When I was a creative writing student, I was encouraged to ‘write what you know’. But having grown up in a small rural town where the most exciting event was the bus turning up on time, I struggled to write anything that felt worthwhile. The people and places I recognised didn’t seem interesting enough. Dialogue (particularly regional and northern) was watered down (or omitted – possibly by London-centric editors who were concerned readers might not ‘get it’) and ordinary places, like my hometown, weren’t considered the stuff of great literature.
But novels like Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning (set in Sheffield and the Peak District) and Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater (primarily based in Sunderland and Ireland) prove that there’s much to be found, cherished and dissected in the everyday.
It’s a sunny October afternoon when I make my way to The International Anthony Burgess Centre to see Mort and Andrews in conversation with poet Andrew McMillan. Considering the theme of the event is landscape, I look around and take in the colour and sounds of the city, so different from where I’m from yet still such a huge part of who I’ve become. This duality of place and identity has always fascinated me.
From the off, McMillan draws parallels between the texts as debuts that feel “real and fresh, giving us voices that we haven’t yet heard in contemporary fiction” and I completely agree. This overarching feeling of something new, more authentic and indicative of the life we experience is also evident throughout the event. There’s no carefully curated questioning here (that’s not to say McMillan doesn’t know his stuff, he’s an excellent chair) but a genuine conversation which elicits real responses. As Andrews jokes: “I could say that I wrote [Saltwater] because I hadn’t read any books about Sunderland, but I was just writing what I knew.”
In Saltwater, Andrews’ protagonist, Lucy, goes to London to seek opportunity but feels shut out. “She sees things in rigid shapes and squares and the lines of the tube. But also, she goes back to Sunderland and doesn’t really belong then.”
Andrews was interested in the inbetween-ness “when you leave a place that you come from and you have quite a strong cultural identity and then you go back, and you can’t ever live there in the same way”.
Mort adds: “If you’re in love with a place, which doesn’t mean that you have an uncomplicated relationship with it, you can write about it with your heart. And that’s the most important thing.”
But Mort found dialogue the most difficult part of writing the novel. “The best piece of advice that was given to me by a friend who is a writer was, ‘just remember that when people are speaking, they are usually doing something else at the same time’ like fiddling with the coaster or looking at the walls, but as a poet that had never really occurred to me, and that helped me.”
Similarly, a line in Andrews’ book caused mayhem on Facebook when she asked for clarification and no one could agree on how it should be written down. “It’s interesting how in standardised English there are rules that you have to obey, but these are words that people use all the time and no one knows how to write it down.”
“Perhaps it only exists in the air somehow, as a purely oral form of speech,” suggests McMillan, and I think that’s a beautiful concept.
Both novels aren’t written in the way we might expect from fiction. Mort, an award-winning poet, is appearing at Manchester Literature Festival under a different guise. But despite having chosen to write a novel, her lyrical ability is apparent throughout Black Car Burning. Similarly, Andrews opts for a non-traditional format and presents her story in fragmented and non-linear narrative.
“I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t pointing a finger,” says Mort. “It is always going to be difficult when there is that much pressure on a place.”
“It took me a long time to develop class consciousness,” adds Andrews. “I didn’t have the language or the vocabulary to understand the difficult feelings that I had. The process of writing the novel made that so much clearer to me.”
As the event draws to an end, a wonderful comment comes from the audience about the richness of experience and the warmth of people in northern towns who are often voiceless. Was this something each writer wanted to portray?
“I find it a delicate balance,” says Andrews. “There are so many good things, but some things aren’t great and it is disingenuous to just celebrate it and pretend that those things don’t exist either, but obviously you don’t want to talk a place down.”
“I wasn’t mocking them,” she explains. “But editors think they’re a bit weird.” She cites an example from Black Car Burning where she observes a man wearing three hats at the same time. “I had seen that. It was just an everyday thing but you get people thinking you’ve made things up just to be surreal.”
It’s these small observations, their importance and meaning, that make both Mort and Andrews excellent northern voices.
“It makes you love these places,” Mort reflects. “Because they’re a great expression of what life is like, and life is really funny and really sad and really strange all at the same time.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Saltwater is published by Hodder & Stoughton and Black Car Burning is published by Vintage Publishing. Both are available to buy now.