Category: Success stories

Bewitched: An interview with Shahrukh Husain

After teaching Shahrukh Husain back in 2004, Emily Pedder, Course Director of The Novel Studio, catches up with the successful author and City Short Courses alumna about her recently reissued book, The Book of Witches, and the relevance of the book for feminism today.

Shahrukh Husain is that rare breed: a prolific writer of screenplays, plays, fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children who also happens to be a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her adaptation of Anita Desai’s Booker-nominated In Custody for Merchant Ivory productions won the President of India gold medal and received an Oscar nomination; her most recent work was screened on ITV this autumn in the six-part series Beecham House, set in India in the late 18th century. Her books have been translated into 17 languages including Estonian, Turkish and Korean, and in October 2019, Virago decided to reissue The Book of Witches, edited by Shah, for which she was asked to write a new preface.

In 2004 I was lucky enough to teach Shah on City’s Novel Studio (then the Certificate in Novel Writing). You may wonder why such a talented and successful writer would choose to go on a writing course. But Shah is unashamed in her lifelong pursuit of learning. ‘My family say I’m addicted to courses,’ she tells me at the kitchen table of her beautiful house in Willesden where we met last week to talk about her latest book and her long and interesting career.

I began by asking Shah how she had come to edit the original incarnation of The Book of Witches, first published in 1993: ‘I’ve always been passionate about fairy tales,” she told me, “and witches in particular…from childhood. I’d corner people and force them to tell me stories and I remember my parents saying: “You can’t just go up to people and ask them to tell you stories about ghosts!” Years later, Angela Carter wrote her book about fairy tales, (The Virago Book of Fairy Tales) and I just loved it. So, I found out who was in charge of the series, it was Ursula Owen at the time, and she told Ruth Petrie who was the series editor, who called back within about 10 minutes and said, (in those days there wasn’t any internet) “we’re commissioning you,” just like that.’ The book became Shah’s breakthrough as a writer, selling in eleven languages, and the first of four subsequent non-fiction books for Virago.

Virago’s decision to reissue the book, 26 years, later was influenced by the rise in interest in witches and their potency, particularly in relation to female anger and the #metoo movement. In her new preface, Shah brilliantly highlights the relevance of the witch today: ‘resilient, edgy, awe-inspiring and potent. She never disappears from our culture for long.’ At a recent sold out Virago Speakeasy event celebrating the book, Shah was joined by award-winning writer and fellow City short course alumna Imogen Hermes Gowar, to explore the power of the witch today.

Storytelling clearly runs through Shah’s veins. Though resident in the UK for most of her life, Shah’s childhood was spent in Pakistan where she spent hours listening to the adults telling stories: ‘my mother’s family weren’t academics, my mother and her mother weren’t even educated…they told stories and everything was embedded in history and culture…if they wanted to tell us off they’d tell a story and then they’d go on to explain or encourage us to ask questions, like ‘was she a real queen?’ It was such fun, I soaked it all up…’

This deep-rooted understanding of the links between stories, history and culture has continued to influence Shah’s work as a writer and her career as a Jungian psychoanalyst. All four of her books for Virago are themed around different aspects of womanhood and illustrate the universality of so many myths: Women Who Wear the Breeches, Erotic Myths and Legends, Temptresses, and The Book of Witches. As she puts it, they are all about ‘women and myths who’ve had a bad press, they’re all themed, so it’s about knowing that these things exist in every culture really…’

Not surprisingly for someone so knowledgeable about storytelling and narratives, Shah is passionate about the value of creativity and imagination in the lives of both adults and children: ‘‘I really want people to have imagination in their lives… I remember when my daughter was six, she came to me and said: “Mum everybody keeps saying there’s no such thing as magic but is there?” So, I said the funny thing about magic is that if you don’t believe it you never find out about it, so you have to believe it, and it’s the same with miracles…and I said to her we’ll go in the garden in the morning and I’ll show you, and I showed her the dew, we see it falling and it looks like a diamond, so that’s kind of a miracle. And she came back afterwards and said “I’ve been thinking about it. It’s not kind of a miracle, it is a miracle because actually that is a diamond…”’

The Book of Witches is published by Virago.

