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23 April 2020

Imogen Crimp: ‘Hearing our group’s thoughts on characters that had previously only existed in my own head helped clarify my thinking’

Imogen Crimp Author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students

Imogen Crimp took a three-month novel-writing course with us in London in 2018, during which she worked on her debut The High Notes. She met her agent (C&W’s Emma Finn) during the course and now she has an incredible book deal with Bloomsbury.

We found out more about Imogen’s time on the course – where she met some of her best friends and writing confidants – and the inspiration behind The High Notes, which centres around a tumultuous relationship between a young struggling singer and an older man.

You worked on your debut novel on our London-based novel-writing course taught by Simon Wroe. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

When I started the course, I had the central idea for the novel, and not much else. I’d written about 15,000 words but, after an early session on plot, I pretty much went back to the drawing-board and got rid of most of them! So, everything I submitted to the CBC workshops and tutorials, I wrote during the six months of the course, and I found the discipline of producing work to deadline really beneficial.

As someone who had never previously shared much of my writing, having other people discuss it in the workshops was so useful too. Hearing our group’s thoughts on a plot and characters that had previously only existed in my own head helped clarify my thinking, allowing me to see more clearly what was working and what wasn’t. Having one-to-one feedback from Simon on my work was also interesting; he really helped me, in particular, with the psychological accuracy of my characterisation.

You worked closely with your agent, C&W’s Emma Finn, to get The High Notes ready to submit to publishers. Can you tell us a bit more about this process? How did you feel when you found out the novel was going to be published?

Emma came to talk to us during a session on the CBC course, and I knew then that she was my dream agent, so I was thrilled when she expressed an interest in my novel at the end of the six months. I was still in the fairly early stages of a first draft, but I started sharing sections with her as I was writing, and she gave me brilliant notes, which really helped me to hone my thinking on character and plot as the novel developed. I was so lucky to have Emma on board at this early stage; she absolutely understood what I was trying to do, and it was invaluable to have her articulate the aspects that needed work as I was writing – often elements I knew weren’t quite there, but I hadn’t managed to put my finger on why.

Because I’d been working in Emma’s notes as I wrote, everything happened bizarrely quickly after I’d finished the draft. There were only four weeks between getting notes from Emma on my finished manuscript, turning round a revised version, and the novel being accepted by publishers. It was all quite surreal, and honestly it’s still sinking in!

Many of our students find their community of writers on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes, we all keep in touch, and we’ve managed to meet as a whole group a few times since the course ended last year. I also still workshop regularly with a few from the class: the small group who stayed in the pub until closing after the very first night of the course have become some of my best friends, as well as being my most trusted readers!

The High Notes follows struggling singer Anna as she tumbles headfirst into an affair with an older man. Can you tell us a bit more about your novel and the inspiration behind it?

My novel is about a young woman, struggling to make ends meet as she trains to be a singer in London. When she becomes involved with a wealthy older man, he seems to offer her some degree of emotional and financial security, but this comes at a cost: as her infatuation with him grows, so too does his influence over her, and the relationship begins to compromise her singing career. In writing this novel, I was really interested in exploring the relationship between love, power and ambition – the way women often still seemingly willingly sacrifice the lives they’ve built for themselves, staking their self-worth and future happiness on men who, objectively, don’t seem to be offering them that much.

The inspiration for the novel actually came from another book, Voyage in the Dark, by one of my favourite authors, Jean Rhys. Written in 1934, Rhys’ exploration of the power dynamics in male/female relationships and her depiction of disenfranchised women living hand-to-mouth in the city had always struck me as peculiarly modern. As a writing exercise, I ‘dissected’ Voyage in the Dark to see how it worked structurally, and then I considered how I might transplant it into the contemporary world. I quickly became very excited by this idea, and realised it could become more than an exercise.

As my novel developed, I moved further away from Rhys, but the essential premise – a young woman becomes involved with an older man, and allows his influence to move her gently away from her own life – was inspired by her writing, and I used several of her characters’ names (including my protagonist’s) as a nod to her work.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Generally, I produce my best writing in the mornings, and I use the afternoons for editing, planning or reading. When I have a day to write, I try to be disciplined about sitting down at my desk first thing, and getting some words on the page, even if I don’t feel like it and have no idea what I’m going to write – because, in my experience, inspiration never just comes to me while I’m doing other things. If I waited until I had a brilliant idea to sit down and write, I think I’d probably never write anything! So a typical writing day really just involves putting as many hours as possible into producing some words. Beyond that, I don’t have any set routines, except very regular coffee.

Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?

Honestly, I’m not sure I feel in a position yet to be giving anyone any advice! But something I found really useful once I’d finished my draft was laying my pages out on the floor (you have to do it in chunks, unless you have a really massive room!).

A novel is an awful lot of words and there came a point where I couldn’t visualise the whole structure in my head anymore. I found that seeing it laid out physically helped me to spot things I hadn’t noticed, like if I had an imbalance of material on a particular plot point, or if a character had disappeared for 100 pages. I was heartened to see that Jo March laid her pages out in the recent Little Women film adaptation too… 

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey – what are you working on now?

I’ve just started book 2, but it’s very early stages!

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