Back at the end of 2010 I interviewed David Rain for the British Science Fiction Association’s Focus (no.54, 2011) – a magazine for writers. David was programme leader for the MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University, which was at that time unique in having a science fiction thread to its teaching, and I was a freelancer. David passed away this week after a long illness. In one of those weird quirks, I now teach at Middlesex in the same department as David – though I never really got the chance to get to know him. However his loss has had an obvious impact on those who he worked with and taught.

David had written the Orokon fantasy series as Tom Arden and had been twice nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s Awards and had also written a number of well-received literary novels under his own name

Anyway, I thought I’d put the interview up on the blog as a small, inadequate remembrance.

Middlesex has a “literary” creative writing course and a science fiction and fantasy themed one. Is there something inherently different about writing SF&F that requires a course that focuses specifically on the genre?
Writing fiction is in many ways the same no matter what genre you’re writing in: plot, character, theme, setting, point of view, these are things that all short story writers and novelists have to grapple with. Different genres, however, do have different emphases. Teaching science fiction and fantasy on its own enables us to focus, in detail, on those things: world-building, technology, the fantastical and how to use it, to name but three.

The two courses share modules on character, narrative, place and voice. Do the students in the literary and SF&F themes bring different approaches to these shared parts of the course?
Yes, and that’s a good thing. The writing exercises we set tend to be very broad, usually focusing on technique rather than subject matter. Therefore students can adapt them to their own interests. For example, if the theme is place, a mainstream writer might describe a real place. A fantasy writer might invent one. Both are okay. The question is whether the description works as a piece of writing.

Do students in the two courses bring (or need) different skills?
They all need the same basic equipment: an interest in writing and language, and a determination to explore these. This is an MA course, so it’s not for beginners. Normally we would expect a first degree of some sort, but it doesn’t need to be in English or Creative Writing. Most importantly we want to see evidence that the student is already writing. Some students have been published already. Students may have been part of a writer’s group, or attended an Arvon course or Milford workshop. But it’s the fact that they write that counts. We look at a writing sample from each prospective student. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It does have to show promise.

How are the specifically SF&F-themed sections of the course different from their literary equivalents?
On the SF&F modules, all the examples of literature that students look at are taken from those genres. Workshops consider the work specifically from the point of view of genre: not just “Is this a good story?” but “Is this a good SF story?” And how do we tell? (That’s the sort of question we’d be encouraging students to ask, and try to answer.)

An MA costs a significant sum of money to complete – what do you think a graduate emerging from this course possesses that other writers don’t?
Writers are all different, as is the process of learning to write for each new writer. You don’t need a degree to be a writer. And having a degree won’t, in itself, make you a writer: let’s be frank about that. But students graduating from a course like this will have attended a great many writing workshops, made numerous contacts with other aspiring writers (many of which will continue beyond the course), heard guest talks and lectures from writers, publishers and agents, and worked on a manuscript with the help of experienced tutors … If all goes well, the student should emerge much better informed about the realities of writing and publishing, and much better able to carry his or her work forward. No, it won’t make you a writer. But if you’ve got it in you to be one, it might help you get there faster.

What do the people involved in teaching a course like this get out of it?
I can only answer from my own point of view, but after spending a lot of time teaching undergraduate students I find it satisfying to work with people who are at a much higher level as writers, often on the verge of making a real breakthrough to professional-quality work. We’ve had some very talented students. Many times I’ve felt I’m learning as much from them as they are learning from me.

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