Kerry Hadley-Pryce says she has always written on the quiet, but her career as a novelist only really took off when she had it confirmed that she could, and should, write about where she is from.
She studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, gaining a Distinction and the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement for the novel she produced on the course.
She called it The Black Country. The reviewers loved it. It was a triumph of regional writing at large:
‘…this ambitious and memorable first novel loiters like a rotting fish left behind the fridge. I mean this in a good way. The Black Country really is something else.’ — The Independent on Sunday
‘The Black Country is a debut of gothic ambition. The cover hints at David Lynch, and this twisted portrait of a marriage in continual breakdown, of distrust, paranoia and love turned to contempt is a little as though Gone Girl had been reimagined by Lynch.’ — South China Morning Post
The moment of affirmation came from her editor at Salt Publishing, Nicholas Royle.
He confirmed to her that regional writing is okay. In fact, it is more than okay. It is increasingly being sought out by publishers bored of the ‘same old same old…’
‘I needed someone to say to me ‘you can write a particular place, and it doesn’t have to be London,’’ Kerry recalls.
‘The lurking doubt for many writers is that they fear they won’t get anything published unless it is set in The Big Metropolis, like if you talk about anywhere else, they won’t want to publish you.
‘That’s entirely wrong. Publishers are very keen on stories set outside London, and it is okay to talk about real places, too.
‘I used to ask myself whether you could… and the answer is yes. Why wouldn’t you? Nobody is going to take you to court for mentioning Stourbridge ring road or Queen Street in Wolverhampton.
‘Setting a story in a place you know well puts you at a real advantage, because you are actually in it.’
And yes, London publishers are crying out for strong regional voices, novels and short stories evoking a sense of place, something ‘other’, and definitely other from the rest of the manuscripts on the slush pile.
Kerry says: ‘The Black Country is set in the Black Country, and Nick was very keen for me to set it there. I’d written a short story from which the novel panned out, about a chap with a confession to make.
‘I don’t plan out my novels. I’m not the sort of writer who gets a big piece of paper and produces spider diagrams. I quickly write down a moment, then work out what happens after.
‘When I’m working, I’m thinking ‘What would this character do? What would they think?’ They wouldn’t follow a plan. The only plan I have is that it’s set in the Black Country.’
So what is it about the region that holds such fascination? And why does Kerry keep wanting to write about it?
‘It’s an unsettling area, there is a gloom about the place,’ she says. ‘If you leave it and then you come back, you can feel it. I like to absorb myself in it.
‘The canal network, the geography lends itself to shedloads of description. My PhD is on psychogeography, a political movement of the 1960s. Essentially, some very middle class people wandered about as flâneurs, not following the beaten track. They would take a walk in places they knew they shouldn’t be.
‘I do a bit of flâneuring myself, and it’s described it as having ‘an alert reverie’ – a term coined by Gaston Bachelard and still used by contemporary psychogeographers.’
Kerry is thinking deeply into this as she embarks on studying the psychogeographical qualities of regional writing. She’s part of a team of researchers and lecturers at the University of Wolverhampton, contributing to studies on regionalism in a literary context, and bringing forth the next generation of Black Country writers.
It’s an exciting time to be studying in the area, and working out what it means to live and write there.
‘In the Black Country you are always an outsider because nobody knows where the boundaries are,’ Kerry observes. ‘Some say Wolverhampton isn’t the Black Country, or Stourbridge isn’t the Black Country. There’s endless debate.
‘I often consider a sense of ‘outsidership’ in my characters.
‘If you read Joel Lane or Anthony Cartwright, there’s a cadence that doesn’t necessarily include dialect, but you get an intonation in the language, a disjointedness, a sense of ‘Who belongs where?’
‘The West Midlands accent is considered one of the least attractive in the world, not just the UK. You can feel this in the cadences of the speech.’
Kerry doesn’t worry so much now about how her writing is going to be received.
‘Some literary agents may not understand regional writing, but that’s no reason not to write it. Regional writing takes into account people you won’t find in an Ian McEwan novel, with your standard middle class characters. It often reflects a sense of disquiet, or a defence mechanism we have about where we are from and how that affects us.
‘I’m more interested in working class culture and what lies beneath it, people who aren’t necessarily likeable, even. You don’t have to have likeable characters. In real life, horrible people exist.
‘The Black Country is an ambiguous area and so my novel has an ambiguous ending. I believe regional writing can reflect the area, not so much in dialect or location, but in the feel and cadence of the writing and even the narrative structure of a book.
‘It comes down to the old saying ‘Show, don’t tell’: writers do this by placing themselves slightly outside of things, hearing what people around them are saying to each other, how use of dialogue and speech can communicate a place, the temperature.
‘And to me, the Black Country is more than just a place. There is something about it that drags you back. And of course, there are people who never leave.’
By Louise Palfreyman
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a PhD candidate at the University of Wolverhampton
Her next novel, Gamble (Salt Publishing), is due out in 2018