The Story and Stories of Working Class Writers

In November 2017 I cried at the radio. I was listening to Where Are All the Working Class Writers? The show had been put together by Kit de Waal. It featured writers and editors who came from working class backgrounds telling their stories of how they broke into the industry. They talked about libraries as refuges and publishing institutions as gated palaces they didn’t feel they belonged inside. I cried because this was my writing story too, the risks, the highs and the barriers.

So I contacted Kit and asked what needed to be done to get Working Class voices heard. She said people like me should join together to form a collective. Right then! So I floated the idea on Twitter and writers started to show their support. And that’s how it happened – a movement to get Working Class stories heard.

We’re just at the beginning and I’ll be sharing news as we go along. But I thought we could start with a place to hear the stories of how working class writers got their stories out into the wild world: from their first school story to final draft. Who championed these stories and how barriers were overcome? These tales of breaking in are so important as they show it can be done and how, they also reveal where the pitfalls are that our collective needs to address.

I’m Carmen Marcus, a writer from Saltburn by the Sea on the wild North Yorkshire coast. I’m the daughter of a Yorkshire fisherman and an Irish chef. I write performance poetry and have been commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall, BBC Radio and Durham Book Festival. I also write literary fiction and my debut novel HOW SAINTS DIE was published with Harvill Secker in July 2017. It is the story of ten-year-old Ellie Fleck and how she copes with her mother’s mental illness through the power of stories.

If you’d like to know more about the Working Class Writers’ Collective or add your story to this blog please email me at carmenellen@hotmail.co.uk.


Two Places and No Places by Nicolas Obregon

When my mum was 18 she went on a student exchange. Spain was still living under Franco’s shadow and its newfound democracy hung in the balance but my mum had simply made friends with a Spanish girl the summer before, my aunt. Now, a year later, she was waiting for her at the airport. But that was the day of the car crash. My aunt survived but it fell to my father to pick my mum up.

Over the course of that summer she fell in love with him, with Madrid itself: its little bars in belle époque neighbourhoods, its ancient, fragrant bakeries, my father’s weird cast of friends, pausing just long enough from trying to pull women at protests to chuck bricks at the police. Then my mum got pregnant. As she wasn’t married, her parents essentially disowned her.

The first house I can remember was the emergency unit in Swiss Cottage. We lived with an Irish woman who’d had a baby with an abusive Egyptian. I still remember the sound of him, standing outside late at night, screaming. I grew up between Madrid and London, back and forth, new start after new start.

Growing up between two cultures and languages gives you so very much.

But being from two places also means you’re from no places.

When my parents finally couldn’t make it work, my mum took me to live in a council flat in Camden. We survived on John Major’s child benefits, eating rice, tinned tuna, tinned veg. My mum cried a lot. It was all I knew, but looking back I can see how hard it must have been for her: young, alone, raising a kid on just a few quid a week.

As I got older, being poor felt like something I had to hide, an embarrassment I didn’t want to inflict on others.

But our council flat was full of gold. Namely, love and books.

As a shy, quiet kid, I’d retreat into the world my mum cultivated for me: sorcerers, pharaohs, hardboiled detectives. Life in Kiln Place soon taught you why the man down the way turned the TV volume all the way up. Why his wife would be wearing sunglasses the next day, even in winter. Why the older brother downstairs, kicked out by his parents, would mug his younger brother for lunch money. My book world felt like a nicer place to be sometimes.

Course, it wasn’t all bad. The Bengali family next door always shared chapatis and smiles.

In the summer, the local pub would play Boy George and Kate Bush on the jukebox, the music mixing in with the rattle of the Silverlink Train above.

And nearby Hampstead Heath was always a green dreamworld to get lost in, especially with a book. I would sit alone in the Hollow Tree, planning Choose Your Own Adventure books. By Year 7, I was writing short stories about detectives: in space, in the future, in video games.

I loved writing, always had, but it was never something I considered viable after school.

Dropping out of uni, I ended up at a temp agency. Skills? the man asked. Writing, I replied. He shrugged. Somehow, I ended up as an intern at a travel magazine. A few months later there was an opening and I was soon being sent abroad to produce destination reports. That meant I was being sent to the south of France and Venice and being paid to write about it! The job itself wasn’t quite the same as the 007 image it conjures but

seeing my own words in print felt like winning the lottery.

For the first time I realised that being published was as much situational as it was a birthright.

I moved into legal publishing, working my way up to become deputy editor. Editing other people’s work really sharpened my own writing skills, helped me to learn economy of language. On my 30th birthday, I went to Japan. While travelling on a bullet train, I had an idea for a story. I started writing and, for the first time, didn’t give up. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. Like doors bursting open, I finally felt ready. I looked up agents and told myself that if none replied, I’d suck it up and quit my dream. Least I’d know I’d had a go. Incredibly, one of the agents took me on and it led to book deals across the UK, US, EU, and beyond.

Now I live in Los Angeles and write full-time. I also mentor in youth incarceration trying to champion writing and creative pursuits as a career path.

I haven’t reached the end of my rainbow and being a full-time author isn’t always a picnic but it’s certainly changed my life and most days I have to pinch myself. There are no absolute truths but I do know this:

nobody will knock on your door and ask you if you want to write.

Nobody is going to give you permission. People will try and discourage you from writing, tell you it won’t lead anywhere, remind you it’s a one in a million. Or, even worse, they will encourage you, even though deep down, you feel they don’t really believe you’ve got a chance in hell. But I want to remind working class writers something: you’ve probably had to be defiant in your life at some point to get where you are today.

Well stay defiant! Bollocks to the doubt.

Doubt is natural but also don’t be afraid of optimism. Feed that hope every day. Listen to advice you get from trusted people but ignore what you need to ignore. Always be yourself, even if you’re not sure you should be. Remember, there isn’t one set path. Above all, never give up. Ever.