For more about Shah’s work please visit her website.

For more about City’s short writing courses, including the Novel Studio please visit.

 

A novel approach: how short course alumna self-published her debut novel

By Rachel Mann

Since the publication of my first novel, On Blackberry Hill, many people have asked me: How long did it take to write? I find this seemingly simple question hard to answer. Maybe what they mean is: How did you do it? This is what people really want to know, isn’t it? How does one write a novel?

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are novelists. Here’s how I did it. In the winter of 2008, I was working as an editor in educational publishing in New York, when my husband accepted a job relocation to London. With two children under five, I decided to focus on helping them adjust, while also taking the opportunity to do something I had long wished to pursue: creative writing. Enrolling on City’s Novel Studio course (then called the Certificate in Novel Writing) felt like signing up to climb Everest. I had never written a story longer than ten pages.

Anne Lamott, author of On Blackberry Hill

The course began with a focus on reading novels of all genres, and on the fundamentals of strong stories. I felt excited and ready to undertake the task of writing my own novel, as I began to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective, not just from a reader’s. The tutors broke up the monumental process into manageable chunks, guiding us through small goals. As Anne Lamott explains in her influential book, writing is accomplished “bird by bird.” In other words: one image, one scene, one sentence at a time. The camaraderie and the ritual of meeting with other writers for hours each week really drove my commitment to spend the time necessary to complete the novel.

I decided to set my novel in an American summer camp, a setting deeply familiar to me, but foreign to every one of my classmates. Having a thoughtful audience for my earliest drafts helped to push me to make the story accessible to a wide range of readers. I finished the course with an outline and 50 pages. We had a reading for friends, family, agents and publishers, which pushed us to think of our novels as real products, not just class exercises. By the following spring, I had a complete first draft.

So what happened next? Life. My family moved back to New York, and we had a third child. I networked, went to conferences, wrote new pieces, and revised and revised my novel. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t look at the manuscript at all, as other pressing concerns took hold. In the end, it was my Novel Studio classmate and friend Justine Solomons, founder of Byte the Book, who helped me to publish the novel at long last.

As you see, writing a novel, at least for me, was a meandering process that took almost 8 years from first scribbles to printed book. It’s been so rewarding to hear reader feedback, from old friends to other writers, to young readers who relate to the teenage characters. Writing and completing a work is its own reward, but having readers respond to one’s writing is a greater thrill yet.

I remain grateful to the community of my City Novel Studio course, many of whom gathered together to share and critique writing even after the course ended. We continue to share and celebrate one another’s successes to this day.

On Blackberry Hill is published by Create Space and is the winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Young Adult Literature. For more about Rachel’s writing visit her website; for more about The Novel Studio, please visit our programme page.

How I wrote Freak Like Me: Confessions of a 90s pop groupie

by Malcolm McLean

This October saw the release of a book I have been buried away writing and editing for the last three years: a memoir about my teenage years spent obsessing over pop stars, titled Freak Like Me: Confessions of a 90s pop groupie. It feels like an amazing achievement to have got to this point and have people reading the book that I put so much into during the last few years, and I am so proud of myself, but it wasn’t as simple as I naively thought it might be, back at the start of the project.

Freak Like Me, the debut memoir by Malcolm McLean

Freak Like Me, the debut memoir by Malcolm McLean

I’d thought about writing a book for a few years, but lacked the confidence. After tentatively starting the project, my sister suggested I look for a writing course to help give me more of the skills I needed to actually get the thing written and turn a series of anecdotes into a cohesive book. After looking around, I settled on the Narrative Non Fiction short course at City, University of London. The course outline was so detailed and seemed perfect for what I needed to write a memoir.

