Unscripted: An Interview with Alumna Claire Handscombe
You’ve got so many cool things going on that it’s hard to choose a starting point. Let’s talk about BritLit first, your new podcast highlighting British literature. What inspired you to create a podcast?
I have been listening to podcasts for years, and I love them. As I was starting to write seriously, they taught me a lot about the craft and life I’d chosen. They also fuel my excitement about new books coming out and point me to authors I should look out for. One of the podcasts I’ve listened to the longest and the most faithfully is Book Riot – “a weekly show about what’s new, cool, and worth talking about in the world of books and reading.” They go deep into the weeds of the publishing industry and also talk about upcoming and new books. I write for Book Riot now, too, so I get a lot of advance review copies and access to the American publishing world more generally, which is wonderful. But I also realized at the end of 2016 that I knew nothing about what people were reading back home. So I got my act together and started the Brit Lit Blog, a daily roundup of news and views from British books and publishing. The podcast grew out of that.
Last fall, we invited Lauren Ober of The Big Listen to visit for the AU Visiting Writers series. I know a lot of our current students are interested in the process of creating a podcast. What has surprised you about the process of podcasting? What did you find easiest and what did you find most difficult?
I had the idea at the end of 2016, but didn’t get round to it till October 2017, in part because I was terrified of the technical aspects of it. Then I joined a Facebook group for women podcasters, and it occurred to me to ask if I could pay anyone to help me set up the podcast and edit the episodes. And of course I could – there’s a whole industry of people out there who do just that. I pulled my socks up and went for it.
I don’t know if this is a surprise, exactly, but it has been lovely to get to chat to authors I admire and get to amplify their work. Having people buy books on my recommendation is one of my greatest joys, and the podcast is another channel for that.
The process of editing a podcast seems quite time-consuming. How much time do you devote to the podcast each week?
Hours! Thankfully, I made the decision to have the podcast only be fortnightly (that’s British for every second week). I try and keep all podcast-related work to the weeks an episode is coming out, otherwise it would have a tendency to bleed into all of my days. But each episode, I would say, probably takes about ten hours – between setting up and preparing for the interviews, marking the transcript so my editor can cut and paste the conversations accordingly, writing the shownotes, and promoting the podcast.
What advice do you have for aspiring podcasters?
Podcasting will take over your life – especially at the beginning – and it probably won’t make you rich, so make sure it’s something you’re interested in for its own sake, and that the topic of your podcast is something you are excited about and will be excited about for a while. It’s also great if your show can have an angle that hasn’t been done, or done much – “just another pair of friends talking about books” can work (and does – one of my favourites, The Bookstore, is just that), but it’s better if you can have something that differentiates you. As far as I know, my podcast is the only one that highlights new books coming out in the UK each fortnight, for example.
Outsource what you need to and what you can so that it works for you – whether that’s editing, social media, anything else that you don’t have time or the skills for. And definitely join Facebook groups where ideas and wisdom are exchanged.
Now, let’s get to the really thrilling news: your debut novel, Unscripted, was picked up by Unbound this year. Unbound is different from traditional US publishers in that it asks readers to pre-order the novel. What was the submission process like? At what stage in the book’s journey to publishing does the fundraising part begin?
Unbound’s crowdfunding model is unusual in the UK too, but it’s been established there long enough to become well regarded in the industry, not least thanks to some of its books selling well and ending up on longlists and shortlists for various prizes.
I submitted my novel in October, and heard in January that they wanted to pick it up. A week later, the project was live. When we reach 100% funding, which I’m hoping will be by March, the developmental edit will kick in, followed by cover design, closer edits, and other aspects of the publishing process. Turnaround tends to be much quicker than that of traditional publishing – a book can in theory be out six months after hitting its crowdfunding target. It would be amazing if the book could be out this year.
Unscripted is about a woman, Libby, who writes a novel about the actor she’s in love with, Thom Cassidy. There is a metafictional element to this work: it’s a novel about a novel. Did you play with metafiction as a theme in this work? What other themes did you explore? Is this a love story, or is there a darker subtext to the relationship between Libby and Thom?
Without giving too much away, it is a love story of sorts, but it’s also the story of several friendships, and an exploration of how far you can take a dream before it starts to implode. There’s definitely a way in which the relationship between Libby and Thom could have taken a dark turn, but that wasn’t the novel I wanted to write – at least not this time. Metafiction is also something I’ve explored more explicitly in another novel I’ve written. These themes are an endless source of inspiration for me and I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself returning to them again and again.
What was the drafting process like? How long did it take? What were the biggest craft challenges in writing the novel, and what was your revision strategy?
I did the bulk of the work during the summers of my MFA, writing the first draft in the summer after my first year and then adding to it after my second year. (I’m the kind of writer who needs to add to my first drafts rather than trim them.) I edited it in fits and starts, and especially during my final semester, with help from my advisors and feedback from workshops and elsewhere.
Unscripted is a multiple point of view novel, and one of the challenges suggested by my thesis advisors, David Keplinger and Heather McDonald, was to differentiate the ways the characters thought and framed life. I ended up giving one of my characters mild synesthesia, while another thinks and moves like the ballerina she grew up training to be – I even took ballet lessons for a while, to get into her mindset, and then for its own sake, too.
Who were your favorite mentors and influences at AU?
It’s mean to make me choose! All of my professors taught me something and I really valued each of them for different reasons. Stephanie Grant and Danielle Evans taught me for fiction, Richard McCann for creative nonfiction, Rachel Louise Snyder for literary journalism, and David Keplinger for poetry translation and then, because he was so encouraging and his passion for poetry was infectious, I ended up trying my hand at a poetry workshop. He was my thesis adviser along with Heather Johnson, and they both gave thoughtful, helpful feedback. I loved my literature classes with Roberta Rubinstein – another professor with infectious love for her subject, and I also took an elective in political speechwriting with Bob Lehrman, which was an amazing privilege.
Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, ostensibly to study for her MFA at AU, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. Her writing has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Book Riot, Bustle, Catapult, Washington Life, the Washingtonian, and The Washington Post. She is the author of Unscripted, the host of the Brit Lit Podcast and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives, and was recently longlisted for the Bath Novel Award.
Image: Author website.
Yohanca Delgado is a editor-in-chief at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.