If a shit-scared Spanish kid with a cockney accent from Kiln Place can get his name on bookshelves, anyone with a few ideas and some elbow grease can. Write!

Bio: Nicolás is a Londoner, a Madrileño, and an internationally-published author. His first novel, Blue Light Yokohama, was released around the world in 2017 through Penguin Random House, Minotaur/Macmillan, Calmann-Lévy, and Goldmann, among others. The sequel, Sins as Scarlet, will be released in late July 2018 and was declared by New York Times bestselling heavyweight, Jeffery Deaver, as ‘a masterpiece’. He lives in Los Angeles, supports Arsenal (for his sins), and hates writing about himself in the third person.

The Story’s Story – Publicity

The most important stories to tell are the ones that aren’t told enough.

An Interview with Louise Court

Carmen Marcus

A book needs publicity, it needs an introduction to its readers and this is an art and craft in its own right beyond the skill of writing. That said, many writers have to plan and implement their own publicity or if they are lucky enough to have a publicist they have to tell the story of their book in a way that’s quite alien to the writing process. To a new writer like me, with no knowledge of publishing processes, the purpose and practice of publicity was an intimidating mystery. I was very fortunate to be guided through this process by Louise Court, my publicist. So I’ve asked her all of the questions I wish I’d had the courage to ask her during our first meeting to demystify what publicity really is and how it works. I hope this will help you be ready to work effectively with your publicist and / or be more confident and tooled-up to tell the story of your story.

This time last year it was still hard to believe my book was going to be real. I’d just drawn breath after submitting the final amendments and then suddenly I needed to start thinking about my book in a totally new way – as a product – I knew it was coming but I was still caught off guard. When do writers need to start thinking about publicity?

I see this a lot, and it’s not surprising – lots of writers are so absorbed by the process of getting their book shipshape and ready to print that they haven’t had time to get their head around what happens next… and it’s really important that they do. There was a report in 2014 that revealed that

the UK publishes more books per capita than any other country by a huge margin (20 new titles an hour!).

Just think about that. Out of all those many, many books and authors, what will it take to make sure that it’s your book that readers pick up next? In a nutshell, it’s my job and the job of my colleagues in sales and marketing to work closely with authors and come up with a strategy that will get your book into the hands of readers.

The earlier you start thinking about this process, the better.

As a debut author I knew nothing about how my book would meet the world. Can you explain your process when you first receive a book to promote?

This can begin as early as when a book comes in on submission. The manuscripts are circulated not just to editors, but to publicists, marketeers and salespeople, too. It’s so important to have feedback from every department right from the off, to make sure that whatever book we buy, we are all agreed that we know how to sell it to the book trade and to readers. Even at this very early stage we might start thinking of some very top line ideas – for example, I’d be looking to see if the narrative is strong enough for Radio 4 to consider it for a radio reading. If it’s a novel, is it based on personal experience? If so, is it unusual enough that we could pitch some first person written pieces? How would I pitch this book to the literary editor of the Sunday Times to make sure they considered it for a review – what are the different and interesting things about it that will make them sit up and take notice? Where is the author based, and are they an engaging/experienced public speaker? Would they be comfortable and eloquent if we put them on the BBC Breakfast sofa, would they get bums on seats at Edinburgh or Hay literary festivals? Would they be available and keen to do the grassroots stuff of visiting local bookshops and chatting to booksellers? Etcetera.

There are so many things for us to consider, and every author and book is different.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to book publicity, we need to make sure each campaign is tailored to suit the material and the author to a tee.

From then on we’re led by press deadlines. Trade press, radio readings and long lead magazines (glossy monthlies) tend to work furthest out, although in some cases we may have had material out in the world up to a year before publication date to try to whip up buzz. And it’s important to know that, although we plan meticulously, a campaign is a very fluid thing – we have to adapt all the time according to news cycles, to media response, to author availability.

During our first discussion we talked about finding angles within the story. What are you looking for when searching for angles to promote a book?

To be a good publicist, you need to think like a journalist. So what I’m looking for are the same things that journalists are looking for – something timely that speaks to the current news cycle or moves the conversation on (if the media has one obsession, it’s being first!); something that’s relevant to that publication’s specific audience (a Good Housekeeping reader is very different from a Wired reader); something unusual that will stand out; and finally, but very importantly, I’m looking for a good story.

The pitch needs to read like a mini-story – it needs to have a beginning, a middle, an end.

The good news is that, if you’re a writer, the chances are you already know what a good story is and how to write one. Congratulations! You just need to match the right story to the right journalist, and that’s where your publicist comes in.

As a newbie I was stunned by the amount of people who were working to make my book and introduce it to the world. I wanted to help you any way I could but didn’t know how. You guided me through that process so gently. What are your expectations of a writer you are working with, what can they do to help you?

Be as open and honest as possible. It’s so helpful to me to know from the outset what an author is willing to do, and what they’re not comfortable with.

Trust your publicist’s judgement. In a lot of cases, we have been working with certain journalists or outlets for years, and have a sixth sense about what they will and won’t go for.

And – importantly – whatever it is, will it actually sell the book, or is time better spent elsewhere?

I really value when authors are able to get ideas or pieces to me quickly – journalists are often on deadline, or a last-minute opportunity presents itself, and being able to get material to them speedily can make the different between securing a good piece of coverage and missing out.

It’s good to keep in mind that there are always a lot of things going on behind the scenes to help your book on its way that you might not ever see. From proofs being sent to print to coffees with journalists or literary festival organisers, there are a thousand little things happening all the time which contribute to a book’s success. Don’t assume that just because you haven’t heard from your publicist in a few days that they aren’t working on your book. It would be impossible (and very boring, most likely!) for us to keep you informed of everything that we’re doing all the time, especially as we don’t want to get your hopes up if it doesn’t work out.

And always remember, we are all working towards the same end – to get your book into as many hands as possible! It should always feel like a collaborative process. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s OK to ask your publicist why, and do honestly ask yourself if there is more you think you could do.