I assumed there would be an entire class of people writing memoirs like me, but there wasn’t: there were people working in media, wanting help with writing longer articles; company directors hoping to gain more confidence in business communications; and even someone writing a biography of her grandmother’s life in the 1930s. A huge mix. Peter Forbes, the course leader, was an incredible teacher. He gave us writing tools and tricks we so desperately wanted, seeing the strengths and weaknesses in our writing, and always giving such encouraging feedback. He also dispelled a lot of myths about the publishing industry and made it clear how different it is today compared to even ten years ago.

We worked on a variety of types of writing, each of which gave me a new perspective on how language can explain, explore and entertain. This allowed me to develop my book from being very fact and nostalgia-based, to having a more personal story that explored why I ended up doing ridiculous things like breaking into the BRIT Awards, or hanging out at Posh Spice’s mum’s house!

By the end of the course I was ready to submit my first three chapters and a detailed synopsis to try and secure a literary agent, and hopefully sign a book deal with one of the big publishers. I knew that my chances of getting one were slim and, despite some positive feedback, my emails to agents amounted to nothing.

For me, there was always a Plan B, as I knew that I wanted to release my book whatever happened. I researched a great deal into independent publishers, self-publishing, and ‘hybrid publishing’ – a model supposedly falling somewhere between doing it yourself and getting a deal with a big publisher. In the end, I settled on signing with RedDoor, who take on selective book projects that the author has to fund the production costs for. The team there are book lovers with lots of contacts, and I felt that they ‘got’ my idea for Freak Like Me more than anyone else. In hindsight, I feel that self-publishing may have been a better deal for me, financially, but it’s a gamble in finding the right person who can help you edit your book, and I can’t deny that the option I went with meant I was given huge amounts of freedom in producing the book that I wanted to.

The process of actually writing a book is time consuming, and so often it is hard to keep the motivation up, or to see what does or doesn’t work with your writing. After the course, a group of us decided to continue meeting up more informally, to talk about or share some of our writing. These guys became both my most honest critics, and a really useful support network!

Freak Like Me, being such a nostalgic, fun book was always going to be a Christmas release, and so, although it was signed off in early 2019, there was a long wait until October for it to finally get released. I’m immensely happy with the finished book and still flick through it or just gaze at the cover in wonderment. Just reaching this point and receiving such positive feedback from friends, family, or random lovers of pop nostalgia has made the whole experience so worth it, and I’ve ended up with skills and confidence that I couldn’t have imagined three years ago.

Malcolm McLean is a part-time writer and full-time pop music obsessive. His debut memoir Freak Like Me was published by RedDoor in October 2019. To find out more about Malcolm, visit the Freak Like Me website Or to learn about the Narrative Non-Fiction course he took at City visit the City web page.

Taking a walk on the wild side of business

By Brenna Boyle

Brenna was working as a wildlife ranger in the Scottish Highlands before attending the Starting up in Business course at City, University of London. Brenna’s ambition was to make a successful business showing communities the diverse range of wildlife on their doorsteps.

An average day as a wildlife ranger would involve guiding groups of visitors around stunning scenery and viewing species including Golden Eagles and Bottle-nosed Dolphins. But I left the Highlands and returned to London, driven by a desire to prove that the wildlife of London, whilst perhaps not as iconic or dramatic as that of Scotland, is abundant, diverse and fascinating.

My goal was to set up a business delivering guided wildlife walks and nature discovery activities for groups of adults, families, communities and schools within London. And yes, lots of people thought I was nuts! I knew from previous experience that the wildlife of London really is surprising, rich and interesting, in that I had faith. What I didn’t have so much faith in was my ability to build and run a business. I had so many questions and doubts about everything from protecting my brand to tax, marketing, the law and hiring other people. My new business, Wild Capital, had officially begun before I enrolled on the course; it was very young but the website was operational, I was insured and I’d delivered a few programmes. However, I felt I was holding back on allowing the business to grow through uncertainty about how to proceed. My fear was that I would invest everything into the business and one day some scary bloke in a suit would appear and tell me I’d done something wrong and I owed thousands of pounds in fees or fines!

