Interview with James Canton –
Short Fiction/University of Essex International Wild Writing Prize 2021 judge
James Canton is a writer and lecturer who has written widely in creative non-fiction forms and taught on the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex since its inception in 2009, exploring the fascinating ties between the literature and landscape of East Anglia. His first book From Cairo to Baghdad (2011) explored the writings of British Travellers to Arabia from 1882 to 2003. Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape (2013) is inspired by rural wanderings in the county. Ancient Wonderings: Journeys into Prehistoric Britain was published by William Collins in 2017 and tells some remarkable tales of life in ancient Britain. His latest book The Oak Papers is published with Canongate in July 2020.
We’re delighted that, as Director of Wild Writing in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies (LiFTS) at the University of Essex, you’ll be a judge for our Wild Writing Prize. Could you say a little bit about your work at LiFTS? How did Wild Writing come to be a specific area of expertise at Essex?
Well, it really is great to be involved in this Wild Writing Prize! It really is very exciting. The MA in Wild Writing was born in 2009 at the University of Essex, and I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the course since the beginning. My background is in literature, specifically travel writing, and after moving from London to the Essex countryside, I spent more and more time engaged in the wilder spaces of the county, exploring pathways and green lanes, literary connections and the folklore of the countryside. The MA in Wild Writing is very much about literature, landscape and the environment – about how we as humans interact with the spaces where we live – so was very much a fit for my own research interests. There are also vital contemporary themes which the MA in Wild Writing and various other courses in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies are engaged with: concern with the climate emergency and recognizing we live in the Anthropocene, seeing the ways in which human existence on the world has challenged and threatened other species.
My most recent book, The Oak Papers, is concerned with exploring the relationship between oaks and humans around the world and back through history, seeing the social and cultural links. Some of my research involved sitting beside an eight-hundred-year old oak tree for many hours and in many weathers, merely observing the life of the tree and the complexity of the ecosystems that lived around the oak. It was glorious. There’s something remarkably calming about spending time in the company of trees.
It feels as if Wild Writing is increasingly attracting readers, but also that it’s mainly non-fiction that’s getting the prizes, headlines and sales (!) explicitly because of a Wild Writing angle. I’m thinking of The Salt Path, Diary of a Young Naturalist, H is for Hawk… Do you see the same trajectory for *fiction*? Or could there be something about Wild Writing that introduces a tension against the invented, against the human-shaped demands of traditional narrative – such as the ways in which characters experience conflicts and their resolutions?
It’s certainly wonderful to see how writing on nature and connections with the natural world has expanded in recent years – both in the breadth of subject matter and in readership. You’re right that there’s been a non-fiction angle largely in this explosion so far, though much is memoir centred and often rather experimental in form, too, which is exciting. I think if we look at a book like The Overstory by Richard Powers we are reminded how fiction is also emerging within wild writing. Powers’ book is a stunning piece of work and places trees at the centre of the book while building themes of climate activism and the latest in forest ecology research into the writing. The book’s a fine blue-print for fictional wild writing.
As a judge for the Short Fiction/University of Essex International Wild Writing Prize 2021, what will you be looking for? What kind of work is likely to stand out for you?
Work that offers an original and refreshing approach. They’re the key criteria. Obviously, there’s matters of style to consider and work needs to be well presented, but the sense of an imaginative voice is the one that I’m really excited to look for.
So, I very much look forward to seeing what wild writing fictions are being forged!