Astra Bloom, along with Katy Massey, was recently selected for inclusion in Unbound’s forthcoming Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers. Here she talks to Dean Atta about her journey as a writer.
What does it mean to be a working class writer and why is it important for you to identify in this way?
I can only talk about what it means to me. My working class background means that in some ways I see the world differently to my middle class friends. We grew up in different cultures, expectations were very different. We did not share the same opportunities. There are things I can’t explain: unspoken codes, a humour, a fierceness, a practicality, a pessimism. We might have grown up in the same country at roughly the same time, but my non-working class friends have no idea what it was like to choose between bus fare or tampons, they were not afraid to speak in front of posh girls, their family did not ridicule them for wanting to stay on and school to do A levels. Of course, it goes both ways, I can’t really know how it felt or feels to be in my friend’s shoes, and no matter their class, it’s true that everyone has to face challenges in life. However I’ve read many books, and books help develop empathy.
But what if we really don’t have many books written by people like me? What if the literary world is dominated by white middle class voices supplying us with a pretty good picture of their lives, feelings, the workings of their minds – doing it beautifully – while the working class writer is still, in this day and age, a bit of an odd beast who doesn’t fit; who has lots to say, but feels shut out and of less value than those who have been born more materially fortunate than her?
What if the working class writer feels discounted or misunderstood by those who’ve leapt a fraction of the hurdles she’s had to leap just to believe she’s a right to put pen to paper, to make something and keep making something. How will society learn about her, hear her story, empathize with her?
For me to be a working class writer means this:
When I was a girl, I wrote, but no one in my world was a writer. I can’t even remember anyone on telly who was a writer. Women especially were better off silly and sexy, dolly birds like Benny Hill’s Angels; the view was that I was either a snob, a lesbian, or a weirdo because I didn’t want to be like these ladies. Once I told a told a teacher I liked writing, I was top of the class in English, she laughed and recommended social work as a career – gritty, a worthy job, she saw someone like me fitting in to that world.
I wrote. We had few books at home, I messed up my A-levels and wasn’t able to take up my university place to study English Lit. Always in secret, I wrote. I could not afford to buy books or do classes. I was penniless, depressed and living in squats, I wasn’t much good at it, but I wrote. I was shy, I was tongue tongued, I felt less than the confident people I met working in fashion. I felt ashamed of being me, of having not a bean to my name, no degree, no supportive family, no outer confidence, no expensive clothes, no sense of entitlement. I wrote.
I had children, I looked after many other people’s children so that we could have enough money for the basics. I stared at the author pics and biogs on the back of books, these people were not me, they nearly all seemed to be widely travelled, very well educated, white, accomplished, rather glossy. I was sad that I had not been born into a middle class family – the expectations, I thought, would have been different – definitely higher, surely, the opportunities presented would have been like something out of a magazine… Late at night I wrote.
I carried a lot of shame about being working class. And I know this is not and was not the case for lots of working class people – but in our house we were not proud, not hopeful, there was no belief whatsoever that we could make something of ourselves. If you were a girl and half pretty you should try and hook a rich hubby, until then buckle down as a waitress or a secretary if you’d learnt to type (I hadn’t). I was angry, I didn’t want this, but it took a great deal of discipline to imagine a way out, and no one liked a show off or a moaner. I wrote in secret just because it was how I found myself and soothed myself.
Years later after struggling through a long debilitating illness I wrote for 20 minutes a day to keep myself going. Apart from holding my children’s hands and reading them a bed time story – this was the gold in my day.
More years, and then one day my being working class really jumped out at me. About a year ago, older, wiser, physically stronger, still not financially well off, but not totally broke either, I went to a writer’s festival. I was shocked to find I hadn’t felt so uncomfortable since in my early twenties, I’d had to return clothing from a shoot to a posh designer and the PR girls were all giggling behind my back because I was too shy to speak and my shoes were worn. I’m not saying anyone was giggling or bitching at the festival, no, no, it was just this sense of not belonging, this old shame of mine had come alive.
I sat in a large room and listened to people from the literary world talk about a need for diversity. Great. Great. But looking around I saw that almost everyone attending this expensive occasion was white, middle class, middle aged; mingling a little confirmed that most attendees had recently done an MA, and were coached up to the eyeballs on how to ‘pitch’. (An MA, how wonderful, I was jealous, but it’s not something all of us can do).
I wanted to run away, or be very inappropriate – shout But You Won’t Get Diversity Like This! But that was the angry, insecure rebel in me. I said nothing, and behaved myself – I knew they really did want diversity! I stayed and did my best, but I watched myself from afar thinking about how much I’d paid for an overnight stay and how it was my week’s food bill. How everyone else I met had paid what is some people’s monthly rent to stay for three nights and meet agents etc. I became very focused on whether I should take some of the teabags home.
I was furious when I got home – and I didn’t blame any individual at the festival, everyone was nice – it was just the whole business, society, culture – it just seemed so bloody unfair… Then I realised – I’m white and blonde and middle aged but I feel like the odd one out in that world because I am, I’m not imagining it. I thought, my god, it’s a class thing, for some reason I’d just not been able to see this before.
Not long after this, I heard Kit de Waal on the radio, she was asking: “Where are all the working class writers?” I then came across writers on Twitter who felt as I did, most especially Carmen Marcus. It turns out there are lots of us who believe we need to support and nurture working class writers.