When I saw the distribution list for proof copies of HOW SAINTS DIE it was huge: national and local press, authors and reviewers. How do you decide who to send proof copies to? How do you package the work to increase the chances of it getting picked up?

We send copies far and wide to anyone we think may be likely to cover the book in some way. There are certain people we send everything to because their remit is so wide and they cover books constantly (people like Alison Finch at BBC Radio 4). Then we start thinking about more specialist press like gardening, history, sport, animals, etc. If an author lives in the UK then that gives us opportunity to target regional press depending on where they live, or where the book is set.

In terms of packaging, this really depends from book to book. Sometimes you’ll see really over-the-top proof packages, with special jiffy bags or knick-knacks that are relevant to the story to try to make sure that package stands out and to invite readers into that specific world. For example, I have been working on a book set in North Korea, so we sent a Korean snack that is mentioned in the book along with the proofs. Increasingly, sharing on social media is becoming really important, so sending an eye-catching package that makes people want to tweet it can help to create an early buzz around a book, but it’s not always the right strategy. Sometimes we like to let the book speak for itself.

As a debut author from the wild and windy North my literary contacts were quite limited and this inevitably meant I struggled. Contacts are important to get reviews and this is a big barrier for writers who are unfamiliar with the industry and its conventions. For writers outside of the London networks, what can they do to build the contacts that might lead to reviews?

I know that publishing can seem like an exclusive club and quite a daunting thing to try to break into. Firstly, I would say it’s your publicist’s job to have good contacts. We speak to literary media every single day, and our job is to advocate on behalf of you and your book. Just because you live outside of London or don’t know anyone in the ‘Publishing Bubble’, it doesn’t mean that you book won’t get into the hands of the people that matter.

Saying that, there are a few things that I would advise first-time writers do, regardless of where they live, in order to feel more connected to the literary world:

· Join a local writer’s group – they can be a really valuable resource for you and via other people’s experiences you can get insight into the industry
· Joining the Society of Authors can also be a useful introduction to other writers and to how the industry works
· Get active online – start a Twitter profile, find agents, editors, publicists and marketeers and follow them. Then have a look at who they’re following, and start following those people too. Even if you’re not feeling comfortable putting yourself out there and talking to people, simply listening to those conversations will tell you a huge amount about the industry
· Sign up to receive daily newsletters from the key trade news sites like The Bookseller and BookBrunch

Consume as much media as you can get your hands on. Go to the websites of national papers and look at their Culture/Arts/Literary sections. Familiarise yourself with that they’re covering, who they’re interviewing.

Start listening to arts programmes on the radio, like Open Book, Front Row, Free Thinking. This will give you a really great window into the current state of the industry, and will also prepare you a bit for what to expect should your book get reviewed or an interview is confirmed.
· Attend local arts events if you can. The ones that receive funding often offer certain events for free (I believe the York Festival of Ideas programme is entirely free). This is a great way to find out what a book event actually is, and also meet people face to face.

What’s an endorsement? How important are they? How do writers go about getting them?

Endorsements are when other authors or well-known people in the public eye give a quote for your book. Think of them as mini, early reviews. Where possible, editors will try to secure these well in advance of publication so that, if an endorsement does come through, we have time to incorporate this into the jacket design when we go to print.

A good endorsement can be a really powerful way of getting a book noticed. If I am talking to a literary editor and trying to convince them to review a book, then being able to tell them that, say, JK Rowling or Ian Rankin or Toni Morrison is already a big fan is really persuasive, especially if it’s for a new name.

Getting books out there as early as possible helps, but there is no way to guarantee an endorsement. Bear in mind that authors like JK Rowling are sent hundreds of books by hopeful editors and agents and they can only read so many! Some well-known authors refuse to blurb for books at all.

There are so many respected book bloggers out there doing wonderful things to help books meet the right readers. What is the etiquette when approaching these reviewers to read your book?

Publicists love bloggers! In a world where books and arts coverage in the national press is being squeezed more than ever, bloggers have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for exposure to authors, and particularly for new writers. I would say do some research and follow a few bloggers (and vloggers, and Instagrammers). Get yourself acquainted with their style and the kind of books they enjoy. If you think yours might be their cup of tea, send them a short, polite message introducing yourself and explain why you’re getting in touch. Be mindful that these wonderful, passionate people do what they do for free, often putting in the hours around full-time jobs – they are not duty-bound to review your book, and some may be so busy that they don’t have time to reply to you (even though they’d like to). But if you’ve done your research and matched your book well to the blogger, then they are more likely to want to see a review copy.

Publicists have great connections with bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers (sometimes called ‘online influencers’) and good publicists maintain and value these relationships in the same way that we would literary editors on national papers. It’s worth consulting with your publicist to check who they are reaching out to, just so you don’t double up.

I really enjoyed going to Ilkley and Durham Book Festival and meeting folk but I did have a minor panic about what I’d be expected to do. How important is face to face contact with your readers, is it essential to attend and / or organise events – schools, bookshops, libraries, festivals? What are writers expected to do when they get there?

If you are in a position to be able to, then I would always advise making as much face to face contact with readers as possible. If I were an author, I’d be so curious to find out what readers want and what they thought of my book! It can be a really rewarding and eye-opening part of the process for writers. After all, this is what it’s all been about, right?

There are lots of different forms this can take – from very informal bookshop visits, saying hello to booksellers and giving them a proof of your book, to talks in thousand-seater theatre venues. Events can involve an author simply giving a talk with or without slides, followed by a Q&A. Or they might prefer a chairperson to sit and ask them questions. Sometimes the event is themed, and will involve a panel of 3 or 4 authors. On the whole, events last one hour and are always followed by a book signing.

In terms of what to expect, I’d advise going into your local bookshop or library and asking whether they have any author events planned. If so, go along to a few and experience them for yourself. Literary festival are of course also great opportunities to see this done on a much larger scale.