I chose to undertake an introduction to business course in order to deal with my concerns, and go forwards in business confidently. I did quite a lot of research into different options before settling on the Starting Up in Business course at City. The course was very appealing as it covered a wide array of business topics, but with a total duration of 20 hours over 10 weeks there was time to delve into each topic, rather than just scratch the surface. There was a choice of doing the course on either a Tuesday or a Thursday night, so I was able to select the night that most suited my schedule.

The course itself was a mixture of taught material delivered with PowerPoint presentations (all the slides were uploaded to an accessible website in advance of the class so you could print them and make notes on the hand-outs), class activities such as working in groups to review existing businesses and personal work done in our own time which cumulated in writing a full business plan that was read and reviewed. Kulan Mills, who delivered the course was extremely knowledgeable and helpful; you really felt you could ask him anything. Kulan obviously has a great deal of experience with a wide range of businesses. He would tell us anecdotes from his own experiences, which were insightful and interesting. Kulan took interest in everyone in the class; he made himself available before and after the sessions to answer questions and discuss ideas. He also put students in touch with people from his extensive network of useful contacts; I had a very helpful meeting with the manager of an outdoor activity centre, instigated through Kulan.

Several of the students, myself included, already knew what type of business we wanted to develop. Others knew they wanted to run a business but weren’t yet sure what kind. The course was very suitable for both groups of students, with many ideas thrown up for those looking to create a new service or product. For all these reasons and more, studying at City was a great experience. The nice coffee shop and free WiFi were also very welcome!

Since completing the course at City I have had the confidence to expand my business; I now work with both local councils and London based charities, providing wildlife discovery activities for communities. The numbers of new private bookings for adult wildlife walks and family adventures are increasing all the time, and I’m now looking at rolling out a selection of programmes for schools.

I wouldn’t hesitate to enrol on another course at City. Perhaps further down the line I’ll a need a course to develop my skills as the director of an expanding company!

To find out more about Wild Capital please visit the website www.wildcapital.co.uk, follow on Twitter or like on Facebook.

To find out more and enrol on City’s Starting Up in Business short courses visit the webpage.

Ones to watch for 2018: Rising literary stars

By Emily Pedder

City’s short course alumni continue their literary ascent with two debut novels due out in 2018: Hannah Begbie’s Mother (HarperFiction) and Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M (HarperCollins).

Hannah Begbie

Hannah Begbie

Hannah studied on City’s Novel Studio where she also won the new writing competition. Her novel, Mother, developed while on the course, is a brilliant, and brutal, exploration of motherhood in the most complicated of circumstances.Hannah’s agent, Veronique Baxter has said that Mother “is a book you don’t forget in a hurry: unflinching, dark and deeply compelling, it moved me profoundly”.

Martha Ashby, editorial director at HarperFiction, said “Hannah’s writing grabbed me by the throat from the very first page and in her brutal examination of the roles that women play, her novel is at the same time both raw with emotion and deeply thought-provoking. I’m so thrilled to bring such a talented voice to HarperFiction.”

Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd

A former student of City’s Short Story Writing and Writers’ Workshop, Peng attended New York University’s MFA Creative Writing Program on a full scholarship, where she studied under Jonathan Safran Foer. Her fiction has appeared in Litro Magazine, Liars’ League, Cent Magazine, been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in the Weird Lies anthology.

Last year, the Elizabeth George Foundation awarded Peng a major grant based on an early draft of her novel and she was also a finalist for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins 2016 fellowship. Peng’s debut novel, The Book of M, has been described by her UK agent  at Curtis Brown as “a virtuoso debut by an unparalleled talent…Shepherd has created a world filled with big ideas about mortality and self but it is the small intimate moments that pierce and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading”.

The Book of M is due out in June 2018. Follow Peng on twitter.

Mother is due out August 2018. You can follow Hannah on twitter.

Find out more about our writing short courses at City or read other success stories from our writing community.

Pre-order a copy of Mother

Pre-order a copy of The Book of M.

