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Why Mystery Matters

Neil Nixon is an author, journalist and academic. His published works include titles on the paranormal, popular music, football and two novels published under the name of Stanley Manly. In 1999, he founded the United Kingdom's first full-time higher education course in Professional Writing. He's also written scripts for television and radio, including his radio play Mr. Lennon, which was nominated for a Sony Radio Academy Award for Best Single Drama.

E K Knight spoke to Neil about his writing career and latest book.

Photo of Neil Nixon
Neil Nixon

Neil’s Wikipedia page and website tell a story of a career as an academic but there are some other things in there, like the fact he worked for the glove puppet Sooty and has written about some of the strangest music ever made.

How, we wondered, does all of the above fit into one logical career?

Neil’s first response is to suggest it clearly fitted into his career, so it must have made some kind of sense. “Given that this is an interview ahead of a literary festival,” he said, “maybe it’s worth telling a story I used to tell my Professional Writing students for years. I was in a pub before a football match once [Neil has followed Carlisle United all his life and written more books about them than any other subject].

“Things were fairly light-hearted and one of my fellow travellers told me my working life of ‘talking to groups of people and going into a room alone to try and think up new ideas’ was his idea of Hell. I said to him that he didn’t get it. I’ve spent my whole life suffering from ideas and all I’ve ever done work-wise is to get myself into situations where that problem is useful. We had a good laugh, decided I’d be useless at his job of driving a train and went to watch a pretty dull game. It was only heading back from that match that it occurred to me that that’s probably the best way of explaining what I’ve done and what I still do. The academic thing was great but never quite random or strange enough to satisfy the darker corners of my imagination, and given that whole thing of not being able to turn off the ideas, I found out fairly quickly that I was often most useful in the places a few other writers struggled. Sooty, for example, doesn’t speak, so that’s a challenge. So too is trying to make sense of the paranormal and then explain things that are almost beyond explanation.”

If Neil is known locally for one thing, it’s the 20 years spent running a university course in Professional Writing. Based in Dartford, it drew students from Medway.

“To me, that was a case of a local college punching way beyond its weight,” he says. “Nobody had run a higher education course in Professional Writing in the UK before. We were the only one operating in the 20th century. It’s still relatively rare but there are quite a few doing something similar now.”

So, can you actually teach Professional Writing? Aren’t writers self-made, and expressing very individual talents?

“Yes, absolutely,” he agrees.

So, why teach the subject?

“What you can teach,” he says, “are professional skills, including developing some self-knowledge, understanding who might employ you and why they might bother and – more than anything – just developing that discipline and self-belief. I’m not disrespecting the talent and originality that makes the best writing what it is, but there’s a whole army of PR people and their relations presenting this as if it’s the result of some exceptional talent when a lot of what makes the difference is hard work and an understanding of how to get the job done. No publisher will attempt to sell a new novelist on the basis that he or she is hard working and got their deal on the back of understanding an agent’s website and sending just the right cover letter and sample work, but that’s probably how they got the agent who got the deal for the novel.”

Neil’s talk at Medway River Lit covers his new book, Why Mystery Matters, which argues the value for anyone of engaging with subjects beyond their understanding. It follows on from a recent book on UFOs and draws on his paranormal research, though he’s keen that people understand there’s more to it than that.

“It’s very much about mystery in general, and also the way that spending too much time in internet silos and being fed information from an algorithm might be bad for us all.”

An intense read, then?

“Not all of it,” he says. “There’s some genuinely surreal stuff in there. I discuss a paradoxical mental health condition where sufferers think they don’t exist and also consider the chances that anyone passing over to the other side after death might find the first being to greet them is Elvis!”

Is that a serious possibility?

“There’s a report that comes from research done by a doctor who specialises in that area of investigation, so it’s not completely frivolous, though I think there might be more mundane explanations than Elvis having replaced Saint Peter. In the end it’s a genuine mystery – and a really good story I enjoy telling.”

The cover of 'Why Mystery Matters'
The cover of 'Why Mystery Matters'

You will be able to hear Neil Nixon talking about his latest book, Why Mystery Matters, at Medway River Lit in June.


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