Covid-19 update London-based courses to return this autumn, with safety still our top concern – find out more here.

15 January 2020

Jake Arnott: ‘You have to create the whole world of your novel …’

Jake Arnott, Author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

We’re excited to welcome back celebrated author Jake Arnott, who was the tutor of our first ever writing course in 2011 – the course on which Jessie Burton began writing her global bestseller, The Miniaturist – as tutor of our upcoming six-month novel writing course in London. Jake is the author of seven highly acclaimed novels including The Long Firm, which was made into a BBC drama starring Derek Jacobi, He Kills CoppersThe Devil’s Paintbrush and The Fatal Tree.

We asked Jake about his approach to writing and teaching creative writing …

Your critically acclaimed first novel The Long Firm was adapted into a BAFTA-winning TV mini-series for the BBC in 2004. The novel follows the life of a gangster in 1960s London and makes references to many prominent figures of the time ranging from the notorious Kray twins to Judy Garland. How big of a part does research and historical accuracy play when you’re writing a novel?

You have to create the whole world of your novel and that might mean you get the chance to travel in time and space to find it. You have to make it seem real to the reader, to let them in so they can inhabit it themselves. And even if your story is based on your own life experience you have to research and fact-check it.

Your books feature vivid historical settings – from eighteenth century London (The Fatal Tree) to nineteenth century Paris (The Devil’s Paintbrush) – and unforgettable (often criminal) characters. What tends to come first when you’re beginning a new project: the characters, the setting or something else?

It’s always a strong sense of story that is the start for me. Something compelling that brings the characters, the setting and plot together.

You co-tutored the first ever Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course with Anna Davis back in 2011. Many of your former students have gone on to get book deals (Jessie Burton, Catherine Chanter and Antonia Honeywell to name a few). How does it feel when you see a former student go on to get a publishing deal?

The selective (and self-selective) nature of the course means that every writer has publishing potential. We’re serious about what we do here and that’s why I love teaching at CBC.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching creative writing?

Seeing the very beginnings of a novel, how it takes shape and starts to move. Like a child taking its first steps there’s something miraculous about it.

Do you have a favourite topic to teach when you’re working with aspiring writers? And if so, what is it and why?

I love working on character and how we can get to know them.

If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring novelists would you say?

I always say: ‘be lucky.’ Let elements of chance into your work. You never know what the day might bring.

Apply now for a chance to learn from Jake on our upcoming six-month novel writing course in London. Hurry, applications close this Sunday, 18 January.

Or, apply to our six-month online novel-writing course with Lisa O’Donnell & Andrew Michael Hurley. 

back to Blog

Our Courses


Character Development – The Deep Dive

27 Jan – 24 Feb

Writing a Romance Novel

17 Feb – 29 Mar
Erin Kelly, author

Writing a Psychological Thriller

25 Jan – 10 Mar
S J Parris, author

Writing Historical Fiction

27 Jan – 10 Mar
Catherine Johnson

Writing YA & Children’s Fiction

04 Oct – 17 Jan