With applications now open for our next batch of London-based and online creative writing courses, we thought we’d take a moment to talk to a recent Curtis Brown Creative student who’s gone from strength to strength. Annabelle Thorpe attended our second-ever novel-writing course back in 2011. Alongside Annabelle, this course had produced three other published authors: Tim Glencross, author of Barbarians, Kate Hamer, who wrote The Girl in the Red Coat and James Hannah, who spent the course working on The A–Z of You and Me. Annabelle is a leading travel journalist who’s been featured extensively in the Times and the Guardian among other publications, but when she decided to take all her travel experience – most notably her many journeys to Croatia – and craft it into a novel, she came to Curtis Brown Creative for guidance. Her debut novel, The People We Were Before, deals with a family struggling through the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s and is to be published by Quercus on Thursday (21 April). We caught up with Annabelle to ask about her experience on the course, and her first novel.
You’re a leading travel journalist with many years of experience. Why did you decide to take a CBC course while you were writing your debut novel?
I’d always wanted to write fiction and I’d been trying to get an agent for years, alongside working as a journalist. It slowly dawned on me that my book wasn’t getting picked up for a reason – mainly that it wasn’t good enough! So I took the CBC course to try and improve my writing, and learn more about the whole business of getting published.
What would you say was the most useful aspect of the course?
For me, definitely the writing tuition. Some people just know things naturally about writing; I didn’t. I had a tendency to ‘over-write’ and I was terrible at ‘showing, not telling’. The irony is I’d always said I would never do a creative-writing course; always said you couldn’t teach someone how to write. That may be true, but my experience on the CBC course showed me you can certainly teach someone how to write better.
You collaborated with the rest of your CBC cohort on The Book of Unwritten Rules – how often would you see your CBC contemporaries after the course was over?
We used to meet once a month for the first few years (we met on the Autumn 2011 course) and although it’s less regular now, we are all still in touch. It was great to have everyone back together when we launched The Book of Unwritten Rules – it’s lovely to think that book will always bind us altogether. Meeting the group – who are such a diverse gang of brilliant, generous people – was one of the best things about doing the CBC course.
What’s your writing process…?
I tend to write best in the morning, when my mind is completely clear. I get up, make a cup of tea, climb back under the duvet and get started. I write quite fast. I’m not great at planning and I don’t agonise over each line. It’s more like layering; I have a really fast typing speed, so I often print stuff out and then re-type it back in, changing things as I go. I’ve never been able to do copy and pasting, it just confuses me.
What were the main differences between writing your travel pieces and writing your novel?
The biggest difference was being able to create characters and give them lives and relationships and back-stories. Because my book is set overseas, in some ways drawing the backdrop and locations was quite similar to my travel writing. But the freedom to create relationships and conversations and betrayals – that was wonderful. I’ve lived with this book for such a long time that the characters in it feel like part of my life. I think creating them is what I’m proudest of.
For you, is The People We Were Before a war story or a love story?
I think it’s both. Without the war, the love story would probably be very different; the two are totally intertwined. But I think there’s more than one love story in the book; I hope it’s a story about love in all its forms – between friends, brothers, parents, lovers, husbands and wives. And it’s about the resilience of love. I think we underestimate that.
Why Croatia? Why this region and this conflict in particular?
Dalmatia – the region of Croatia in which the book is set – is somewhere I’ve visited, on and off, for 30 years. I saw and experienced what it was like before the war, when it was still Yugoslavia, and afterwards. I’ve always wanted to set my writing abroad, but I think to do that well you have to really know the place you are writing about. Dubrovnik – and the region around it – seemed a natural choice. I didn’t set out to write about the war in the novel, but as the story grew it seemed impossible not to. The more research I did, the more I felt it was something I should write about; it was such a dreadful conflict and it’s so little understood.
What are you working on next? Have you started your next novel, or are you focusing on journalism first?
I’m juggling both. I’ve just finished the second draft of my second novel, Night Falls on the Kasbah, which is set in Morocco, but since I need to pay the mortgage, I’m also still working as a journalist. It’s actually quite nice to do both; writing a novel is a very isolating thing, so it’s good to still have some contact with the journalism world. Without it, I think I’d feel a bit of a hermit.
The People We Were Before is published on 21 April.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).