If you don’t have access to local events, then you can sometimes find videos of live events online – I believe 5×15 and Intelligence Squared will always upload a video of their events.

We pitched a number of different articles that related to the core themes of HOW SAINTS DIE: mental illness, place, childhood and the writing craft. The Foyles article was very personal and revealed the childhood events that led to the book. I drafted many ideas from all different angles but struggled to anticipate what would appeal. For Writers, like me, without a journalistic background what do they need to know about pitching topic related articles?

I may have answered this in the question above on what I’m looking for in terms of angles. I’d only add that there are so many factors in play here, it can sometimes be hard to know what ideas will stick. Sometimes, really strong story ideas don’t work out for a variety of reasons – maybe that publication already has a piece on a similar topic already commissioned, or they covered it too recently. Maybe they like the idea but would prefer they get an in-house writer to do it instead (always galling…). Maybe the editor has decided to take the publication in a slightly different direction, and has decided that they won’t commission certain kinds of pieces anymore, even though they have done so many times in the past. It can be really frustrating for authors, and us publicists too, because more often than not you won’t get a clear answer on why something didn’t work out.

I think authors would be surprised to know how many emails journalists actually reply to – you can send 20 pitches and it’s not unusual to maybe get two responses back (and even then, those might be ‘thanks but no thanks’).

One of the most frustrating parts of my job is the fact that what you get out of a campaign is only reflective of, maybe, 20-30% of what you put in. To get one review, interview, feature or event confirmed means that there were countless others that didn’t work out. It’s the nature of the business as there is only so much space, but it can be disheartening at times. The only thing you can do is try, and listen to your publicist’s advice.

The Foyles article was deeply personal but I hesitated about talking too explicitly about my working-class background. Even though being a fisherman’s daughter is who I am and so intrinsic to the book there was shame in exposure. How do you counsel authors on what is important to tell about the story of the book and what to hold back? How important is it to tell the story of a book?

So important! There should be no shame in telling your story openly and honestly. In fact, I believe you should feel empowered by it – the most important stories to tell are the ones that aren’t told enough.

I truly believe that the tide is turning that that there is more interest than ever before in underrepresented stories, whether they are from working class, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ or disability backgrounds.

Although there is still a long way to go, there is a really serious push in publishing at the moment to commission books that give voice to minority groups. Authors must make sure that they are completely comfortable with what they are saying, but I would never counsel an author to hold anything back simply because what they have to say is something that hasn’t been heard much before. In fact, this is what will make your story stand out, and that is exactly what publicists are looking for! Your own, unique voice is what makes you and your story special, and we want to do everything we can to help it get heard by as many people as possible.

Since getting published I’ve tidied up my blog page, dedicated time to Twitter joining and building communities and worked hard to find ways to connect to people on social media. How strategic do writers need to be now about their own social media activity?

Social media can be a real life-line to authors who feel otherwise disconnected from the literary world. Twitter especially can be a really supportive environment for budding writers. I know authors who have formed real and lasting friendships over Twitter, who go there looking for advice, recommendations or maybe just a bit of a pep talk if they’re feeling a bit deflated.

As above, I’d join the platform if you’re not on there already, and just start following authors, agents, publishing people and key arts media.

A word of warning: please bear in mind that a social media account can be seen by anybody. Your Twitter account is your shop window. Of course, you should feel free to be yourself, but also be aware that you can’t control who is reading what you’re putting out there.

Also, remember that media can freely quote what is put in the public domain!

A huge thanks to Louise Court for taking the time to shed light on the fascinating process of publicity.

Louise Court is Acting Publicity Director at Vintage, where she has worked for five years, creating campaigns for authors including Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbo, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Toni Morrison and Judy Murray. In March 2018 she will start in a new role as Publicity Director at Sceptre. Louise started her publishing career as Publicity Assistant at Orion Books in 2010. Twitter @louisecc

Libraries Gave Us Power by Alan Devey

When the need to create becomes impossible to suppress a writer will do whatever it takes to satisfy the compulsion

To believe you could build some kind of career in the arts, growing up working class in England during the 80s and 90s, you may as well have aspired to become an astronaut or Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such careers weren’t so much unlikely, as not even possible to imagine. There were teenage kids around my neighbourhood who tried to form a band, one girl in class who could draw better than the rest of us, but without any examples of artistic success or the right kind of encouragement, this was generally where the dabbling ended, all creative pursuits abandoned amid looming financial prerogatives. When all your adult role models are van drivers, army lifers or work at the local Asda (my home town’s biggest employer), making any kind of living from the written word feels about as likely as discovering a cure for cancer.

But the urge to create was always there, and I was fortunate in many ways.

My parents encouraged my reading habit, my mother taking me to the town’s well-stocked library every Saturday where I soon became engrossed in the adventures of Asterix and Obelix and the fiction of Roald Dahl.

From a young age I escaped into invented worlds while my coming of age coincided with the tail end of student maintenance grants. My family situation back then meant I was eligible for the full amount which, back in the mid-90s, was around £2000 per annum; sufficient to cover my basic living expenses.

Being lucky enough to get the funding for an arts degree was key, not so much because of what I learned on it, but because this course gave me three years to work out what I wanted to do with my life. By undertaking part-time and holiday work, I managed to graduate without debt, something that’s drilled into people like us as vital.

The spectre of money owed prevents many working class youngsters from pursuing higher education these days, and without familial or state support debt can become a matter of crisis; of bailiffs and evictions.

I had the opportunity to understand writing fiction was something I could do, even if it took me a long time to become accomplished at it.

That’s what I’ve been engaged in over the last twenty years, funding my endeavours through temporary clerical work. I would write through my spare time or save up enough to immerse myself in a first draft for a few months. In terms of maximising my income, this was the worst choice I could have made, but when the need to create becomes impossible to suppress a writer will do whatever it takes to satisfy the compulsion. Nothing would make me miserable like having an idea I was unable to follow through, simply because I didn’t have the time.

