'If you’re not in the word of mouth culture of a place, the news about you is not going to be passed on'
Corby novelist Andrew Cowan talks about his acclaimed literary career
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Having your first novel win a glut of major literary prizes is surely any writer’s dream and there’s arguably more chance of winning the lottery than realising it. Yet that’s what happened to Corby’s Andrew Cowan, with Pig, a novel about a teenage boy coming of age, set in a steel town like the one he grew up in.
Since then he’s gone on to write several more novels and last week retired after two decades as a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
He talks to Sarah Ward, about his early years, the impact Corby has had on his writing style and the advice he would pass on to anyone trying to become a writer.
“It’s a bit of a mystery how I became such a reader. My mum says I always had my head in a book. But I was not surrounded by books. There weren't any books in the house. I think my mum’s mum used to borrow books from the library but apart from her I don’t remember anyone in the family being a reader or having books in their house. Yet somehow I caught the bug at school and became lost in books from early on.”
Cowan was born in the upstairs bedroom of a house on Eastbourne Avenue on Corby’s Beanfield estate in the early 1960s. The son and grandson of steelworkers, like many from the town he traces his roots back to Glasgow. His grandfather moved to the town as one of its earliest urban settlers, along with his new wife who he’d met during a summer of fruit picking in Wisbech.
“They got married and they moved to Corby and he got a job at the steelworks and then my grandmother’s brother Uncle Ernie came and joined them as their lodger on Thoroughsale Road. Uncle Ernie and my granddad worked their entire lives at the steelworks and then when my dad left school he also worked in the steelworks and worked there all his life.”
Like many from working class backgrounds it was at school where his passion for books was nurtured.
“There was a very young teacher (I think probably his first teaching gig) in the junior school and he used to have a story hour which he enlivened with his own drawings of the characters in the stories and that was kind of magical and I think reinforced this idea that there was something to be found in books that I couldn't find in the world around me.
“That was encouraged when I went to senior school and I was identified as someone who was not just a reader but had a facility for words.
“There was one teacher in particular, Tony Drane, who himself wrote poetry. He would set us a writing task in the classroom and he would write and join us in the activity. He was modelling the possibility of grown ups writing - not just school children writing because they are being told to, but adults writing because they get something rewarding from it.
“He used to ask me to babysit his children. I have always suspected he did not really need a babysitter, he just wanted me to have the experience of sitting in a home completely surrounded by books. His living room was entirely furnished with bookshelves and he was constantly giving me books to read. He was introducing me to contemporary literature and modernism.
“The really important thing that he did for me was we were studying James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man at A Level and he encouraged us as a sixth form group to each write a portrait of ourselves at that time in our lives.
“I wrote pages and pages - a portrait of me and it’s his generosity of response I think that made me a writer, because he then wrote an essay in response. He met it as an interested reader and responded with writing of his own. That was formative as it showed me that you can write something and it can communicate with another person, you can form a connection with your reader through words on a page. And for me that’s where my writing began.”
Not only did Tony Drane make Cowan believe he could write, he also had a major part in his going to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich to read English literature. After A Levels Cowan had gone off to the local art college, where he found despite his passion he was not as capable as some of those around him, and had lost heart.
“Tony grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said you should be doing English at university and he wrote a letter to the admissions tutor at UEA and basically said ‘take pity on this poor boy. He comes from an unpromising background and people like him deserve a chance”.
He went on to do a degree in English and American studies before coming back to his home town in the early 1980s hoping to get a job at Corby Community Arts, which was run out of a building on the Lincoln estate. But after he didn't get the job, he decided as he liked being a student, he’d go back and do the MA in creative writing course at UEA.
There he was taught by the legendary Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter (he would sit and ‘shoot the breeze’ with Carter, who he says made him feel like he had a right to be there) and met his wife, fellow writer Lynne Bryan. After their studies they moved to Glasgow where he wrote Pig, the novel which would go on to change the course of his life.
But it was not an immediate success, as the novel was rejected by countless publishers, with the feedback being that the book was ‘too quiet’.
The tale of a teenager, who looks after his grandmother’s pig when she suddenly dies, the novel is also about first romance and racial prejudice.
It was after he followed up his brother David’s suggestion of entering his manuscript to the Betty Trask Award that things changed.
It was the early 1990s and he was working as a school librarian in Glasgow.
