Gaynor Jones, winner of Northern Soul Writer of the Year 2018, looks back on a year that was full of surprises.
Earlier this year, having finally completed a first draft of my short story collection, I posted a celebratory tweet online that referenced some of the content: demons, water nymphs and sentient bubble bath. This last one seemed to chime with a lot of people, and I saw them pondering it in the comments – how ethereal it sounded, how sad that bubble bath only lives for a short time before draining away. It was all very poetic. But, well. Here’s the sentient bubble bath in my story:
Yer Mam wants to get some bleach on this grout.
Do you fancy telling her that?
He swiveled himself round in the soap dish and chuckled.
Christ, no. She terrifies me.
She’s not that bad.
You don’t see what I see.
And herein lies both my strength and my problem as a writer. I have a quirky imagination and an eye for strangeness, but I’m not quite sure how my ideas fit with the world I live in. Or the world of writing in general.
I was born in North Wales but moved to Merseyside within a week and have lived in Greater Manchester for more than a decade. But I’ve rarely had the confidence to set my particular style of work in the North. Until recently, I placed my characters in America as I felt it somehow seemed more acceptable for weird things to be going on ‘over there’. Rationally I know that the imagined America of Twin Peaks or Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nothing like reality, and there’s probably more US equivalents of Saddleworth than Sunnydale. So, as I’ve found my voice – and my confidence – I’ve tried to bring my weirdness closer to home.
I’ve lived up North all but one of my 40 years. So it’s no surprise that all of my most significant, and strangest, events have happened here. From attempting to contact spirits using playing cards at break time in my Merseyside primary school to drawing my veins on in purple eyeliner before meeting up with like-minded pseduo-goths at the Krazyhouse for a night out, my personal history is important. Then there’s the number of unexplained seemingly psychic visions about mundane life. In conclusion, Northern strangeness is in my soul. So, why did I keep displacing my Northernness from my writing? Honestly, I think it’s down to some feedback I received when I was 18.
Looking back – and forward
In response to winning the Northern Debut Award at the Northern Writers’ Awards 2020, I revealed that I don’t have any formal creative writing qualifications – and that’s true. But way back in 1998, in the first year of my English degree, I took a creative writing module. I think my stories were given 53/100 which is the definition of scraping by. At a one-to-one review, the module leader told me, ‘I don’t think creative writing is for you’. It was a real blow to my confidence, and I didn’t write again until I was in my late 20s. But I still remember one of the stories I submitted to him, and it’s not a million miles from the ideas that I have now. It was surreal, funny, dark and extremely Northern. I realise now that my stories weren’t the problem. The tutor just didn’t know what to do with me.
When it came to applying for the Northern Writers’ Awards this year (for the third time), I agonised over which stories to include in my submission. I didn’t use the Scouse sentient bubble bath (he’s not quite ready yet), but I did decide to go with my strangest story to date, one which had already been rejected from a number of competitions. Set in Merseyside, it follows the path of a wayward teenage girl backwards in time, from hitchhiking to a festival to a typical weekend party, ending with her first-time binge-drinking. It is unapologetically Northern from references to Lime Street and the setting of stairways in Birkenhead to evocations of my misspent youth at parties in Crosby. It also contains skinned rabbits who dole out life advice, terrifying jack-in-the-boxes who loom from trousers and a talking toilet. It’s a dark story, it’s a very me story, and I was half-laughing as I put it in my application thinking, ‘well, that’s me scuppered, then’. But I wanted my sample to represent me, my voice, my Northernness – and this story does exactly that.
A few weeks ago, I received my usual New Writing North subscriber email. I read it, had a look at the books and opportunities and then carried on with my day. Around 7pm that evening, I had another email from New Writing North, this time telling me that I had won a Northern Debut Award. I genuinely couldn’t believe it. I had a panic attack shortly after (my standard reaction to any good news) and had to have a friend talk me down from it. I even emailed the team back a mildly self-sabotaging email to double-check I actually was okay to get the award. I was. I had won. I had sent in my strangest and the judges had liked it.
I do believe that I’m a good writer. I believe I have potential and, since winning this award, I now believe that my book has potential, too. For the first time, I can see that there might be a future for me in this industry, without me having to make sacrifices about the kind of work I want to create. I hope this will encourage other Northern writers to apply to the next Northern Writers’ Awards, whatever genre you write in, whether you think you fit the box of ‘writer’ or not. Don’t rule yourself out of anything. Stay true to the kind of work you want to produce and there will be a home for it. I’m proof of that.
By Gaynor Jones