Brick Lane author Monica Ali on North Downs Way walks, tips for new writers and the University of Surrey

Monica Ali, writer-in-residence at the University of Surrey

Monica Ali, writer-in-residence at the University of Surrey - Credit: Archant

Bestselling author of Brick Lane, Monica Ali, has returned to the University of Surrey as its distinguished writer in residence for the second year. Here she talks to Rebecca Younger about why she loves the job, walking the North Downs Way and learning to ignore what’s in vogue

University of Surrey campus in Guildford

University of Surrey campus in Guildford - Credit: Archant

You’re now in your second year as distinguished writer in residence at the University of Surrey. Was it a role you ever expected you would take on?

“It’s not something that I planned or expected! Sometimes in life opportunities just present themselves, and this was one of those occasions.”


How did the role come about?

“I first came into contact with the University of Surrey through my work with English PEN, the writers’ organisation. PEN works to promote and defend freedom of expression, and is part of a global literary network. In 2012, I was trustee, and was invited by the student branch at the university to come and give a talk. Three years later, the head of the School of English and Languages got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in this newly-created role.

I’d actually just turned down an invitation for a similar role at the National University of Singapore, rather reluctantly as I’d have loved to have done it in many ways but I didn’t feel it was the right time to be apart from my family. So although I hadn’t been looking for something else, it felt like a moment of serendipity

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Surrey is thriving as an academic institution, establishing itself in recent years as a top 10 university in the league table rankings. On top of that, the creative writing department is a very dynamic. I think the Surrey New Writers’ Festival, which they organise each May, is evidence of that.”


How has the experience been so far?

“Well, I’m back for a second year so I guess that speaks for itself. It’s always good to break out of your ordinary work routine, I think. Especially for writers, because we spend so much time at our desks.”


So what’s in store this year that is different from last?

“I teach a series of masterclasses entitled Aspects of Craft, delving into the fundamentals of how to create characters, or how to plot a novel. This year we’ll have the time to drill down into more aspects, including dialogue, and how to revise or edit manuscripts. I also have one-to-one tutorials with students, based on their own creative work.”


What aspects of working with students at the university do you enjoy the most?

“Teaching offers the chance to share what you know - what you have learned over the years - with others. Actually, it affords the opportunity to find out for yourself what it is that you know. When I write I don’t think about process or technique. It’s only when I’m forced to stand back and examine it that I start to analyse how I really do the ‘day job’.”


Since you have been in position, have you had time to explore the county of Surrey at all and if so, where are your favourite places?

As a keen walker I love the North Downs Way. I’m sure there’s still plenty more to explore though, and I look forward to doing that now that spring is in the air.


What are your main pieces of advice for aspiring writers?

“Firstly, read. Secondly, read. And thirdly, read. It always amazes me when aspiring writers, as happens all too often, confess that they don’t find the time to read. That’s the main apprenticeship. You have to read with a critical eye too – always evaluating how the writing is creating (or failing to create) the world on the page.”


Who did you look up to as you were starting out on your writing career and who do you look up to now?

“Some of the writers to whom I return time and again include Tolstoy, Flaubert, Austen, Dickens. Also Graham Greene, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, RK Narayan and VS Naipaul.”


What one thing do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out as a writer?

“On a book tour, particularly overseas, you will lose the will to ever write a book again. Maybe even lose the will to live. Do not worry. This is entirely normal and it will pass as soon as you get your feet under the desk again.”


What is the main thing you hope to pass on to students from your own experiences?

“Pay no attention to what’s in vogue, what you think has ‘bestseller potential’ or any such nonsense. Write the book that you want to read. Inhabit your characters, walk a mile in their shoes, see the world through their eyes. Finish each writing day at a point where you’re eager to find out what happens next, the lure to begin again the next day should be irresistible.”


Having the success you did with Brick Lane must have been wonderful but it must also have had its challenges. Was it a tough act to follow?

“When people come up and say ‘I read your book’ I know which one they’re talking about, nine times out of ten. There was a time, probably after my third novel, that I wished I couldn’t be so certain. Now I’m fine with it, having belatedly come to realize that most writers spend a lifetime waiting for the kind of success that came to me somewhat instantly. I’m grateful for the success and I’m grateful that the book reached so many readers.”


What are you working on now? Do you have plans to write more novels?

“I’m working on a number of television drama projects, and beginning to think that none of them will ever see the light of day! I do love doing new things, and have been relishing the chance to work more collaboratively. But it’s meant that progress on the current novel has been slow. I do hope to finish it before the end of the decade!”


University of Surrey: celebrating 50 years

This academic year, the University of Surrey celebrates 50 years in Guildford and 125 years of heritage. To commemorate, a special birthday party will be held on Saturday, May 13. The Festival of Wonder will celebrate all things wonderful that have and continue to happen at the university. The local community, and the university’s 100,000 alumni worldwide, are invited to attend for a free day of fun, celebration, imagination and discovery. The full-day event will be jam-packed with a full programme of activities including music, comedy and dance performances, talks with special celebrity guests, the chance to train with the pros at the university multi-million pound sports centre, hands-on workshops, and exhibits showcasing the science and technology of the future. Plus there will be local food stalls, a kids zone and a vet zone. For more information visit


The Wonder Talks

As part of the Festival of Wonder, there will be a host of talks recognising ‘moments of wonder’ created at the University of Surrey over the past 50 years. From world-changing innovations and inventions, to the development of inspiring programmes to support the growth of society, the Wonder Talks will bring to life some of these exciting discoveries and inventions. At 2pm on Saturday, May 13, Monica Ali will be hosting a Wonder Talk entitled: Custodians of Memory: How to write your family memoir, which will include fascinating tips on how you can capture the amazing stories and social history of your family and ensure they live on for generations to come.


Taste of Surrey

Surrey Life is delighted to be partnering with the University of Surrey to manage the Taste of Surrey food zone at the Festival of Wonder. The area will showcase the best food and drink suppliers in the county including some of our previous Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards winners so please come and say “hello”.