“Literary London felt like a long, long way away and my prospects of ever being published felt equally remote and then one day instead of a rejection I got a letter saying ‘you have won the Betty Trask Award. Come down to London and collect your prize’.”
His brother helped him schmooze the agents and publishers at the glittering event and the next day Cowan took a holdall full of manuscripts and delivered them to the people he had met the evening before.
“Out of that I got an agent and my agent was then able to negotiate among several publishers who suddenly wanted the book that they had previously rejected. So because I had won an award, my book stopped being ‘quiet’ and started being marketable and so it got published and then it won some other awards [including the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award] and was picked up by WH Smith and promoted. It did change my life and everything turned around and suddenly I was able to become a writer.”
Andrew’s writing style is in part influenced by another UEA alumni, Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan.
“In Ian McEwan I discovered a sensibility that resembled my own. And in the descriptions of the world his characters inhabit I found a recognisable location in fiction for the first time. For the first time in McEwan I found a world I can walk into.
“I had First Love, Last Rites and the The Cement Garden on my desk when I was writing Pig and I frequently stopped writing Pig because I ran out of self confidence. I was self sabotaging, it’s fairly common in first time novelists, I have encountered it so many times on the MA that I have been teaching, that a lot of students sufferer from imposter syndrome.
“They don't feel they are authentically writers - they think they are going to be found out. I certainly felt like that. And I would frequently open a page of McEwan at random just to remind myself to write a sentence. He was there the whole time.”
He says his Corby roots have also forged his style.
“I think it influences my style in quite complex ways. I think if you grow up in a place like Corby you don’t grow up with the cultural capital which makes you think that writing is a plausible future or profession for you and I grew up always feeling like the language preceded me, that someone else owned the language and for me to presume to write a book would be to step into territory which was not mine.
“So always in my writing I’ve been dogged by a sense of trespass, or imposter syndrome - a feeling that I’m gonna be found out, a feeling that the language does not belong to me, so that makes me a very careful writer.
“I think my style is a reflection of the fact that I’m very careful in the construction of sentences because deeply embedded is this fear that someone’s gonna go ‘you’re not a real writer’.”
He says he has always been proud to hail from the town and writes about it in his books in an attempt to memorialise it.
“Although it’s very white, it's also a melting pot and a mixture of people from all over the place because it’s a migrant town. People moved to Corby and they created their own unique culture in the heart of England where the hinterland of Corby is not the Nene Valley - the hinterland of Corby is the Clyde valley. You feel like growing up in Corby the next town along is Glasgow - but it’s not, it turns out to be Kettering.”
Despite his critical success he is not a household name in his hometown and says that he does not get annoyed by the fact, but feels it’s quite sad.
“It felt like there was not ever a culture of reading, or books in Corby and so if there is not already that fertile ground and someone like me comes along and sprouts from that ground, I’m not going to last long. It’s inevitable I’m going to wilt and fade away, as there is not that culture of being a writer.
“If you’re not in the word of mouth culture of a place, the news about you is not going to be passed on.”
Following Pig he published more novels and was making a living as an author, but decided to take on a writing fellowship at his former university in the early 2000s, due the precarious financial situation of being a household of two writers.
He became a senior lecturer, going on to head up the department and last week retired after 19 years of academia.
An expert in his field, he says the advice he would give to anyone, is that which Angela Carter gave to him when he was struggling to write:
“She said ‘why don’t you just write about what you know.’ And that became a mainstay of my teaching - especially with undergraduates.
“I set them a lot of exercises about earliest memories and what they know about the world, but I would say you don’t have to confine yourself to what you know, you can donate your experience to your characters and your character can be any type of person.
“If you know what it feels like to get up on a sunny day, what it feels like to be bullied, to fall in love, if you’ve had experience in life, you can donate it to your characters. So begin with what you know and then give it to your characters.”
He says his own fiction output tailed off during his academic career as his creative energy was taken up with his students, many of whom themselves have gone on to win awards.
Now he says retirement ‘feels like a liberation’ and he is writing a book about pottery, his other long-held passion. He writes in the mornings and works with clay in the afternoons.
Andrew Cowan has published six novels and has also written The Art of Writing Fiction, which has recently had a new edition.
All can be purchased on Amazon.
Sarah’s note: “I’ve recently read Pig and it is a beautiful book, which reduced me to tears. I would thoroughly recommend it”.