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The art of finding your voice

We know our arts alumni go on to do wonderful things after they leave us, and we love that everyone’s story is a little different. Arts advocate, Sunday Times columnist, mum, self-confessed cake scoffer, women’s fiction writer and ex Tellytubbyland resident alumna Pernille Hughes (BA Film and Literature, 1994) has had a rollercoaster of a journey since she graduated from Warwick. Here she tells us how she found her writing voice, and why your arts degree will always be a good talking point.

Why Film and Literature, and why Warwick?
Originally, I was looking at Media Studies or Communications courses, as they were the ‘new thing’ then. I stumbled across the Film & Literature course at Warwick, and it just made me so excited! Watching films and reading books for three years... what’s not to like?! And Warwick was, I think, the only university that offered such a course at the time. I visited and immediately loved the feel of the campus.

How do you remember your time as a student?
I loved it. A hundred percent. I lived at Bericote Hall on Westwood, which wasn’t one of my requested accommodations, but I met brilliant people, one of whom I still call a best friend. She and I signed up as union stewards together, which led to an enormous social circle.

What’s your fondest memory?
Stewarding the front reception door at a ‘Monday Night Disco’ in October of my second year (30 years ago this year), stamping hands as people came in, and being joined by the Front Stage stewards to control the crowds. I hit it off with one of them and ending up marrying him.

Tell me about life after Warwick
I took a Master's in mass communication elsewhere, then went into advertising on the account handling side, then into marketing for a natural history film company. After that I landed a PA job at Ragdoll Productions, which meant spending a summer in Teletubbyland. I then switched to their International Rights department, travelling to Cannes twice a year for the programme markets (which features in my new book, Ten Years). Then, I had four babies within five years, and I became a full-time mum.

“Pick the degree that really interests you. Your university years will be all the more enjoyable and richer for it.”

What inspired you to write?
Babies are lovely, but their conversational skills are rubbish. When I was at home with them, I could feel my brain shrinking. When my twins were six months old, I signed up for a correspondence course for Writing for Children. Coming from children’s TV, I thought that was where my writing voice lay. I did have two novelty books optioned, but due to the 2008 recession the publisher changed direction and they got dropped. (I kept the option money though, hurrah!) I then tried picture books, Middle Grade books, Young Adult books, as much as a hobby as learning my craft, until I sold a short story to The Sunday Times and then a further 35 stories, followed by coming runner-up in a Women’s Fiction short story competition, gaining me a space in an anthology. It was my first published story and that’s when I really found my niche.

Are there any obstacles you had to overcome?
Timewise, it was just writing in a disjointed fashion, as I was writing around the kids. Their starting school helped. Practically, at that point in time, you had to get an agent to get your manuscripts to publishers, but I got one and subsequently landed a two-book deal at HarperCollins. At school I’d been told to give up on a writing career – I’d wanted to be a journalist through my teens – so I had a big personal obstacle to jump over in terms of believing I could write books and recognising that I’m the one who gets to tell me what I am capable of. This funnily enough turned out to be the theme of my debut book, Punch-Drunk Love.

What would you say to someone considering an arts degree?
I tell everyone to pick the degree that really interests them, not for the job it might get them. If that interest lies in the arts, follow it absolutely. Your university years will be all the more enjoyable and richer for it. We need the arts, we really do, to think in different ways, to have new ideas which will absolutely support and enhance other subject areas. I knew my degree wouldn’t be a direct path to a job, but in every job interview I’ve ever had, my degree has always come up as a point of interest.

What’s next for you?
More books, hopefully! My kids are leaving home for university themselves, so having done some foundation work, I need to ramp things up. I’m just finishing off the release promo for Ten Years, so now I need to get my head down and write something new.