I always wanted to be a writer, even before I knew what being a writer really consisted of. It was my go-to answer when, as a child, my parents’ friends would put forth their favourite question: what was I going to be when I grew up? I’d always devised elaborate storylines for my Action Men, and it was my dad who first suggested writing as a career path. Thinking back, saying ‘I’m going to be a writer’ was just as unlikely as the careers other children gave as their answers (footballer/rock star/astronaut/cowboy) and yet still, my parents’ friends were impressed. The term ‘writer’ made them raise an eyebrow and nod at one another. It had a slight intellectual edge.
It was years later, while studying Creative Writing at LJMU, that it dawned on me how small the chances were that I could actually carve a career out of this; i.e. arrive at a point where my words would pay my bills. Writing was the easy part (you just sit at a typewriter and bleed, as the old aphorism goes) but being published was something else entirely. For one thing, published writers didn’t tend to reside in Liverpool, not unless they were writing those period books with women in bonnets on the cover that end up in the Local History section at Waterstones. Scan the author bios in the Fiction section and you’d be hard pressed to find a writer that didn’t live in London. That’s where it was all happening (apparently). That’s where the literary world hung its hat. And at that point it felt each of its 222 miles away.
For a lot of creative industries, the call to the capital is hard to ignore. In such circles it’s obvious that nepotism will be rife; that it’s advantageous to be part of the clique (you only have to follow a handful of editors and agents on Twitter to discover how incestuous the literary world is). In their ‘Open Letter to the London-centric Publishing Industry’, the Northern Fiction Alliance said recently that, “Publishing – and the arts more widely – should be in the business of bringing in perspectives from the peripheries… how much talent do we lose because, for a lot of people, London is too expensive, too far away, or, frankly, too chaotic to move to? What message do we send and what narrative do we build when entry to this industry relies so heavily on insider networks and the wealth within one’s background?”
This statement resonates with me. I’ve always worked several part-time jobs to support my writing and as a result I’m always fighting my own schedule for the time required to focus on it. The thought of moving to London – of the hours I’d have to work just to afford the cost of living there – horrifies me. I still remember during one of my visits to my publisher, somebody saying that Liverpool was actually a convenient place to live, with regards to commuting to London, as Virgin Trains run a service that gets you there in just over two hours. The implication was that I could have it both ways, stay in Liverpool but still be a part of the London ‘scene’. I pointed out that Virgin Trains charge £160 each way; that I’d actually been on a seven-hour coach-ride through the night to get there for the meeting that day; that I was doing the same later that evening, as there was no way I could afford a hotel at London prices. The next time I was invited down my publisher offered to pay the train fare for me – a luxury I truly appreciated.
But things are changing. The fact that the Northern Fiction Alliance now exists is proof of this. The NFA consists of Manchester’s Comma Press, Leeds’ Peepal Tree Press, Sheffield’s And Other Stories, and Liverpool’s own Dead Ink Books. Plus, I was wrong, as it happened; Liverpool does have a writing scene of its own and, although more modest than the powerhouse in London, there are still connections to be made for budding novelists. My big break was Pulp Idol, a competition that runs every year as part of the Writing On The Wall Festival. The format’s simple: each writer submits a first chapter of a novel they’re working on. They get up in front of an audience and a set of judges (yes, like on that terrible Simon Cowell dirge, but thankfully without the noodly vocal melodies, or the high-jeaned prince of darkness himself) and read their work aloud. The judges ask questions, then vote on their favourites. The winners go through to a final and the overall winner gets an in with the literary world; a promise to be read by an agent or publisher. It was this that led to me getting my agent, which in turn led to the publication of my first novel, Alice And The Fly, which was released by Hodder and Stoughton in 2015.
So, what’s the moral here? Well, I’d like to think that any Liverpool literature lovers out there don’t feel that they necessarily have to flock to London for a bit of culture (check out Writing On The Wall first). And if you’re a writer too, check out the Northern Fiction Alliance. I hope the NFA are right, that the publishing industry can cease being so London-centric, that representation will be distributed equally. For one thing, it’d mean less money in Richard Branson’s pocket, which can only ever be a good thing.
And for me? I’m just hoping to keep ‘now lives in London’ off my author bio for as long as possible.
James Rice takes part in Writing on the Wall Festival’s panel Let’s Talk About Class – Working Class Writers Finding A Voice, alongside Kit de Waal, Nathan Connolly, and Catherine O’Flynn on 17th May at Toxteth Library.