Stockport-born and Norwich-based author Tom Benn is the winner of the 2022 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award, announced this week. Here, the UEA crime writing lecturer explains how his writing is all about the North – but inspired by living and working in Norwich
What led you to East Anglia and how far do you feel from your Northern roots, here? Did you come to do a Creative Writing MA and then decide to stay?
I was encouraged by a brilliant A-Level English teacher to apply to UEA because of its reputation for English and Creative Writing. I moved from Manchester at 18 and have been here ever since. All my writing is about the North to some degree; and while I go back up regularly, I find the distance useful.
How long have you been teaching at the UEA and does Norwich inspire your work in any way?
I’ve been teaching part-time at UEA for a decade in one capacity or another. So much of my formative reading and writing has happened here. Listening to my students support and shape each other’s works-in-progress is a privilege. My students inspire me by challenging my own ways of seeing and being on the page. Seminar discussions help me to refine my own responses to the texts I love and have given them to read, and to expand the critical contexts in which we frame and enter those texts. I encourage my students to write fiction in response to fiction. Interrogating the whats, hows and whys of a piece of writing is a way for writers to interrogate themselves and their own creative practice. This is how writing responds to the world. First it must look inward and look backward so that it can look outward and look forward.
Is Norwich something of a magnet for writers, do you think?
Yes. We seem to stick around. Norwich is the city to hide out in and write books. Nobody really arrives in Norwich accidentally; you have to want to come here. It’s a regional outlier innovating from the margins, inviting and incubating talent from everywhere. This is why the current neoliberal crisis at UEA is so worrying for the city and beyond. There is a real danger it could damage the future cultural and economic health of the region.
What is it about crime fiction that particularly appeals to you as a genre?
Crime fiction deals with transgression. At its best the genre can serve as a trenchant vehicle to explore social, psychological, ideological, legal, and moral borders; how these borders are established and maintained, violated and redrawn; what they protect and what they deny; who polices them and under whose authority.
What’s Oxblood about?
Oxblood’s about three generations of mothers living together in 1980s’ Wythenshawe, Manchester. The family’s criminal patriarchs might be dead, but their violent legacy haunts these women. It traps them together but keeps them apart. Their home is also literally haunted by the cheerful ghost of a murdered lover.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Charlotte Aitken Young Writer Award? This isn’t the first time you’ve been shortlisted and longlisted – how important is it to make the list, long or short, as a young writer?
Oxblood took a long time to write and a long time to get published – and so I feel incredibly lucky. So many books slip under the radar. It couldn’t be more surreal and encouraging to be recognised by prize judges whose own writing I admire, and to be shortlisted for an award that has championed so many talented writers whose work means something to me.
Noirwich is returning this year – would you say Norwich is one of the top cities in the world when it comes to celebrating that style of writing?
I co-programme Noirwich Crime Writing Festival with my UEA colleagues Professor Henry Sutton and Dr Nathan Ashman, alongside an amazing Arts & Humanities events team. September 2023 sees Noirwich celebrate its tenth anniversary, and we’re curating our boldest line-up yet: one that represents the genre vanguard. We’re looking at where crime writing is today and where it might be going in the future. Look out for festival announcements soon on social media. I also teach on UEA’s part-time MA in Crime Fiction. Students write crime novels over two years. We’ve had two dozen published graduates since 2017, many of them award winners. So, yes: there’s something about the Fine City that seems to champion a life of crime.
What’s next for you? Your next book is in a nightclub? A northern nightclub – or has Norwich nightlife inspired you in any way?
My next novel, to misquote Collette, is about dancing, light, freedom, music – and northern ghosts. It’s framed around a Manchester nightclub. However, I did work in Norwich clubs on Prince of Wales Road as a student. Those experiences will no doubt fold into the novel in some way, somehow.
Featured image of Tom Benn, by Beth Moseley Photography