How did you become a writer?
For the first ten years of my working life I worked in organisations that ran writing workshops and residential weeks for writers of all kinds. Having studied literature at uni, I was still of the mindset that to be a writer you had to be dead! Working with living creative writers disabused me of this (thankfully) and encouraged me to start putting pen to paper myself. I can't find the actual quote but John Ashbery said that writing his own poems was his way of responding to other people's. That makes sense to me - if you read, you eventually write.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
John Ashbery, definitely, for the freedom he gives me. Frank O'Hara for the dazzle and surprise (and the speed and the grace). Marianne Moore for attention to detail and the radicalism of accuracy. Louis Simpson just because (you have to read his poem "Ed" if you haven't). OK, OK, living ones: the essayist Adam Phillips whose sentences have an aliveness I long for in my own writing; the poets Jean Sprackland (for the complexity of the everyday), Shazea Quraishi (for the sexiness of the everyday) and Anne Carson (for the classicism of the everyday); and I'm late to the Murakami party but I love how weird he makes you realise everything is.
When and where do you write?
I work as a writer in a design agency in London Fields (in London's east end), so I'm working all day and every day on the craft. For myself, I write when I can but increasingly it's while I'm walking - or at least that's where I start to write something. A phrase that rolls around my tongue or something I overhear will distract me and I'II write it down on my phone's Notes app. If it's got legs, I know I'II come back to it later - at which point, I'm generally quite quick with it. Mornings are best for me - clarity of mind etc.
What are you working on now?
I'm at concocting stage at the moment so it's a bit blurry. And there are so many ideas! I need to consolidate them I think. For my day job, I'm working on a book about chillies which is fascinating. I've become addicted to eating them as a result! The remarkable thing about them is the range of flavour as well as heat. I added one chopped up to my cheese sandwich today. Chillies just elevate ordinary experience. Sorry, I realise this isn't the answer to your question - classic writerly avoidance!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I haven't and this is why: plumbers don't get plumber's block, so why should writers get writer's block? In other words, why do we think we're so special? Or to extend the analogy, when the plumber has a problem, she just does something else (uses another tool, calls a friend etc.) So whenever I have a writing problem (and I have many!) I just do something else. Get up. Do a dance. Make a bolognese. Whatever works.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
You already know how to do this.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Go for a walk.
Philip Cowell is the author of This Is Me, Full Stop (Particular Books) and Keeping a Journal (Sheldon Press). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, BBC Culture and The Philosophy Shop (Independent Thinking Press) and one of his poems was bombed out of a helicopter over London as part of Casagrande's Rain of Poems.