Every few months, Rebecca Philipson made the six-hour rail journey from her mining town in County Durham to Norwich in Norfolk, catching three connecting trains on the way. It was either that or a five-hour drive while paying for fuel. With accommodation costs, she estimates it set her back a couple of hundred pounds each time. But, for the aspiring crime writer, it was worth it to access the right course.

“I doubt I’d have completed my novel without the University of East Anglia’s Masters, and finding a crime fiction MA was almost impossible,” she says, her graduation due later this year. “All writing courses cost money, and I funded everything myself from my job. So, cost is a barrier, as is the availability of programmes in the North.”

This sort of story isn’t unusual. Writers go to extraordinary lengths to give their career a fighting chance. Naturally, when it comes to agents and publishers, London is the UK’s literary capital, which explains why much of Teesside’s literary talent—novelists like Tom Crewe and Richard Milward—has migrated south. Outside London, Manchester is arguably the literary capital of the North, and Newcastle for the North East. Which begs the question: what’s the literary capital of the Tees Valley? Middlesbrough? Darlington? Hartlepool?

This line of questioning isn’t totally inane. In fact, it’s the thrust of a fledgling literary project on Teesside. The brainchild of Jenna Clake, senior lecturer in creative writing at Teesside University, the idea is to break down barriers by creating a regional network which connects writers, agencies, publishers, and booksellers.

For Clake, the key issue in the Tees Valley isn’t lack of talent, it’s the extra practical hurdles writers like Philipson face.

“Heading to Newcastle is quite a commute, especially if you have commitments like caring responsibilities, for example,” Clake says. “There are great programmes there, and in London, but they rely on people being willing and able to travel. Locally, Middlesbrough has lots of open mic nights, indie presses and writing groups, but not the same representation of big publishing houses.

“What’s important is making those opportunities available locally. I wanted to investigate what support writers actually need, and ask: how can I put my research on representation in writing and publishing to good use?”

Added to the uphill struggle of publishing which all writers face, for some the hurdles are higher and the headwinds stronger. Or, as Clake puts it: “There are writers out there who think their story doesn’t need to be heard, when actually it really does. I think hearing those voices is really important.”

Jenna Clake. Photo by Jamie Logue.

Clake draws on her own experience as a published poet and novelist. She was the first generation in her family to attend university and had no contacts. But over time at the University of Birmingham, culminating in her PhD, she found a supportive network which was instrumental in her career.

“My experience in Birmingham was really useful because I developed my own network. It has a lively scene and there were excited, energised people who wanted to put Birmingham on the literary map. Without all those friendly faces, I wouldn’t have had the writing career I’ve had. This network I’m creating from Teesside draws on that experience.”

For most writers’ careers, the line is a curve. Clake moved to Newcastle then Harrogate, and pivoted from poetry to long-form fiction, all of which brought new challenges. “Every time I’ve published a book has been a huge learning curve for me. It’s been three completely different experiences. I’d think, I wish I’d known that before. This network can show people what to expect and how to work with an editor and publisher.”

Funded by Teesside University’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Impact Acceleration Account, the project kicked off in early 2024 with workshops to identify the key barriers writers face. A sandpit event is slated for late May with attendees confirmed from Newcastle-based organisations including Mslexia, Faber Academy, publishing group Orion, Poetry Book Society, and Book Corner (from Saltburn-by-the-Sea).

“The response has been really enthusiastic and I’m pleased to have their input,” says Clake. “The fact that already so many different organisations are interested is a positive step.”

These events are just the beginning, and Clake envisages more development opportunities to come, dependent on funding. In fact, if the pilot works, it could be used as a blueprint for writers across the UK. “I really see this as the beginning of something that will become much bigger.”

But back to Philipson’s story: does it end happily ever after?

“I submitted an early draft and received several offers of representation, as well as being longlisted for the Exeter Novel Award,” Philipson says. “I signed with an incredible agent, completed my Masters, and have worked with my agent to prepare the novel for submission to publishers.”

With Clake’s project underway, perhaps more writers in the Tees Valley and beyond will get their happily ever after too.

By Jonny Aldridge


Disturbance by Jenna Clake is available from Hachette UK here. 

More information about Rebecca Philipson can be found at David Higham Associates’ website here. 

Jonny Aldridge’s monthly newsletter on creative writing can be found here.