Jamie Rhodes on his latest work, tips for new writers and why he is a WGGB member
“I first realised I wanted to become a writer when I was 11. I went to a fairly rough comprehensive in Bradford and hated music lessons. So I used to sit at the back of the class and read a book. The teacher let me do it as I think he was just happy with one less pupil being disruptive. One day he said to me, ‘Jamie, what happens when you’ve read all the books in the world?’ to which I replied, ‘I will write my own.’
I was lucky in that, even though it wasn’t a great school, I had good English teachers who nurtured and supported me. In fact, I have dedicated my first short story collection, Dead Men’s Teeth & Other Stories from Voices Past, to them: Ghislaine Anderton, Terry Binns and Joanna Cowie.
The idea for the collection came about after I started following the British Library’s Untold Lives blog, which features snippets from their vast archives.
I applied for Arts Council funding earlier this year, and was successful. This meant I could devote myself to intensive research and writing for six months. I applied for a British Library reader’s pass (which gives you access to their archives) and spent hours wading through old documents, some of them hundreds of years old.
One of the stories I came across was that of a ship’s surgeon, quarantined for three weeks aboard an indenture vessel stricken with cholera in the 19th century, outside Suriname. I did a degree in philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and in my writing like to explore broader facets of the human condition. So on the surface this is a dark and interesting tale of a man trapped on a ship. On another level it is about the lack of understanding we feel about why we are here, not sure if we are ever going to reach our destination, wherever that is.
I also find inspiration in observing people. One tip I would give emerging writers is get yourself a part-time job that is public-facing in some way. Working in a bar might not be glamorous, but it is a good way to support yourself financially in the early days, and there are lots of opportunities to watch people and notice their mannerisms.
Another tip would be to be open-minded about opportunities that come your way, even if they aren’t what you ultimately want to do. It will gain you experience, and also show agents/publishers that you are serious about your career. My first professional credit was as a screenwriter, on a public service information film. I have also written radio plays, taught screenwriting in schools, worked as a journalist, run career-strategy workshops for writers, and founded the Homeless Film Festival.
I’m passionate about ensuring that marginalised groups are able to benefit from creativity and the arts. Human beings have a unique capacity not only to create, but to appreciate art, and I think everyone should have access to that, whoever they are. It is part of enjoying and exploring the full spectrum of experiences available to us.
Every writer should join WGGB, whatever stage they are at in their career. It is the writers’ trade union. I joined as soon as I got my first professional credit in 2010, and have been active in the East Midlands and London regions. I’ve been on committees and helped organise events. It’s a great way of meeting other writers, and also the more you put in, the more you get back. And you definitely get taken more seriously by agents and publishers if you are a member.
The London & South East branch of WGGB was with me every step of the way on Dead Men’s Teeth & Other Stories from Voices Past, giving me a letter of support for my application for Arts Council funding, and setting me up with a mentor, writer Caz Moran. She has been fantastic and a huge benefit to my professional development. This really helped me make the leap from writing in script form to writing short stories. It was a big jump but by the end of six months I was producing an average of 8,000 words per week.
WGGB has also helped me promote my short story collection, alongside the British Library, which is keen to show how its archives are far from stuffy. For me, they were a mine of endless fascinating stories, and a seed for my creativity.”
Find out more
Dead Men’s Teeth’s & Other Stories from Voices Past is published by Mardibooks. The collection is published in collaboration with the British Library and is funded as part of an Arts Council programme to support emerging writers.
What people are saying about the book
“Jamie Rhodes has mined and minted gold from the British Library Archives. Inspired by sources as various as a ship’s surgeon’s log, verbatim interviews, diaries or even advertisements for false teeth, Rhodes gives us glimpses into unexpected places, the forgotten corners of history, in stories told with the authentic weirdness of truth; touching, quirky and humane.”
Olivia Hetreed, President of WGGB
“We are delighted that our Untold Lives blog inspired this set of short stories created from the ‘small but beautiful details of real lives’ in the British Library Archive Collections.”
Margaret Makepeace, British Library Curator, India Office Records