'You're a writer already'

Our editor Jon Sutton speaks to academic and author Professor Charles Fernyhough (University of Durham) about his writing.

Does writing come easily to you? 

It doesn’t always come easily, but I never have any problem in finding the motivation to do it. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning, and when I don’t do it I’m miserable. The poet Paul Muldoon said something good about writer’s block: he said that he’s a writer in the moments when he’s writing, but when he’s not, he’s something else. I expect it to be slow and difficult, but I love the struggle. 

When your psychological grounding informs your fiction writing, is this just an inevitable side-effect or a deliberate attempt to find a new way to communicate psychology? 

I’m definitely not trying to communicate disciplinary psychology in my fiction. Novels have to be about emotions, atmospheres and human detail. But I do think the psychologist and the novelist share certain preoccupations. What is it like to be conscious inside this flesh-and-blood machine? How does it feel? I call that last one the Bob Dylan question. 

Is there a thread that runs through all your writing?

I’m interested in how people make sense of their experience. If there’s a thread, it’s trying to understand the understanding. 

Do you know much about your audience, and whether they’re the audience you would like to have?

It’s hard to know who they are. I’d love to hear more from them. I get a certain amount of feedback on my non-fiction, and I know who comes and talks to me at festivals. But it’s a lopsided view. Most of it happens in a bit of a vacuum, unless in desperation one starts looking at online reviews – which are never very edifying. 

You’ve published all sorts of books, and seem pretty successful at combining writing with academia while branching out into all sorts of new areas. What’s left? 

I feel I’ve hardly begun to explore what I want to explore in my writing, both fiction and non-fiction. The science books are written from the starting point of a novelist, and I hope that’s what makes them feel a little different. Fiction-wise, I’m currently trying to understand what it’s like to be a 12th-century German priest. There’s nothing more exhilarating than throwing yourself into an utterly different world view. 

Any advice to psychologists who fancy trying their hand at writing?

You’re a writer already. Anything that can give you practice at writing for a general audience – blogging, reviewing, or pitching articles to newspapers or magazines – will only improve your academic writing. Be a reader, of course. Like most things in life, find someone who’s good at doing it, and start by trying to work out how they manage it. 

I can’t give any advice about fiction, I’m afraid, except that if the entire universe is telling you to stop, and you are driven to keep going, then you are probably on to something. Above all, you need to set aside a lot of time. I haven’t worked full-time since 1997, which is pretty disastrous for the pension. I pay myself in hours, days, weeks – the time it takes to create a world and people it.

 - Read much more about Charles Fernyhough and his work in our archive.

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