But the legacy of our working class upbringing lingers for writers who put the work out there, who attempt to gain recognition. A lack of entitlement and social capital hurts us, the absence of connections dispirits and it’s impossible to get noticed when all an agent’s clients come by personal referral. This isn’t unique to publishing of course; rather it’s indicative of a general failing within the collective culture. Ordinary people will never harness the confidence that propels Eton-educated boys into positions of wealth and success, whether the privileged are qualified or not. Nowadays the working class are taught a sense of their own powerlessness early on. The world owes us nothing and, however hard we work, we’ll never bend the establishment to our will. I’ve been trying to interest the literary world in my work for two decades and I must be up to a thousand rejections by now, ever since I sent out samples from my first book, back in 1998.

But that’s the thing about the working classes, we’re stubborn. From day one we had to develop thick hides, to deal with the bullying and chaotic home lives and constant threats to our physical well-being, from others on our estate and elsewhere; those people who would rather our voices weren’t heard. One way to escape the endless cycle of write-submit-reject is to embrace print on demand and digital publishing so that’s what I did, putting out my debut and other works, most recently a collection of short stories inspired by the experiences of individuals around Austerity Britain called ‘Outside The Comfort Zone’, more details of which can be found on my blog.

Self-publishing gave me a readership, however small, and the kind of validation I was never going to receive from the literary industry, as an outsider looking in. I could sell the work to people directly, market it online, show my dear mother this wasn’t all talk; there was something behind the ten thousand hours I had put into developing my craft.

By the time she died in 2015, I think mum was at ease with who I was. She no longer wanted me to follow her advice, to get on the ground floor of a corporation then work my way up. I couldn’t suppress my creative self like that: I was a writer, and a writer writes, even when the gatekeepers of the industry aren’t willing to listen. The joy was in the creativity and the results would have to be enough. It took a while for me to save up and self-finance a Masters in Creative Writing at the London Met but, since completing this course in 2015, I’ve been up to a hundred submissions a year and I’ll continue to seek out rejection. These knock-backs don’t penetrate my carapace any more, I’m beyond that. Besides, I have other outlets for my work, places where it will be appreciated.

That’s my advice to writers from humble backgrounds: don’t stop working towards the goal, but try to understand there are levels of success apart from the conventional ones. Like the man says: when you feel like you can’t go on, keep going.

Castles vs Council Estates: Where do writers come from? By E.R. Murray

Finding a writing tribe, made up of people at the same level as me, as passionate and determined as I was, proved the ultimate breakthrough.

Writers were rich and lived in castles and could never, ever, come from anywhere like the council estate I grew up in. This was what I believed as a child. I was an avid bookworm in a house without books and I had never met an author. But I had dreamed of being a writer; from a young age I loved poetry and when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say a teacher or a poet. And then, my audience would laugh.

Looking back, why wouldn’t they? It was hilarious that a kid in Thatcher’s Britain, queuing up at the food bank for free slabs of butter and cheese wearing hand-me-downs, would dare to hope for such a thing. People were out of work and fighting to get by; they weren’t meant to dream or aspire. ‘Put up and shut up,’ was an everyday motto. But it was never a mindset I could comprehend.

There is always room for daring, even when others are trying to stamp it out of you.

I soon learned that if I wanted to break free from poverty, education was my way out. That became my sole focus. I wanted the freedom that an education could provide. I was the first in my family to get GCSEs, and then A-Levels. I continued to love books and poetry and to write. I even got a poem published but was too poor to buy the anthology and had to beg the college bursary for funds to get a copy. Writing wasn’t an option if I wanted to improve my life.

I went on to study Classics, working full time while studying full time, and then I became a teacher.

I talked to pupils about dreaming big and reaching for those dreams – I didn’t want them to be laughed at for their aspirations – but at the same time, I was ignoring my own.

As working life and financial worries took over – trying to pay back student loans while keeping on top of bills – I stopped writing altogether, but I never stopped reading. And oh the places those books could still transport me to.

Many years later, in my late twenties and onto my third career, I was made redundant. Suddenly I was in a reasonably stable financial situation with time on my hands to figure out what to do next. Unexpectedly, I began to write. Badly, and in secret, but it brought me joy that I hadn’t experienced for many, many years. I hadn’t felt that kind of freedom and satisfaction since penning murders, mysteries and modern myths as a kid. Plus, all the other life lessons – both good and bad – fed into my work and gave it grit and sparks.

But something else had happened that made writing more accessible: the internet.

I was living in Spain at this point and the internet becoming a normal, household entity opened up many opportunities that previously hadn’t existed. I could read about and listen to other writers, contact them with questions, devour journals from all over the world. I could interact with writing and writers in a way that had never been possible before. This led to setting up a blog and, as my writing improved, I began to send it out.

Over time, short fiction, haiku and poems were accepted. And I began to make friends with other aspiring writers.

Finding a writing tribe, made up of people at the same level as me, as passionate and determined as I was, proved the ultimate breakthrough.

When I returned to work, writing had become a habit and part of daily life, so this time, it didn’t slip away. Entering competitions and submitting to journals was met with increasing success, and writing gripped my heart stronger than ever. I thought about how much books had always meant to me, and on a whim, I tried the NanoWrimo challenge of writing a first draft of 50,000 words in 30 days.

It was difficult and tormenting and exhilarating and I was hooked.

But when work took me to Ireland, that’s when things really took off.

In Ireland, the writing world opened up to me completely. Firstly, when I opened my mouth, my accent did not position me as part of Thatcher’s ‘underclass’, so there were no preconceived ideas or a lack of expectation. I was now financially secure – in a job I hated –and there was a huge community of real, flesh and blood writers; the first I’d ever met. These writers were friendly and encouraging and not just dreaming – they were writing.