Launched to success through The Novel Studio

By Emily Pedder

Before embarking on a novel writing course at City, University of London, Steve Young worked as a freelance comedian and theatre director: “I toured the UK performing, and directed several times with the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. I had a personal interest in writing and wanted to explore it. I had written thousands of jokes and vignettes, but was looking for a forum to go into more serious writing.”

Steve chose to pursue his love of writing in London, “the heart of literature central.” But it was a WWII veteran, and literature graduate from Oxford, who suggested City. “His professors were JR Tolkien and CS Lewis,” says Steve, “he told me I reminded him of CS Lewis…unfortunately, having more to do with my physical size than talent. He heard me read a bit of a novel-in-progress at a local social event, and we met.  I used to come by his home, have a few scotches or schnapps, and I’d read aloud whatever I was working on. When it came time to look for a course, we considered the possibilities, but agreed City, University of London was the right fit, I was impressed that the faculty were all writers and editors.”

Steve started by completing two short story courses, and was advised to apply for The Novel Studio, which he felt helped his work enormously, “I had excellent instructors working in the field. They pushed and challenged me.  I loved the fact that they were direct and honest about my work. The rigorous student selection process created a group of extremely talented beginning novelists, who made a huge contribution to my work.  I always felt there was a vested interest in my work and my classmates were committed to my success and I to theirs.”

Since completing The Novel Studio at City, Steve has found great success as an award-winning playwright. Under the Overpass won the TeCo New Play Competition literary award, and The Wal*Mart-ians was a finalist for the Reva Shiner Comedy Awards at the Bloomington Playwright Project out of a thousand entrants. The King’s Face won both the FutureFest and Southwest Playwriting Competitions, and is currently a live semi-finalist at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, receiving a staged reading in May at the Blank Theatre in Los Angeles. A few amongst many other varying accolades. Steve’s new play, The Night Witches, will be performed at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May.

“I had some mild success as a writer prior to the course, but The Novel Studio really launched me forward.  It made me brave on the page. It gave me a discerning eye.  I loved every minute of it.”

For more on the course and our growing list of published alumni visit our home page here.

For updates on courses and event follow us @cityshortcourses.

How one student turned his computing hobby into a full time career

by Dionisios Dimakopoulos

Lukasz Buczynski came to Britain to learn English so that he could further his career back in Poland. But after living and working in London, and meeting his fiancée, Lukasz decided to embark on a new career here in the UK.

At City Lukasz took two short courses in computing. At first he viewed computing as a hobby, “I had always seen computing as an entertainment tool for games, movies and music. I had always been interested in computers and electronics but I never thought of working as an IT professional.”

Despite considering some online courses, Lukasz decided that learning in a classroom environment had more advantages: “You can talk to people interested in the same things as you, and develop valuable contacts. In my opinion, classroom based teaching is the best experience you can get.”

I wanted to do something that I love and that would also give me real satisfaction. City’s Java programming course offered a really good coverage of programming in Java for beginners, plus the price was really good.”

City, University of London was the perfect place for Lukasz to study for his new career, as it offers short courses for all levels of competency, from beginners to advanced: “I gained a really good foundation, including how to develop computer programs and how to communicate in a technical environment. I liked the Java course so much that I enrolled myself to Level 2, and I also started to prepare myself for the Oracle Certified Java Programmer qualification.”

It was these courses and qualifications that led to Lukasz being accepted to study an MSc in Computer Science at Birkbeck University of London: “The programming foundations and qualifications I gained at City helped me a lot, and even though I work mainly in C++, I’m sure that without attending the Java course, I wouldn’t be so successful now. Whilst still a student, I was offered my dream job, and now work for an internet security company as an Associate Software Engineer. I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else. I think that if you want to start something new, change your lifestyle, career, this is the way to go.”

“My hunger for knowledge is always increasing so it is very possible I will come back, especially as City, University of London offers the biggest range of courses I have ever seen.”

To view our full range of computing courses visit our home page here. Or follow our updates on events and courses on twitter @cityshortcourses.

