My conversation with Claire Malcolm (pictured) comes at a significant moment in her career: not only is it the 25th anniversary of New Writing North (NWN), the writing and reading development agency for the north she has led since its inception, but we are speaking shortly after the announcement of her MBE. She found out about the honour (for services to literature, young people and the north-east of England) around a month before it was publicly revealed and says it was “a very big, but very exciting, secret”.
Malcolm grew up in York in a working-class household and was the first person in her family to go to university. She began her career developing new work at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, before returning to Newcastle, where she had previously studied, in 1996 to set up NWN, which she calls “a real experiment”. Though it had a “brilliant board of really high-flying people”, there was not much money or resource available and the mission for the organisation was simply to “make the north the best place to be writer”.
Malcolm was 26 years old at the time, and she describes her naïvety as “a real asset”, explaining: “I wasn’t thinking, ‘This isn’t enough money, this isn’t enough of a plan’, I just got on with trying to work out what writers needed and the opportunities there could be here.” While the agency’s work has become “a lot more formal and a lot bigger” in the years since—it is now an Arts Council England non-profit organisation, turning over £1m a year and employing 14 staff—Malcolm says it still operates in much the same way. “How do we make the north a brilliant place for writers? That’s pretty much what I think about most days still.”
The NWN team originally planned to host several birthday celebrations but, partly because they have been so busy during the Covid period and partly because they wanted to focus on future ambitions rather than retrospective achievements, they decided to “hang fire”. Malcolm adds: “The things happening at NWN this year are so exciting. The scale and ambition of some of the projects shows that that 25 years of hard work and partnership building has really turned into something quite strong. So, we’re kind of celebrating through that success.”
One such initiative is A Writing Chance, launched in collaboration with actor Michael Sheen last month to discover new talent and open up access to the writing industry. Sheen approached the agency on the back of the Common People project that it led a couple of years ago with author Kit de Waal and Unbound. Eleven writers from across the country have now been selected to take part in the scheme, which sees them receive one-to-one mentoring with an established writer or journalist. Malcolm says it has been interesting to run a “properly national project” from the north. She feels this work “demonstrates the interest there is now in looking at some of the issues around representation and who gets to write”.
NWN’s flagship programme is the Northern Writers’ Awards. Malcolm reflects: “It’s grown from a scheme where we have £10,000 a year to spread among writers to a much bigger programme that has a lot of really important partnerships embedded in it now, with the likes of Hachette, Channel Four, The Literary Consultancy and Arvon.” She cites research into the awards programme conducted in 2019, saying: “We’re really clear now that both winning an award, and the support that people then get from NWN to develop their career, is transformative.” Malcolm feels that much of the work that NWN does to “get stuck in with writers at a really early stage and support them over the long term” flies under the radar. She expands: “We always think about ourselves as a bridge between the north and the industry in London.” The bridge, she notes, “is becoming a bit more two-way now, which is great to see”.
One example of this is NWN’s growing partnership with Hachette, which already included the joint running of the Hachette Children’s Novel Award. Now, NWN is moving into an interim co-working hub with Hachette at Newcastle’s Baltic 39 Gallery, with hopes that other organisations (including Mslexia magazine and publishing sales and marketing agency Inpress) will join them. Malcolm promises that later this year, NWN and Hachette will announce work specific to the north-east “that will help them potentially grow the workforce here in different ways”. NWN also aims to reveal “some really big plans about a new Centre for Writing in Newcastle that we’re developing at the moment”.
Malcolm says: “Those are the kinds of relationships I’m interested in having with publishers—ones that are not about just parachuting staff into a regional setting, but actually working out what they could help with locally. I’ve been saying to publishers for a few years that there is an ecology to how writers and readers develop, and we’re all part of it. We need to be thinking about how we can work together to make the most impact or change.”
Generally, Malcolm is positive about publishers branching out into the north and the possibilities of remote working to geographically diversify the industry further. However, she feels that while a lot of efforts so far have focused on finding creative talent outside London, she does not see anyone thinking about “the relationship with readers” in those regions and identifies “huge potential” for publishers to better understand these readers and how to market books to them. She also thinks that publishers are not doing enough to tap into readers’ interest in reading books set in places that they recognise. “If you look at the success of writers such as Ann Cleeves, her books rely so heavily on a sense of place. I think it’s more important than we give it credit for.” She adds that more geographical diversity in books is crucial for “genuine representation of what’s going on in this country… The role we have empowering voices from different places and from different lived experiences is very important, because you need that range of perspectives in the world.”
Reflecting on the challenges and changes of the past year, Malcolm says: “When lockdown started and the Black Lives Matter protests happened, there was such an appetite for radical change. Although that was very challenging, I found it very energising. And I really feel that that has gone off the boil… It wouldn’t surprise me if we all just flip back to normal. I’m interested in not going back to what we all used to do, but building on what we’ve learned.”
NWN’s team had to learn how to adapt lots of its work for online platforms over the past year and a half, most notably with Durham Book Festival. October’s festival is now fully programmed as a hybrid event (the line-up will be revealed next month) with “pivoting opportunities”, such as live broadcast and pre-recorded events, built in. Considering the impact of the pandemic on literary festivals across the north, Malcolm feels that they are all “approaching things on a slightly different footing” at the moment, with challenges including charging models.
After being completely free last year, Durham will start to charge for some events. Though ticket pricing will be “very modest”, Malcolm explains it is necessary for the future of the festival and supporting reading development work in the local community. Building on the “huge uplift in digital audiences” NWN has seen since last year’s festival, it is launching an online book club. It will be encouraging people to sign up and subscribe over autumn and winter, with plans to launch in the new year.
Looking back on a quarter of a century in her role, Malcolm says: “It makes me feel both very old and very proud. I now employ people who weren’t even born when NWN was set up! I feel like I’ve grown up in this job and that’s a real privilege.” She continues: “It’s lovely that that all feels now like it’s been recognised more and it will lead to more resources and enable bigger ambitions. That’s what feels important—not so much just marking an anniversary, but thinking about the next 25 years and how this work will be handed over to others in the future.”
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