I remember the day I realised that I could be a writer. I was standing in Grafton Street, staring into the window of Dubray books as one of the staff changed the book display. And I thought, imagine that, having a book published.

And then it hit me – why imagine? Why stay in a job I hated when I could be using it to fund a (potential) future career as a writer? So that’s exactly what I did.

I attended workshops, launches, talks, readings, and I saved. I immersed myself in the writing world, writing draft after draft, while building up money in the bank to sustain me for a while if I was ever brave enough to take the leap and focus on the one thing I really wanted to do. I was in my early thirties and my dedication produced a book that was good enough to secure an agent.

So I finally leapt and the writing world swept me up. It all took off from there.

It was a calculated risk, and it paid off. I now have four books on the shelves and some awards and shortlists under my belt. I workshop with children, teens and adults and also teach online. I provide reader reports and travel to interesting places on residencies to write. But I still attend workshops too. I continue to listen and learn. And all the while, I work while I write. And I see this as a gift, because it means I am not reliant on my books for a living and there’s a certain freedom to that.

And guess what? Having a tougher upbringing prepared me for the pitfalls of the writing life and helped me stay strong. Life had taught me to:

• handle rejection

• manage on a small budget

• expect not to win first time

• multi-task efficiently

• keep going when things get tough

• trust in hard work.

They say there’s no such thing as an overnight success and I agree. Behind every writer there are many years of hard work and grind, learning and losing and picking up the pieces when rejected time and again.

The strength to choose to do what you love can only come from inside you, and no matter your circumstances, it’s up to you to find that strength and direct it towards what really matters in your heart and soul.

It took a long time for me to find a way to support myself to write, but I believe that if you want it badly enough, if you trust in yourself enough and work for it, you’ll make it happen.

Writers might live in castles and they might be rich. But writers can also come from council estates and cul-de-sacs, caravans and inner city high rises, and more than ever, I think we need to hear these voices – so why shouldn’t one of those voices be yours?


Elizabeth Rose Murray lives is from Southbank, Middlesbrough and now lives in West Cork, Ireland. She writes short fiction, essays and novels for children and young adults. The first book in her Nine Lives Trilogy, The Book of Learning, was the 2016 Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read for Children. The second, The Book of Shadows, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards and the Irish Children’s Literacy Association. The third, The Book of Revenge is published on Feb 14th 2018. Her young adult book Caramel Hearts was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. She has been published in multiple anthologies and journals in Europe and Australia, and recent short story publications include The Elysian: Creative Responses (New Binary Press) and Reading the Future (Arlen House).

A Bright Spark, Buried Deep by Lee Stuart Evans

Books and films and music, the clothes and trains and moody girls, slender threads which have somehow been pulled together to capture and captivate him.

‘What’s wi’ all the big words an’ talkin’ posh? Who d’yer think y’are, Shakespeare?’

‘Do you mean Bob Shakespeare, off Bentinck Terrace, or the chap who wrote Hamlet?’

‘Think you’re right clever, don’t you?’

‘One tries, you know.’

It is not with the benefit of hindsight that he realises how lucky he was not to have had his face punched in by one of the hardest nuts in town, three bleak school years older and a good foot taller than he was then, aged 13. He was a cheeky little sod, and he knew it. How could he not? If it were not the verbally-befuddled big lads telling him what he was, it was his teachers. Not all of them. At best he infuriated no more than say 80% of those whose organisational or disciplinary paths he repeatedly pissed upon, but as regards his future prospects, they were all 100% in agreement.

“He’ll never get anywhere, the way he carries on”He’s a fool to himself“He could do so well, if only he’d put his mind to it”,

chimed his school reports, topped with the not entirely disheartening summary of his academic abilities: Year Grade: A. Group Grade: A. Overall Effort: E. Yes, he would think, if only I would put my mind to it.

He was what in the pit villages of north Nottinghamshire they called “a clever lad”. One who hated school, hated being told what to do, and what he would, or more likely would not, one day become, and yet he loved learning. Not that he’d have recognised it as that at the time.

It was just reading, nothing more, his own private escape chute which lay hidden between the covers of a book or a magazine.

With quiet envy he’d followed the Famous Five through all 22 of their ‘super’ adventures, taken abridged dips into the children’s classics and joined the Beano Fan Club for the badge and a sense of belonging. Aged 11, there’s a brief flirtation with David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, and some more focused investigations into the lives of frogs and toads, which would result in the needless half dozen corpses discovered in the bread bin in the back yard. Normal lads, whose dads were still around, seemed to find refuge in football, but he could never see the attraction, beyond the fleeting charms of a sticker album.

No, the thing that did for him were the railways. A train-mad uncle, himself newly divorced, took to relieving his sister of the eldest of her three kids on Saturdays, whisking him off at the crack of dawn on cheap day returns to Liverpool, York and Crewe. The railways are full of history, the uncle would say, pointing out another marvel of Victorian engineering or the location of a World Speed Record. This is the engine from The Great Train Robbery, 1963. I’ll lend you a book about it. There were lots of books loaned, none of which ever needed to be returned. Gradually the net widens to include not only books about railways, but also glossy profiles of classic cars and aircraft, photography, the biographies of long-haired rock stars. The boy’s interest in music grows. The uncle can lend him some records too, if he’d like, The Eagles, The Stranglers. He gives him an electric guitar, a slim book of chords and a baffling set of tuning pipes.

Sometimes, at weekends or during the school holidays, his mum would let him stay up late and watch old films, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Alfie, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, A Kind of Loving, The Family Way, Billy Liar. Black & white, mostly. He likes the clothes, the cars, and the girls, the steam engines always whistling in the background.

He likes the bitter old ladies and daft young men, but best of all he likes the words, the angry, rebellious words.

This was a best-selling book in the Sixties, his mum had said, so the next day he borrows it from the school library and never takes it back. The author, according to the jacket, was a working-class lad from Nottingham, who’d left school aged 14 to work in a bicycle factory.

