An Interview with Novelist, Poet and Musician Linda Lee Welch

Linda Lee Welch Linda Lee Welch was born and raised in the USA. She moved to the UK in 1976 and has worked as a musician, writer, community artist and teacher. She has two novels published by Virago and is also a prize-winning poet. She taught Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University for sixteen years, after completing the MA herself. Now retired from teaching, she is focusing on her writing, and collaborating with other writers, musicians and artists, including her husband Michael Harding.   

Hi Linda Lee, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Perhaps you could start by telling us how you ended up in the UK?

I came to do a course at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) – just a short course to study acting. But I also wanted to get some work, so I got a job in London. I started at the Tudor Rooms – I had to wear hose and doublet, and a hat with a big feather, and walk around playing the guitar and singing Greensleeves…

I started auditioning for bands, and the second band I auditioned for (‘All Night Diner’) I got the job, and we made a couple of demos and sent them to Holland, and lived there for six months, which was great. I started writing songs then.

So, how did you move from writing songs to poetry and novels?

I came back from Holland and I was having a baby, so I got married, and we settled down… but then, because I was at home with Nic, I started writing more, but not even thinking about sending it anywhere. It was when I did the MA at Hallam that my life really started changing… I’d always written, but I hadn’t really taken myself seriously.

Did you study poetry on the course?

I didn’t do it as my main, in fact I did screenwriting as my main – that’s what I really wanted to do. But I did poetry first with Archie Markham. I’d always seen myself in the vein of either haiku – that kind of very ‘pared-downness’, or the kind of beat poets style, very free verse… But Archie, in his inimitable way, he said “try some forms, that’s what you need to do” and, where I thought forms (writing sonnets etc.) would be limiting, it had the exact opposite effect for me. Forms liberated me in ways that I never would have guessed, because you’re reaching for stuff because you have to, and so you end up with stuff that wasn’t in your original thinking, so Archie had a huge effect on my writing.

The Leader of The SwansHow did you end up writing a novel?

I asked if I could do the novel module with Lesley Glaister, just to keep my hand in. So, I did this extra module and Lesley, when I started giving stuff to her, she said “you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to finish it”, and it became my first novel Leader of the Swans. She was so encouraging that I switched to novel writing as my main, but I never stopped writing poetry in all of this, or plays.

I had no intention of writing a novel, I just did it to fill in the time and stay in that community of writers that gave me validation and belief in myself, but it was Lesley – she kept saying “you’ve got to do it”, so it was very much written in snatches, in scenes…

Leader of the Swans is semi-autobiographical. Can you tell us which parts are based on your own experience?

It’s what you call ‘a typically autobiographical first novel’. I don’t really want to get into too much of the autobiographical stuff but I think, when you’re a writer, the same issues emerge again and again, even if you don’t think that’s what you’re writing about. They come out – things like family and identity, the cruelties that people can inflict on each other without having any seeming awareness that that’s what they’re doing, and survival, and what you find that enables survival in the face of really difficult circumstances – strategies, I suppose, and love. Those are the things that continue to emerge in everything I write: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers, children…

The Artist of EikandoSo how did you go from writing a novel to getting two novels published?

I was so lucky those first few years because I got an agent who got me a two-book deal with Virago, which is a fantastic press, and then unfortunately my publishing career with Virago paralleled Sarah Waters exactly. Sarah’s book was a blockbusting absolute page-turner, and publishers can only put one novel forward for prizes and such…

After that, my second novel The Artist of Eikando came out, but neither of them sold. They did get good reviews but they just didn’t sell as well, and then my agent had a kind of nervous breakdown – another long story, really sad, and then I lost my agent, and got another one briefly, but it was clear that we weren’t the right match.

Since then I’ve been without an agent but it’s ok because, since I took up with Michael (aka The Only Michael), we’ve done so many collaborative things together, and that has been thrilling.

That brings us on to your recent work, creating spoken word performances with musical accompaniment. What do you call this kind of work?

‘Collaborations’ is the word people use, or ‘multimedia’. Michael and I have also worked with a visual artist, on Crossroads Café. And on Ghost Baby, which is a short story, kind of like a ghost story, that I did with Animat, one of Michael’s musical projects. We did it at the Big Chill festival on the stage at midnight, in the middle of a field. And we’ve done it in Sheffield, where we worked with a visual artist who had these illustrations that were projected on to the wall.

Linda Lee Welch and Michael Harding (aka The Only Michael)

Linda Lee Welch and Michael Harding (aka The Only Michael)

Can you tell us more about how these collaborative projects come about? Do they usually start with the written piece, the music or the idea?

Flossie Paper Doll was the first long collaboration we did. I’d written it originally as one poem and it won a prize in the Jersey Eisteddfod. Then it turned out to be a thirteen-poem series, and I got up to poem five, and I got stuck. I can’t remember whether it was Michael’s idea or mine, to collaborate on it – for him to add music to it… He started getting some sounds – there’s this thing about a creaking pier – so he found a creaking pier sound online – with the waves coming over, and it was like somebody had pulled a plug, and these ideas came flooding out of me…

That was so exciting because I was completely empowered by that collaborative act. We’d done little things in the past, but I didn’t realise how much I would be inspired by the process, by everything that Michael came up with.

What are you working on, now that you’ve retired from teaching?

I retired on 1st September, and for the whole of September we had something on for the Festival of the Mind. The University holds this bazaar, which is like a speed-dating thing, where academics set themselves up and say what they’re doing, and then you go along as an artist and you kind of chat-up the academics to see if there’s something you could do together…

We came across Dr. Fuschia Sirois (a psychologist) and her big thing is procrastination and what you see in relationship with your future self… Michael suggested we could do poetry and music to this. We invited another poet (Rob Hindle) to join us, and that was an amazing process. We wrote the poems together. I would send something to him and he’d send his to me, and we came up with this fifteen-minute piece, and then Michael put the music to it. We called it Voices Along the Road

And then we did Kalulu and the Queen of Cows in October for ‘Off the Shelf’ (Sheffield’s Literature Festival), and we had a big build up to that… And then we had a Russian friend of mine came and stayed with us for a week and ran a masterclass on the MA…

It’s been a busy retirement so far then?

Yes, but I want to get into a regular writing routine. There’s a play that I wrote last year, which I’m working on. I’m also working on a full-length poetry collection right now, and a children’s story, and sending my latest novel, We Were the Lucky Ones, to American agents – no luck so far.

You can find out more about Linda Lee’s work, read some of her poems and hear extracts from her collaborations on her website.