Toby Litt is a writer. His résumé is extensive – novels to songwriting, opera collaborations and poetry collections … And creating a comic book character, Crystal Palace, who will feature in the live-action series Dead Boy Detectives on HBO Max. Toby’s story ‘The Retreat’ won the 2020 University of Essex Short Fiction Prize. His latest novel, Patience, was published by Galley Beggar Press in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Toby is also a Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University. His latest work is A Writer’s Diary, sharing a page every day from a year in his life via Substack. (Substack, in case, like myself, you’d never heard of it, is a web platform pushing an alternative to literary boundaries of the last century; its aim is to “allow writers and creators to run their own media empire.”) I’ve read an entry a day of A Writer’s Diary, (Strapline: ‘A year in my life and my life in a year – birth, death and commas.’) since its launch January 1st this year, and each entry has captivated me for different reasons. Each page is so unique in its tone, content, purpose, yet each one retains the familiarity of being in the company of a bloody good writer. His style challenges the reader to think deeply into the everyday and reflect on our emotions. It’s personal for the reader, addictive and impressive.
Hi Toby. Thank you for being here for me to find out more behind A Writer’s Diary.
What’s your synopsis of this work? The inspiration behind this diary?
Thanks for being interested. When I finished Patience, I felt I’d done something unexpected – for myself. I’d written something I didn’t think I was capable of writing. This partly came out of the voice of the narrator, Elliott, who is very free in his word-choices and associations, and partly out of Elliott’s situation, which is that he is paralysed. He lives in a Catholic home for children whose parents – for one reason or another – can’t care for them. He sits all day in his wheelchair. The Sisters either put him facing a window down into a courtyard or facing a white wall. He can only see what’s in front of him. But he finds it fascinating. He sees everything in what might seem like nothing. In a way, A Writer’s Diary is me trying to continue that generous way of looking at the world – Elliott’s way – and what is in front of me, most of the time, is this desk I’m at right now and these pens, pots, notebooks, this hardboard work surface, these conditions. It may seem like very little, but I find it opens into greatly curious things.
It seems budding authors will have to embrace learning how to publish online, using platforms like Substack. Tell me about your experience of web publishing, your thoughts on writers building and running their own “media empire”?
My experience on Substack, so far, has been very positive. Most published writers experience a delay of a year or two between finishing a piece of prose and sharing it with non-professional readers. Usually, by the time a novel came out, I was far more into the next novel. I had to fake myself, the writer who wrote the previous book, in order to speak about it. With online publishing, there’s no time-lag, and less of that kind of fakery. I’m talking to you about what I’m writing.
As for the “media empire” thing – I’ve been very aware, since leaving a big publisher, that lots of those jobs (marketing, publicity) were done for me by really good people with great contacts. I’m not them. But even big publishers now expect their writers to self-promote, to have marketing ideas. You see debut novelists creeping onto Twitter six months in advance of their launch date, because they’ve just been told what the total marketing budget is (isn’t). I think it’s better to try to feel at home in those online spaces, and see what’s sustaining in them, rather than to try to pimp off them or add them to any imagined empire. Neil Gaiman may have an empire, I have something more like a shed.
The diary form is personal, exposing. Many writers can fall away from plot into the splurge confessional. What are your tips here to confess in a controlled engaging manner?
This question really is a great chance for me to make an arse of myself, isn’t it? I’d say that, like lots of forms of writing, a diary becomes interesting when you’re not writing something for the first time. You can keep a note of the events of each day, and that can be wonderful to look back on. But the best short stories I’ve written have, I think, been attempts to get a story right that I’ve previously failed at. If you’re splurging a confession, then it’s a first go at a new story. But if you’re looking back at failed confessions, and picking out your own dishonesties, that’s when it’s a rewriting, and I think that’s when it can become more than this happened and then this happened.
All the diary entries already exist, but you’ve, to use your words, written, rewritten, moved around, and plotted. The entries vary from a single word to a page… I sense each entry gets edited by your mood each day. Are you editing the entries again daily? Can you tell me more about your process here?
It’s one of the excitements and weirdnesses of this form – a new publication every afternoon. I’m still nervous about each one. Right now, I’m nervous about today’s. Most entries get a few small changes, but one or two have been completely rewritten. That’s come out of me feeling something was lacking in what was in there already, rather than me importing something from real life. I’ve got a developing sense of real-time pacing. A page-turn is twenty-four hours, not just half a second. A single word entry can have far a greater moment. It’s not just clocked and then flicked away from. I think, in future, I’ll be cutting more.
What are hopes for A Writer’s Diary upon its completion?
I’m very glad to say that Galley Beggar Press are going to publish it on January 1st 2023. When it’s out, I’d like people to read it as an attempt to do something new in writing – although I know books like The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero exist, and behind them Virginia Woolf’s diary. Part of that new thing I’m trying can only happen this year, before the entries become static, and can no longer be anticipated as taking place tomorrow or in two week’s time.
Lastly, is anything else you would like to give to the MIR readers and budding writers?
Along with Liz Jensen, Chloe Aridjis, Monique Roffey and others, I’m one of the organizers of Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion. We’re committed to bringing up the Climate and Ecological Emergency whenever we have a public platform (such as this one). That awareness is the basis of all we do, write, contribute. I’d like to give MIR readers a chance to get involved with Writers Rebel. You can contact us at email@example.com. We’re looking for volunteers, blogs for the website, but mostly for people to join the protests that will be happening in September 2022. We – all of us – have to give ourselves a liveable future.
Thank you so much for your time, Toby.
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Alice has lived and worked with an invisible disability for 20 years. Her writing draws on this experience alongside humour. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She loves horses, dogs, lols and libations. And she hopes you enjoy reading her work!