His uncle didn’t like The Smiths, a bit too wet for his tastes, he preferred Cream and Hendrix, but he appreciated the sound of a Rickenbacker, said it reminded him of The Byrds. That kooky looking girl from A Taste of Honey is on the cover of a new Smiths single sung by Sandie Shaw. These books and films and music, the clothes and trains and moody girls, slender threads which have somehow been pulled together to capture and captivate him, he feels are a sign that he might be onto something, on the right track, so to speak.

But is he still that cheeky little sod asking for a thick ear? Actually it appears he gets worse before he gets better, only this worrisome side of his personality he reserves almost exclusively for the classroom.

It’s not the trouble he relishes, resulting in detentions, lines, and canings, it’s the words, the language he’s trying out, the smart-arsed, silly voiced back-chatting childish insolence, of behaving like someone else, someone smart, someone clever, that’s what drives it.

Well, there’s no father at home, is there? No discipline. And then you’ve got all those daft buggers on the telly, Rik & Ade, Stephen & Hugh, Dawn & Jennifer, and Rowan, Pamela, Mel & Griff, all carrying on like deranged animals, such language and vulgarity, and properly educated too, most of them. Also, when you come to think about it, that uncle was no stranger to a Silly Walk or to answering his mother’s phone as Bluebottle or Inspector Clouseau, and him in his forties.

At this point in the story it would be nice to say the boy suddenly recognises he’s fallen madly in love with literature, with the power of words and the idea of writing himself a future inspired by the fictions of the films and the vinyl he devoured, the pages of Sillitoe, Waterhouse and Hines that kept him up far too late for his 5.20am start on his paper-round. Perhaps if he’d put his mind to it. But he never did, at least not at school. He jumped as soon as he could, aged 16, mildly ashamed of the handful of O-Levels and CSEs which in late-Eighties money bought you a place on a government Youth Training Scheme scheme, £27.50 a week, tax-free, working in the parts department of the local Ford cars dealership. After he’d paid his mum £10 board there wasn’t much left, enough for an LP a week, and a couple of pints and fish & chips on Saturday night. Or Sunday morning.

By now he was too cool to watch trains, and too colour-blind to ever be able to drive one. But he still saw his uncle, and he never stopped listening to music. Around that time, he read mostly about cars, guitars and rock stars, some alive, some dead, others who drifted somewhere between in a three-parts-pickled rock n roll limbo. Lloyd Cole was almost 24 when he had his first hit. Jim Morrison was dead at 27. The boy began to wonder if he’d ever be able to write a song, a whole song, three or four minutes long.

He liked the idea of writing something entirely of his own creation. And perhaps he would do, one day, if he were to put his mind to it.


Lee Stuart Evans was the first boy in his family not to work down the pit, though not the last. He spent 7 years in the motor trade before returning to education aged 24 and starting a new career in television. A full-time comedy writer since 2002, he’s worked on many hit shows, including 8 Out of 10 Cats and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, The Jonathan Ross Show, The Frank Skinner Show, 10 O’clock Live, A League of Their Own and I’m A CelebrityGet Me Out of here!

His first novelWords Best Sung, published by Arundel Books, is available from waterstones.com, fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk, arundelbooks.co.uk, nottinghambooks.co.uk and amazon.co.uk

Words Love Them Hate Them by Meg Kemp

It stops now: the shame, the hiding. I am a person who writes.

The shelves seem to go up forever. I look up with both delight and fear at the wall of books. The floorboards creak alarmingly and the gaps between them seem cavernous. There is a musty but chocolatey smell of foxed paper, dust moats float around.

Standing in the reading room with Grandad … is one of my earliest memories.

Life at Nan and Grandads was full of anecdotes and reminiscing.

How she met my granddad; dropping her glove on purpose so he’d retrieve it for her.

How Mrs Baily next door lost her brother overboard during the Second World War.

The holidays they spent in London, visiting the Victory Club on the Mall.

We would go through her jewellery box; there were lucky rabbit’s feet!  Jet broaches and strings of fake pearls a story went with every item.

Sitting on the bus damp and steaming we would eaves drop on the sagas of others.

I was constantly transported to other realms.

There were books at home. I read in my own way. Sometimes I could not pronounce a certain word but could guess its meaning by looking at the context of the other words in the sentence.

I have never had trouble falling under the spell of the worlds that lie behind the covers of books. The Famous Five and Secret Seven, given for Christmas and birthdays appealed to my wild independent nature I could feel the hardness of the beds in the Ring O bells public house and feel the sea spray on Kirrin Island.

The excitement and danger was compelling but I remember feeling prickly when ‘poor children’ with scuffed shoes were always the wayward ones, who needed showing the proper way to behave.

When I was thirteen Grandad gave me a subscription to readers digest condensed books. I slept with the colourfully bound books under my pillow.

I moved on to paper backs smuggled from the attic; Valley of the Dolls and the Mallen trilogy

It was at ‘Secondary’ school the problems started poor eye sight, pink national health glasses, grey socks and cheap shoes were not worn by would be writers. Too self-conscious to sit at the front yet I couldn’t see from the back.

No matter how I tried I could not get to grips with the written word, I spelt the same words wrong in different ways in the same paragraph.

My writing was illegible the pen didn’t sit comfortably in my hand making it ache and I could not keep up with note taking. I had no organisational skills.

My work was literally held up by teachers has an example of how not to write an essay.

Don’t tell me the dog did your homework this week, Miss Worrell: home economics.

Did you use the most creased piece of paper you could find, Miss Smith: English.

Useless, useless, useless, Mr Parker History: as he threw the exercise book over my classmates’ heads aiming for either me or my desk. I was never sure.

Yet still I read. When I found Wuthering Heights at fourteen, the flow of the text seemed inextricably linked to the tumbling and sparkling moorland streams.

