Wednesday 2 September 2009

Durham Book Festival and Writing on the Edge

051 I was at a meeting yesterday a Low Newton Women’s prison  to discuss a forthcoming event at the Durham Book Festival where a panel at the Gala Theatre Durham City on Tuesday 27th October will discuss the benefits of original writing in prison.

It will be a full session.

Readings by actresses of some writing by women in the prison will be interleaved with the other elements:  Charlie Darby Villis, the inspirational prison librarian, will make the crucial link with reading; three writers - Avril Joy, Richard Hardwick and I  - will give our view on our different experiences and will read extracts  from our own  creative fiction which spring from our experience working in prison – in Richard’s case also working with homeless young people in shelters and hostels. His novel is called Kicked Out. Avril will read from her novel Bad Girl.   I will read from my short story collection Knives. My work at Low Newton was a direct inspiration for many stories in this collection.

This event is part of the legacy of the work in original writing and reading that Avril and I completed with the women at Low Newton before my second residency ended last year. This included our own ‘Litfest Inside’, planned to coincide  with the Durham Litfest of that year, also our Orange Prize Project where prison readers paralleled the process of judging the short list.  Also a wonderful and resonant book of the writings of the women with whom we worked – The Self Revealed – which has been admired by many outsiders.

All this was done without outside support. But this year the Durham Book Festival (which replaces the Litfest) is directed by the dynamic  Alison Redshaw and she and Durham City Arts are fully supporting this initiative both in and out of the prison. Hooray for her!

 I look forward to working alongside Richard; it’s always good to meet someone with similar preoccupations. We have already started a discussion - which may go on - about how one renders material so distinctively factual into authentic prose fiction without stealing people’s lives.

As I said to Richard, my work with women in prison was life enhancing and life changing. It resonates now through all of my work. For instance the new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings begins with a young man, just out of prison, making his way to the house of his mother, whom he has not spoken to for two years.

I have close memories of the women which continues to resonate through my life. They made a difference to me.  I hope I made a little difference to them.



  1. As always you have made a wonderful, multifaceted post.
    Stealing other peoples lives. It is an interesting question how to write without violating other peoples experience. My novel (still alas unpublished) looks at the impact of war on people. It has been influenced by conversations and stories of many people (survivors, veterans, bystanders) over many years. I have been very concious of respecting peoples privacy and feelings. I suppose what I have been able to do in most cases is to reduce a persons story to some element that stood out for me and then create another event fictionally that I think would have a similar effect on one of my characters. For example, a Russian Veteran I talked to remembered his horror of how the German prisoners were treated as they were being marched away from the ruins of Stalingrad and how he detached himself from it at the time. I took that kernel, horror and using detachment to cope and developed it to describe the emotional state of a young woman witnessing a mass killing. So the veteran would never recognise that as "his" story because it wasn't, but (hopefully) my story has gained something from a reflection of his experience.

    Also you talk of how the prisoners have made a difference in your life, and hope you have made a difference to them. I would be surprised if you haven't. Sometimes, from my experience, quite profound things come from a little bit of the right support at the right time. More often though (from what is said to me by people I have worked with) it is the fact that someone has simply taken the time to care, to be human that leaves an impression.

  2. Wendy - I know that you certainly made a difference to the women's lives. I know also that the work we did together on the lit fest was extraordinary and it was a highlight for the women who kept coming over those 17 days!
    For me it represented everything that was good about the residency and about working in partnership with Newbridge (who run the Learning Shop) and Durham County Libraries - especially Lesley and Charlie.It was of course sanctioned and supported by the enlightened number one Governor - Paddy - and that made all the difference.

    Like you I find I still think about the women. I can't and won't forget them and I hope this event generously supported by DCA will be a celebration of their strength and creativity.


  3. Dear Al
    You make so many good writerly points with which I agree. I would add that sometimes you have to leave material in a kind of fallow space at the back of your consciousness for a long time - sometimes for years. Then the idea and/or the character kind of emerges organically and eventually after a story is written you realise - ah there! That's where it comes from! Or, that's who they come from. By that time they are entirely 'other' andd safe for your fiction. Very good luck with your novel, Al.

    Dear Avril

    Thank you. I too realise how a humane and intelligent governor can enable such
    experiences which are both life enhancing in dire lives and are ultimately rehabilitative and good for society as a whole.
    Anybody interested here in the true nature of women's experience in prison should click through to Avril's current post which is an extract from her novel 'Bad Girl' - a great novel which pays respect to the women while pulling no punches. Publishers take note!



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