Once upon a Tyne There Was a Writer

Article excerpt

Byline: By David Whetstone

Over the years, Newcastle upon Tyne has made an impact in far-flung places for all sorts of reasons with football, coal and shipbuilding probably heading the list.

But for Penny Smith, the city registered for its literary associations.

"I knew about Newcastle when I was a student in Australia from reading Stand magazine," she recalls.

"It made me think that Newcastle must be a really great place for writers.

"Other students were reading Chairman Mao and I would be clutching this avant garde magazine about writing and on the back was this weird address: Newcastle upon Tyne.

"It went into my head that this was the place for writing in England."

Years later, she is talking in a campus cafe at Northumbria University. Penny Smith ( Dr Penny Smith, to be precise ( is now the leader of the increasingly popular and highly regarded MA Creative Writing course at the university and her first serious work of fiction, Tree Of Angels, is to be launched during the inaugural Fresh Fiction Festival in Newcastle.

In no way, she says, has Newcastle failed to live up to her youthful expectations.

These were fuelled not just by Stand ( the late poet and academic Jon Silkin's ambitious magazine with its global circulation ( but by small publishing presses such as Panurge and Iron, Bloodaxe Books and a co-operative called Writing Women.

Subsequently the agency New Writing North, which initiated the most lucrative award for writers in the country, the national writers' magazine Mslexia and creative writing courses at both Northumbria and Newcastle universities have added to the rich blend of opportunities.

"For me, coming from Australia, I just kept coming across this name Newcastle upon Tyne. When I saw a job advertised here I thought, this is it ( this is where I'll meet all the writers."

Penny's first stop in Britain was Oxford University, where she did a PhD and had a short story accepted for publication by Writing Women. She then moved to Aberystwyth to study for a post-doctoral fellowship.

But the job of lecturer in English, with an interest in creative writing, brought her hotfoot to Newcastle in 1990 and she has been here ever since. The MA course in creative writing, which she subsequently set up, goes from strength to strength.

"At the moment, we're probably one of the biggest in the country with over 60 students, mostly in their 30s or 40s upwards. We do have younger students but we actually encourage older people because you need some life experience for writing.

"And they come from all over the place. We have had students from all around England but also from America and Africa. We have a native Cherokee student at the moment. The name Newcastle upon Tyne is still attracting people who want to be writers."

Of great interest to her students is Penny's novel, which was the result of a bidding war between rival publishers. Orion, the winners, have high hopes and expectations of Penny and signed her up for a two-book deal.

Penny, who lives in Jesmond, Newcastle, can't promise her students a publishing deal. The rational academic in her says: "The chances of a first novel being published are less than one in a thousand, so we can't offer them that. But we can offer them a lot of advice and support and, of course, they do go away with a post-graduate qualification.

"One of the things we try to do is help people explore ways of creating a writing life. …