Words that gathered momentum picking up boulders and rocks, depositing them with great impact: you could feel the how precious each word had been to the author.

I scribbled scripts for Starsky and Hutch and songs for the Bay City Rollers.  One day I came home from school to find them torn to shreds dumped in the kitchen bin with mouldy tea bags and vegetable peelings.

‘They were disgusting,’ my mother screamed, ‘where did you learn words like that?’

‘From Valley of the Dolls’ I replied; the slap was quick leaving a hand print that lasted for hours.I still can’t read or watch the scene from ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ where Mrs Winterson is burning books in the back yard without crying.

I did have access to books at home at my grandparents, at the school library.

The library van came once a week; the same man drove it for years.  It parked in the bus stop near the swings.

I preferred going in the winter months so I could sneak in without being seen.

What still haunts me, giving me the chills was me the apathy:

Nobody likes a clever clogs’ or ‘There’s sum ‘at wrong with that one always has her head in a book.’

‘Don’t get above yourself my girl’.

A fortune teller said there would be a family member who would have some success with the ‘written word’.

‘I was told it must be your sister, it couldn’t’ possibly be you could it?

In my forties dyslexia was diagnosed like a woolly mammoth in my brain, that was being  uncovered in an archaeological, dig, bit by bit until all the pieces fitted together.

This explained lots of things that had dogged my school years, my poor spelling, uncoordinated handwriting, lack of organisation and poor memory and exam performance. In doing an online Open University course, a degree especially chosen so I do not have to meet other students face to face very much.

Stan Barstow was the first author I read who I felt wrote about my world. I was about nineteen when I discovered him.

I still write but hide my work.

Only this year when listening to ‘Where are all the working class writers’ on Radio 4 I realised that it’s okay be from a working class background and have the temerity to want to be a writer.

Okay to have an opinion, to speak out, to listen to Radio 4 and Radio 3.

There are others like me.

It stops now: the shame, the hiding. I am a person who writes.

Bio I live in Lancashire, I have lived on a narrow boat working and traveling the system. My favourite water ways are the Shropshire Union canal and the Upper Thames but all canals have their unique beauty. My passions are nature, reading and writing and … Jack Russel terriers.  I have a degree in psychology and English.

Twitter: @megski1

Firstly by Douglas Bruton

I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means…

Firstly, (and there will only be a ‘firstly’ for reasons that will become clear) I find it hard to know which class I belong to. My parents were brought up in the poorest part of Edinburgh and they were not educated – my father was bright enough but his poverty held him back… he had three jobs by the time he was fourteen and there was no money for school and no time… he joined the army when he was twenty as an escape from poverty and as an escape into some sort of education.

My mother kept a house that was clean as a new pin and my brother and I were always turned out smart – she’d have been mortified if we weren’t. Debt was never countenanced and we never bought anything we did not have the money for.

Education was held up as the golden ticket into a good future. Everything was sacrificed to my education – including my place in the family.

When my father was posted to Germany at the end of the 1960s I was forced to attend a forces subsidised boarding school for two years. Then after this I stayed with my uncle in Edinburgh so I could finish my education all in the one place – my uncle was a refuse collector (we called them bin men in the 1970s). I wore second hand clothes at high school; my school bag was a rescued miner’s haversack that had seen better days; I washed and ironed my own shirts, and cooked (if frying potatoes can be called cooking), and I slept in an unmade bed that held my shape like a nest. There was no money in my pockets and no money in the house I lived in. I did not really feel I belonged there.

Then a teacher and her husband adopted me in 1974 and seeing the potential in me they steered me successfully into university.

They were middle class – he played the Bassoon in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and she was a graduate form Oberlin college in America.

I did not feel I belonged in their house and I did not feel I belonged at university either.

I did not think I was clever enough or from the right background – mostly because my background by then was quite blurry.

Now I own my own house and I have been a teacher for all my working life and I have two degrees and I am as far away from the boy I was growing up as I could ever have imagined – as far away from that wee boy as my father could ever have imagined for me. I am broadly socialist in my thinking and work hard for those who need a leg up in life.

But I cannot be said to be working class in any conventional definition of what that means. Indeed, whenever I think of class I have a crisis of confidence…

the same crisis of confidence I had as a kid living with my uncle and four male cousins and again as a fish out of water at university –

because I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means… does it have any meaning or relevance in today’s society?

Is it to do with money or education or what school you went to or who your parents were or who you vote for in an election or the sound of your voice or what you eat or drink or manners or cleanliness or life expectancy or culture or what?

Seems to me that nothing is as fixed as it was and everything is in transition.

So, you see, I am stuck on that ‘firstly’ of my opening paragraph and not knowing if I am being a fraud to say I come from the working class. It is not a quiet shame that holds me back from taking ownership of the right class; it is a genuine misgiving about whether this division by class is in any way real in our modern multicultural society.

The impact of my origins on my writing: There were no books in my house (except a copy of a biography of Scott of the Antarctic, which my father kept on the top shelf of his wardrobe, a prize he won at school and never shared with me). My parents were not into books and any contact with reading that I had was through school. The quality of that experience will always be dependent on the teachers you have. I had a great Primary school teacher in Miss Keeble and she read lots to us and I fell briefly in love with books: ‘Stig of the Dump’, ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Family From One End Street’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – a wonderful year. Then later at high school when I wasn’t reading again another brilliant teacher said I should read Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’; I did and that led to me doing a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. Somehow I knew that I wanted to be of the world of literature, even in Miss Keeble’s class, but I always thought that was as a reader… until one day I got a computer and wrote a whole novel in snatched time over six months and there were moments when it was nearly as good as sex; I was thirty-one by this time.

I think I had to get an education in reading before I found I could write, as though I was catching up on what was not part of my background growing up.

I write about people and I hope I write with a universal compassion and maybe that is somehow tied up with not being rooted to one place or one people but being of all people.