Business founder credits digital marketing masterclass for improved performance

By Rav Roopra

At City I took the Integrated Digital Marketing masterclass – a three-day intensive course on practical digital marketing.

Customer education is a key part of what we do at Stubble and Strife. We want to ensure that customers get access to the best advice, information and curated products in the UK. To do this we need to be easy to find on the web. I was therefore keen to learn the key components and strategies in digital marketing.

Choosing City, University of London as a short course provider was a natural decision for Stubble and Strife. The company has strong links with City: one of the co-founders is a Cass Business School alumna. We have also had the support of City graduates. We recognise that there’s a large pool of expertise at City, especially in design, marketing and technology, which complement what we are doing at Stubble and Strife.

For the masterclass City teamed up with dynamic digital marketing agency, MintTwist, who delivered the course content. I was very impressed with the expertise of the speakers, as well as the actionable insights designed to deliver results. Victoria Lennon, MintTwist’s marketing director, is an exceptional tutor, very experienced in her subject area and willing to share her up-to-the minute knowledge of digital marketing strategies and technologies.

Our study group was very diverse, with students coming from a large range of disciplines and backgrounds, which helped to bring different perspectives to the course.

I have already implemented a number of strategies we picked up at the masterclass and the business is seeing improvements in results. I have also brought this new knowledge into our technology and marketing roadmap for the future. It might be too early to measure the impact but initial returns look promising.

As a founder, I want to take Stubble and Strife from a start-up venture to a fully-fledged omni-channel retail business, tying the latest bricks and mortar retail technology together with online convenience, data analysis and digital marketing. I believe that the knowledge I gained at City will be a significant aid in this process.

Rav Roopra is the founder of Stubble and Strife, an expert retailer of shave, beard, moustache and skincare products.

For more on our business and management short courses visit our home page. Or follow our twitter updates @cityshortcourses.

 

The story behind MD Villiers’ novel City of Blood

by Jennifer Mills

“I had to write my story, this was the story I wanted to tell,” MD Villiers.

Martie de Villiers’ debut novel City of Blood – published in May 2013 – has taken seven years to write.

Brought up in South Africa, Martie studied psychology and sociology at university and then worked as a tennis coach, in HR and finally Commodities, but she always wanted to write. By the time she attended her first writing course at City, University of London, Writers’ Workshop in 2006, Martie was already writing in her spare time.

“City gave me invaluable insight into the industry,” says Martie. “You can’t always read up on how to be a writer,” she adds, “There are things you actually need to learn from those with experience in the publishing industry.” Thanks to the course, her writing developed.

“Before the writing courses at City, I wrote very detailed stories and said the obvious, but feedback on your writing helps and I realised that I didn’t have to show every action in my writing.”

Martie soon discovered how isolating writing can be. With fellow course members she formed a writing group.

“We met up and read each other’s work and gave feedback, because by sharing you see yourself becoming better…You need feedback to keep up your motivation. Comforting words from family and friends will not develop your writing and story in the same way as feedback from fellow writers.”

She began to attend as many talks by writers as possible: “You need to study the craft and keep going.”

In 2003 she read a news story in the local Johannesburg paper about a murder where the culprits escaped. It inspired her to write the story about Siphiwe, a young orphan whose life dramatically changes when he meets two dangerous men in Johannesburg; this developed into City of Blood. Growing up in South Africa, Johannesburg is a city Martie says she would never want to get lost in: her mother was a social worker and used to come home with horror stories from what she had witnessed. Martie wanted to understand the violence of the city and its consequences and dedicated herself to write these stories.

After a few years working on her novel, Martie sent three chapters to just one agent, Euan Thorneycroft. He signed her straightaway. After further redrafts her book went out to publishers. She didn’t expect an answer for months, but just six weeks later Martie got an offer: a two book-deal with the prestigious Harvill Secker.

Writers’ Workshop takes place on Friday evenings and is run by Katy Darby. For more on our writing short courses visit our home page here.

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