An interview with Judith Wharton

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Judith Wharton is a former student and Assistant Senior Tutor at St. Mary’s College, Durham. Books Editor, Clara Knight, caught up with Judith in an interview following the publication of her latest novel, BUG. BUG is a campus novel set in Newburgh, a fictional university town based on Durham.

When did you start writing?
I have to say I really enjoyed academic writing before I started writing creatively. It got me into enjoying the process of writing. I started writing creatively when I was working in Durham and I was commuting on the train every week. The train would empty at about Newcastle and then there was a beautiful journey up to Edinburgh along the coast, I couldn’t help but start writing because I wanted to capture that emotional response I was having to this fabulous scenery, imagining the stories there.

Afterwards I joined Curtis Brown Creative, part of Curtis Brown Associates, that runs amazing online courses, of which I have completed two, and I became part of their studio, which is a writing community.

Was it a help or a hindrance working in a group?
Oh, a complete help. I actually think when you’re starting out you’ve got to work with other people, because you have to be able to share ideas and your work with others. Also, if you’re working on the work of others you learn yourself, about how to be critical, what works and what doesn’t. If you only read good literature, you don’t know how easy it is to write bad literature. Being in a group is really important, I still have my colleagues from my courses to whom I can send my work.

you have to be able to share ideas and your work with others

How did you find your time at Durham?
I loved it. I tell you, being a mature student is fabulous. You realise the potential of the environment you’re in. To have the opportunity to get away and sit and listen to a lecture and then of course to do a masters was just wonderful. I loved working in Mary’s supporting students. I was dealing with everything, any problems students had. I had students who were in the same situation as the character Craig in my novel who has come from a local school and comes to study at university. I thought it was really important to make people who felt like outsiders integrate into the college.

Do you have an ideal audience for your book?
Every writer is told that you should have an ideal reader. I really struggle with that, because everyone in Durham is my ideal reader, as well as any reader who has experienced any sort of university life. But then on the other hand, although it is about a university and a city living this very interdependent existence, it could be about any institution where people are living in a bubble. So, I would also like people to read it who have been in any environment like that.

Don’t get it right, get it written

What do you think are the first steps to becoming a writer?
Don’t get it right, get it written. The most extraordinary things come out of your subconscious. I think it’s about allowing yourself to write from your emotions and your gut, and not write what you think you ought to write. Writing from the gut meant that I would be sitting at my laptop and suddenly I would realise ‘is that what was happening, that makes complete sense!’ – it happened all the time with BUG. Because I myself must be on a journey as the writer, I must be on a voyage of discovery as well, letting the story emerge organically. If you try to manipulate it, it doesn’t work. It has to flow.

Why do we need BUG?
It’s about coming of age, about people finding out about themselves, finding out the beginning of adulthood. It’s a brilliant time to write about because you change so much in the three or four years you’re at university. You’re just beginning to get some idea about who you are, what makes you tick, what your values are.

I do think that it’s jolly difficult to be a student, I really do. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think it’s as straightforward as you think. Right now you’re so vulnerable and there’s such competition, you’re trying to form relationships with people, figuring out if you’ve chosen the right subject. The biggest problem when I was working here was that people had chosen the wrong subject because they were good at it in school, or because their parents thought it would make them a lot of money.

you change so much in the three or four years you’re at university

What is the hardest aspect of writing?
I think the biggest problem is fear. Fear that you’re not good enough, fear that you’re not writing something worth reading, fear that you haven’t got the stamina to get to the end. And I think also you’ve got to have an awful lot of patience, you’ve got to be somebody who sticks at something until you’ve actually got to the end.

Photograph: Scott Hewitt via Unsplash

One thought on “An interview with Judith Wharton

  • I worked in Durham for one of the colleges during the period of this novel, and I have to say the book is shot through with wonderful evocations and poignant reminders of the place and its quirky institutions. Loved reading it.

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