Reif Larsen (1980), is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, dramatized by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and I am Radar. He is also this year’s Writer in Residence at the University in St Andrews, which is why Owl Eyes met up with him to talk about the role of an author, and the reality of writing as a profession. You may have seen him this semester from events at the Byre Theatre, if not, be inspired by the interview below to pursue your creative creations.
You published your first novel in 2009, did you always know you wanted to be an author?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be an author, but I had been writing from a very early age. But both my parents were artists and they said “Don’t become an artist, there is no money in the arts, there is no one who thinks of you. It is a very difficult job”.
I think it was very influential for me to grow up in a creative household where messiness of the studio was always present. So I was comfortable with that type of creativeness, and creation was valued in my house growing up. In school I always did a lot of writing, it was very natural for me to make up stories. It took me a while however to trust that it could be a real job, or profession, so I graduated from university with a degree in education so I taught a little bit. Finally, I decided to try it out. I knew I had to tell stories, so I went back to school and took a masters in creative writing. I wrote The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, as my thesis for my masters. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just having fun.
What is the role of creative artists in an academic environment?
I thought about that a lot since I am a writer in residence here. What does it mean? What is the value of having a working writer at a university? Do we put them in a sort of like a cage and throw bananas at them, or what is the relationship between academic inquiry and creative inquiry? And I firmly believe that any academic environment, needs practicing artists there. Academics can get lost in their own ways of looking. There are whirlpools of disciplines. And they need to be around the messiness of studios. They need to see the artistic process; the line from A to Z is not necessarily straight. Vice versa, I think it is good for artists to be around academics.
When I was in Dundee today, at the design school, it was a breath of fresh air. Those people were making art. A whole building devoted to art building, and I thought ‘this is really important’ and I can feel that gap in St Andrews. You need students with ink on their hands and paint in their underwear. That dirtiness needs to be there. It is really important.
How will you bring that as a writer in residence?
I want to bring contemporary artists, musicians painters here, who are doing weird stuff. My fear for students this day is that they try to be too professional, and too organized. So I want to bring artists in here and expose students to writers, who are deep in the trenches essentially with making art and writing. And then have them show, that they don’t know what the hell they are doing! Don’t think you have all the answers. The answer is not the interesting part. The interesting part is the process getting there.
Also, this is a great place to work, and a great place to make art. Because it is slightly removed, and because of the quality of light. I live in Pittenweem. The light is so great when you are walking on the path. I find it so great that as a writer you spend the whole morning writing, and then you take a long walk in the afternoon trying to figure out what you were trying to do. What better place? The walks here are incredible! I think if you bring writers and artists up here, they will love it.
Can you say something about your work, and the lesson you learned from getting published?
I was shocked when anyone was interested in it, and the lesson from it was that; whatever your project is, take it to the fullest extent. Particularly if it is weird. See your vision through, because publishers, or anyone else is interested in the singularity of a vision. They want to see something if it is new, if it is fresh or if it is original. They want to see that. So never think, ‘I shouldn’t do that because it is out of the ordinary’. Do it! But do it fully!
There were a number of publishers who wanted to see Spivet, and I had the privilege to meet with editors and hear what they wanted to do with it. And that was a crazy experience. I was just out of school, and I didn’t think anyone wanted to read my books. So when people told me they wanted to publish it, I was thinking ‘really?’. I still feel like that. As soon as you start expecting things to happen, you get disappointed. My motto was always to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised when things work out.
What advice would you give to student here with creative potential to spark their own careers?
Do what you need to do, to carve out the time, and be disciplined about it. When you’re working on something, but then think ‘should I go out and do this instead with my friends’, make the harder choice. But at the same time, don’t just see your work as happening when you write. If you’re an artist or a writer, you’re on the clock all the time. Anything you do is important to your role, so you have to train yourself to look and experience like an artist. Watch how people speak, watch how they move their hands. The world is your canvas if you know what I mean. And read weird books and find out what you’re good at, and ride that horse essentially. What do you do well, and how can you build your craft around it.
All images sourced from Pinterest.