An interview with Angela Topping by GCE examiner Mary Jay


Our October post is all about ‘voice’ and how to create voices in literature.

To add some cheer and vibrancy to October we have an interview with a published poet and soon-to-be writer of children’s fiction -Angela Topping.

About Angela:

Angela is the author of 3 poetry collections. She has edited 2 anthologies and her work has appeared in numerous books, including anthologies of poetry for children.

She has produced a number of critical texts and student study-guides. Her latest- a study guide on ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is due to be published later this year by Greenwich Exchange. She also writes short fiction and hopes to publish her first novel for children. Angela has been teaching English since 1989. Writing and teaching are her main passions, aside from her love of music and nature.

Q. How do you create ‘voice’ in your poetry?

A. I use a range of voices when I write. For example, when I write for children, I often speak as a child, which is not too challenging as I’m very in touch with my inner child. I think people can make mistakes when writing in a child’s voice, as they tend to dumb things down, but children can think in quite complex ways. Children enjoy form and rhyme and rhythm, so I very often use these. In a poem called ‘Teachers These Days’ I mimic the things teachers say about pupils, but reverse it, so you get:

Teachers these days

They just don’t try.

And another thing –

they’ve got no imagination.

Creating voices for others is a lot to do with listening to how they speak, or imagining life from their viewpoint. In fiction, it’s important to make your dialogue reveal the person’s character, so I make lexical choices which reflect that and leave subtle clues, so, as an example, in my story called ‘Like Rats’, I have an aggressive father who is taking his sons home on the train, as part of his custody entitlement:

‘When we get to grandma’s, I’ll tell you what we’ll do with those torches. We’ll go out in the dark, down to the shippon. Then we’ll switch them off and we might see some rats.

Then what will Daddy do? Get a big stick and KILL them, yeah!’

I think of them hearing the stick thump, seeing bones smash through fur.

I’ve used some dialect words eg ‘shippon’ to create a sense of where he is from. The self-referencing ‘Daddy’ belies his behaviour, which is not protective. I’ve used graphology to indicate the emphases. He is an unpleasant man who is showing off. This story was based on a real encounter.

Q. Do you write mainly from your own experience or do you do actual research?

A. It depends. I write a lot from my own experience. It is a way of working out things from the past, or embalming a special memory, or understanding the past. But sometimes there is a need to check facts or where research can spark off a creative response. For example, I was fascinated by the wrong leaves growing on trees after the Chernobyl disaster; my research on the sinking of the Titanic when I was creating a poets-in-schools workshop led to a poem about the sinking; then recently I was writing something on The Angel of the North and had to find out certain facts to include. That sort of research is great fun and you can find unexpected things.

Looking at photos and works of art can easily spark off writing.

Q. Do you have advice for young writers?

A. Yes, write. The more you practise the better you will be. And READ! Readers make good writers. Read the best, and try out different ways of tackling something; for example, if you are not sure of your narrative voice, try different ones until it feels right. Write the opening paragraph as the omniscient author and then re-write in the voice of different characters. You will know which is the right one. Trust your instincts. Read what you write out loud. Try it out on people and listen to what they say, then decide whether to address it, but don’t be precious; be prepared to discard but also fight for your words if you’re convinced they are the right ones. Don’t try to use fancy words – the best words are sometimes the simplest. Don’t show off or overwrite so that your work is clogged up with dense imagery. Learn to use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. If you look carefully at good description, you will NOT find tons of adjectives.

I believe everyone should write, even if you don’t show your work around. It’s fun, it’s cheap and it’s a good way to know yourself and to entertain yourself.

And don’t be afraid to steal techniques from better writers. You’re not stealing their ideas, just their method. That’s where genres come from.

Q. Which writers have influenced you?

A. Everything I have ever read and experienced influences me but, specifically, I would say: Carol Ann Duffy, who has a similar background to mine and is the same age. Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney are important as they are working-class in origin (something I am proud of), Shakespeare, of course, as his influence is massive on all of us, Miroslav Holub, who is a marvellously clear writer, as is Bert Brecht, and both of them have a clear political standpoint, Catullus, for getting straight to the point, Raymond Carver, because everything is squeezed between the lines, Victoria Wood with her ability to be affectionately humorous and catch people’s speaking voices, and, lastly, all the unknown people, probably women, who are responsible for fairy stories and ballads.

And to finish with-a poem from Angela


The love of angels is pure and lofty.

You dine on clouds, eat with silver spoons

and in ice palaces, honeymoon.

You fly in a flutter of white wigs,

roost in trees for fun and frighten poets.

The kiss of an angel is like drinking champagne.

When you enter a room, lights blaze

to a fanfare of trumpets and caviare.

The love of devils is all beating hearts, drums

and the thrum of insane lust.

He touches you, leaving a burnt paw-print,

a love bite. He brings you gifts of brimstone

for your bath, his halo made of steam.

His eyes burn with desire when he makes you

Java Lava coffee, offers Turkish Delight.

He cannot marry you. None of this is real.

[Source The Way We Came: bluechrome publishing 2007]


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