A wide, startling, honest, new experience of the world is what I’m after as a reader. The world needs working class people to write – and be published. And let’s not just produce or publish the working class hero type stuff, the stuff that is uplifting, comfortable. I believe that writers and readers are better than that. There are so many characters in the world – in this country – who are under the boot of society – likely most of them will stay there – can we at least acknowledge this, document it where we see fit, write our truth, ask questions, look, listen, depict – for me this is great literature.
So, I think we should identify as working class writers if we feel it is important for us or for anyone else. As working class writers (writing whatever we want – we don’t have to write about working class things or people) bringing our selves and our truth to the page we might enrich the literary world!
What themes or topics does your writing typically focus on?
I seem to write a lot about women, siblings, mothers, relationships, sex, loneliness, physical and mental illness and nature in my grown up and my YA fiction; my poetry also contains a lot of birds! I’m drawn to the slightly strange, characters on the edge of things, and I’m partial to a little magic realism, even the odd ghost. Feminist-rural-gothic-noir – is the best description someone recently came up with for my YA. I can’t really see myself writing historical or sci-fi novels.
You’ve entered and won or been shortlisted for a number of writing competitions and prizes, what compels you to enter and what does it mean to you when you win?
Good question. I started entering competitions because they were judged anonymously. I could write something to a deadline, send it off and see if anyone thought anything of it. I was scared of being judged or shamed, I didn’t want anyone to know who I was. I liked the feeling of learning what people – well, a few judges at least, liked and what didn’t seem to be so popular. Having said that, I think it’s true to say that in most competitions, what goes through to the longlists has been filtered by readers who may just have missed – or just not personally have got – something that is really good – so it is a bit of a gamble. I think if I had more money for the fees, competitions could become an expensive habit! Seriously, though, being listed or winning is a massive boost – I hadn’t showed a soul my writing for about thirty years until the year I won my first competition – so it gave me confidence, which I really needed.
What’s your secret to success in competitions?
Not sure about this. And I’ve got nowhere in many competitions!
I do know that the things I’ve given more time to do better – and I mean looking over them periodically, with long gaps in between. Also, I’ve noticed that the things I know – “Well, that’s that and it can’t really be anything else” – the things that I feel are undeniable – have their own personality, and are rather stubborn about that – they seem to do better in competitions. Original titles are helpful for catching the eye, and it’s worth doing a tiny bit of research on the judge, to get an idea of their taste. To be honest, I’ve often been convinced that the editor has contacted me in error, because I’ve never been someone who wins things. And if I do win something, I feel like a big old fraud – a working class thing perhaps! It’s like I’ve snuck into a party!
What does success as a writer look like to you?
Ha! Well, that changes. When I was very ill, writing everyday and loving that was success for me. Then a few years ago I might have said success might involve making a decent amount of money from a book. Now I know enough about the publishing world to see that I’m unlikely to reap huge financial rewards! So really, success as a writer looks like being published, and having people enjoy my work, maybe even get something from it – in the way that I have with books all my life. But, most important to me is that I feel I’ve worked as hard as I can on a project and made it the best I possibly can – there is absolutely no greater satisfaction for me. The pride that I can take from this gives me the self esteem and sense of power I’ve wanted all my life. So, to express myself, to transform my life experiences into something else, something new – this creative process is an amazing, precious thing.
What support do you wish you’d had earlier in your career?
I still am at the very beginning of my career. And the thing is, like many people of my class, age and sex, I got very used to not expecting support. So, actually, I think to have been shown possibilities, to have been encouraged at an early age to feel that I could be whatever I wanted to be – a writer, a dancer, a fashion designer, a photographer, a teacher – that I was worth as much, that I was as full of potential as others in the world – that would have been a fantastic foundation. Yes, in a nutshell – believing that I could expect support and I deserved it, that would have been life changing. That’s something I’ve tried to teach my children.
What advice would you give to other working class writers?
I am no expert. All working class people are different. All writers are different. I may not even be a good example as I’m not only a working class writer, but someone who’s felt on the fringes of society due to illness and childhood trauma. All I would say is – I think it’s time we made ourselves known. I am a feeling person, not great on planning in life or writing – my gut says, I’m tired of this, my gut says I don’t want to feel like the odd one out for the rest of my life. I want fairness.
One way we can start using our voices and getting them heard in the publishing world – and I do believe they are ready and wanting to listen – is to come together, get groups going, encourage industry people to share their expertise at reduced rates – for free even – because when an event costs more than your weekly food bill and you don’t have credit cards, and affording travel is tricky – you won’t be going to many literary or publishing events. Obviously, most of all – whatever your class, gender, race – the thing is to write. If you want to, and you feel you must, just keep reading and writing and learning.
Which working class writers would you recommend reading?
I’ve never consciously sought out working class authors, I believe in reading widely and for love of a voice or a story or the pure music of the words – but, glancing at the piles of “special” books which I like to keep on my desk near me as I write, there is Edna O’Brien, Alice Walker, Fiona Mozley (Elmet), Zora Neal Thurston, Mary Webb, Laurie Lee, Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas, Frank O’Hara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Mackay Brown, Elizabeth Strout, Raymond Carver, John Berger, Daphne Du Maurier, Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney, Hannah Lowe, Iris Murdoch, James Baldwin, Kit De Waal, Maggie Nelson, Virginia Woolf, Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bishop. Looking at these, I see that quite a few probably are/were working class. Cathy Rentzenbrink and Carmen Marcus are great. Kerry Hudson, Lisa Blower and Natasha Carthew are recently discovered working class writers, I look forward to reading.
Astra Bloom’s Black Cat Dreaming will appear in Common People: An Anthology for Working Class Writers (editor Kit de Waal) published by Unbound in May 2019.