Author Russ Litten (American Studies and English, 1997) will be launching his third novel Kingdom at Kardomah 94 in Hull later this month. Kingdom “spins together magical realism and hard-boiled psychodrama into a heartbreaking urban fable of human awakening”. Find out more Wrecking Ball Press, and his first novel Scream If You Want To Go Faster is published by Random House.
We asked Russ whether his experiences at the University of Hull had influenced his writing.
I didn’t enter the world of Higher Education until I was twenty-four years old, and only then because I had exhausted all my other options. After leaving school I had joined a rock ‘n’ roll band and successfully evaded anything resembling a career path. After three singles, one album and several tours of the UK toilet circuit, my dreams of musical stardom evaporated and I went to University to undertake a degree in American Studies and English. It seemed like a good deal – lounge about and read books, pop onto the campus every now and then for a lecture, finish off the day with a few cut-price pints of ale in the bar. And you got a grant to pay for it all! No work for another three years! Wonderful!
Of course, the harsh truth of the matter meant that I actually had to write essays and read books and generally apply myself, but that was OK; I have never considered reading and writing as work. As Mark Twain sagely observed in Tom Sawyer, work is what a body is obliged to do – and nobody was forcing me to go to University. It also became quickly apparent that the grant itself wasn’t quite enough to live off, so it was back to the building sites on weekends and half-term holidays. In this fashion, I managed to keep myself in paperbacks and Rizla for the duration of the degree.
Two things happened at University that shaped my future life as a writer. The first thing was a short story I wrote called “Burning The Candle” about two men working in an abandoned factory over a long weekend. I had been writing since the age of seven, but had rarely, if ever, showed my stuff to anybody else. The American Studies course afforded me this opportunity. I submitted my tale as part of the Short Story module and received a distinction and the comments from the tutor:
“I really think you have something. Your work reminds me of Alan Sillitoe. Have you ever considered submitting your work for publication? I really think you should.”
I hadn’t, and what’s more I didn’t even know who Alan Sillitoe was, but I was delighted nonetheless. Apart from getting a story about an angel published in the Yorkshire Post as part of a school Christmas writing competition, this was the first time I had received any form of praise or recognition for my literary efforts. Bolstered by the remarks of my tutor, I bashed out a few more short stories in between essays on Transcendentalism and the aesthetic appeal of TS Eliot.
The second thing that shaped my future writing life was the house I moved into during my first term. This was a shared terrace house in the Dukeries area of Hull, my co-tenants being another mature student who I’d met on the college ACCESS course, a friend who worked full-time and another pal who was on the dole. The first morning I moved in, I strode down the street at eight a.m., looking for the address, fresh off the ferry from a weekend mission in Amsterdam. I encountered a middle-aged man staggering down the middle of the road, drunk. Having located the address, I found my new housemates hunched over a table full of black coffee. There were two TVs, one stacked on top of the other, one of them a blizzard of static, the other tuned into morning TV with the sound turned down. The Clash’s Sandinista was playing at full volume. Nobody had been to sleep for the past three days.
Looking back, I can safely say that the times I spent at this address were the most carefree and colourful of my existence to date. It was the mid-nineties and the country was still in the fag end of the acid house/rave/Britpop euphoria. Our house and its inhabitants had taken to the spirit of the times with unrestrained gusto. The initial nucleus of four quickly swelled to five, six, seven, eight and more, a floating cast of clubbers, artists, outsiders and students who drifted in and out of the landscape. It was not uncommon to come home from a hard day at the building site or the lecture hall to find the front room packed with unknown punters, all chattering ten to the dozen in a fog of smoke, John Coltrane on the stereo, the two TVs playing silently in the corner. Despite the chaos, there was a lot of love in that house and when I came to write my third novel years later, I found myself thinking back to the University days and the house down the Dukeries. The times I shared there became the basis for the house down the fictional Buckingham Street in Kingdom. Although none of the people in the book are based directly on former inhabitants, the spirit of community and friendship became an important part of what Kingdom is about. So Hull University gave me two things – encouragement to write, and something to write about.
Oh, yes, and a degree. But nobody has ever asked me about that.
Russ Litten, (BA American Studies and English, 1997)