. Traveling on your own is probably a useful way of getting lots done by yourself without feeling guilty.
I think we will bring our discussion to a close here, thank you so much for answering our questions today Ella, it’s been really lovely to meet you!