Giles Foden: A career inspired by Africa

With the right tools and stimuli, anyone who shows promise as a writer can produce good work

Sat in the late afternoon sun on the terrace of Pushkin Cafe, enjoying a crisp Estonian beer with Giles Foden, acclaimed writer, journalist and author of The Last King of Scotland, among other titles. Giles is here in Tallinn to teach a short course in creative writing at the Tallinn Summer School based at Tallinn University. He’s dressed as one might expect a seasoned writer to be, loosely fit casual jacket and trousers, open shirt with a lone pencil perched awkwardly in the breast pocket; his hands ink stained. He strikes me as a man who treats his writing as a trade, rather than a profession, and it takes no time at all for him to admit it’s all he really knows.

Educated at Malvern College, one of the UK’s finest schools, followed by Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, he’s certainly had a good education. Although, he insists that the most important elements for a writer should be self-regulation, travel and as many writers echo, reading. Having started with the intention of speaking about his take on the writing game in 2015, it very quickly descended into me quenching my thirst for information about how to be a better and more successful writer. When someone like me, who writes for a living, suddenly finds himself in the presence of a famous writer, it’s very difficult not to fish for nuggets of wisdom. Giles was all too happy to oblige.

Despite the impressive portfolio, he explained how being a writer today is in no way easier than when he first started, and that the insecurities us newer writers feel never really go away. He teaches the most revered MA in Creative Writing in the UK, at the University of East Anglia, from which a higher percentage of students go on to write professionally than any other UK masters course, but it’s when I quiz him about the secret formula for being a writer that he explains there is no formula per se, and that all writers approach things differently.

His main aim when teaching creative writing is to give writers the tools with which to inspire themselves and each other, to give them blueprints for their creativity. He believes that with the right tools and stimuli, anyone who shows promise as a writer can produce good work, and was already praising his latest group of talented hopefuls. He explains how one’s personal experiences shape your writing style, the content of your work and the very heart and soul of a novel. Having lived in Malawi and other parts of Africa as a youngster, he has no qualms in admitting that without these experiences, ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and subsequent novels would probably not have been written.

Giles has a refreshing and down-to-earth demeanour, he is relaxed and happy to chat about a topic that I’m sure he is all too often discussing. There’s a resilience about him, a deep determination that has more than likely carried him through his life in writing; more importantly, there’s optimism. When I asked (albeit a little cynically) whether he thought a writing career is feasible in this day and age, he answered by simply listing all the opportunities he saw for young writers, struggling writers and those bringing a challenging career to a new country, like myself. Whilst I awkwardly tried to steer the interview away from the career counselling session it was fast becoming, he admirably admitted that as a journalist himself, he remembers countless times in which he has seized the opportunity to learn more from his interviewee: the astute subject had rumbled me.

His new book ‘Turbulence’ is available from Amazon — Turbulence — Giles Foden

Words: Daniel Coll, Pictures: From file

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