American-born writer and teacher Anna Dempsey recently completed an MA in Children’s Literature and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths.
In January this year Anna won the Costa Short Story Award for The Dedicated Dancers of The Greater Oaks Retirement Community – her first piece of short fiction. We asked her how her Goldsmiths MA tutors inspired and shaped her writing, what she plans to do next, and her words of wisdom for writing creatively.
Sarah Cox: You were working as a teacher in New York City. Why did you decide to move to London and study at Goldsmiths?
Anna Dempsey: For four years I taught elementary school in New York City at a high-performing charter school. It was an incredibly rewarding yet incredibly difficult job. I have such love and respect for the teaching profession and believe educators deserve more praise (and money).
One of my favourite parts of teaching was reading aloud to my students. There was something magical about that time of day, but I found that many of the stories lacked interesting female leads or diverse characters. So, I started making up my own stories with the help of my students. We would create our own characters and use problems happening in our classroom in the stories. Doing this with my class brought me back to writing.
Since I was already looking to make a career change it seemed like an exciting jump to try out writing. I was terrified to make this career shift but after seeing that Goldsmiths had a program for Creative Writing and Children’s Literature I decided to go for it.
SC: What was the Goldsmiths MA experience like? How do you think it shaped your writing?
AD: Ardu Vakil’s writing workshop course was my first time writing creatively in a formal setting. Those evening classes felt more like therapy to me, and I think the rest of the writers would agree. I will always remember him telling us that food is not used often enough in writing and we must change that. He also introduced me to ZZ Packer, who is now my favourite short story writer and a huge inspiration in my writing.
Sara Grant taught me the importance of voice and gave me the courage to put my personality in my writing. My biggest champion at Goldsmiths is Dr Vicky Macleroy who listened to me when I raised concerns about the required reading for the course because it lacked female voices as well as voices from diverse communities. She allowed me to be my loud, opinionated self, which was rare to find. She shared her own perspectives and allowed me borrow an incredible amount of books from her office, some of which I still need to return...
SC: Dedicated Dancers is set in a Florida retirement community. Do you have any thoughts on why it might have appealed to the judges and public voters?
AD: This piece was largely inspired by my own life. My parents live in a retirement community in Florida and I do in fact go to jazzercise classes with my mom and the other residents. Last month we tried a water aerobics class that was very difficult, the 80-year-old woman next to me was a total champ though. The ladies aren’t quite as vivacious as my characters but I imagine these women do have deep, fulfilling relationships with each other.
If I had to guess why the judges and public enjoyed it I’d say it’s because my main character Piper is relatable and brutally honest. She’s flawed, strange but is trying her best. I also think there is something about the elderly that draws people in. They’re so rarely written about in funny, bold ways and this piece brings some joy to aging.
Four days after I won the Costa, my dad passed away suddenly. If he had to say why people liked the story, he’d probably say because it was funny and made people smile. I’m glad he saw me achieve something so incredible before he passed. He and my Mom helped move me from New York City to London and believed in me, even when I'd question my own career shift. It’s amazing what you can achieve when someone thinks your ideas are worth writing down. My Dad was the best.
SC: While in London you’ve been teaching creative writing. What do you think are the best (or worst!) ways to encourage creativity in young people?
AD: I work for Chelsea Young Writers teaching a variety of courses from simple writing basics to fully developed stories with particular themes. I’m no longer a full-time teacher but I’ve still found a way to teach, which brings me a massive amount of joy. Kids write the most bizarrely beautiful things and remind me to be confident and strange in my own writing.
The best advice I can give to my students is to read loads of books from all different kinds of genres and show your readers what your character is doing, saying, feeling, rather than simply telling. Write what you like and your passion will come out in your stories. There’s an audience for everything, whether you want to write about aliens who only eat birthday cake or unicorns that wish they were mermaids. Just go for it. My advice for adults would be to write every day and join a writing group that will give you deadlines and keep you honest.
SC: What are you doing now and next?
AD: I’m currently applying to several different PhD programs for creative writing while writing a Young Adult novel. It’s set in Florida near the Everglades. I’ve done some pretty fun research for it so far which has involved airboats rides in the Everglades and some very large alligators. My main character is younger than Piper, but I think they’d get along.