Tour of the North: Three North East authors to add to your reading list
From prison memoirs to erotic fiction, your reading pile is about to get a shake-up.
By Dawn McGuigan
If you’re looking for some regional inspiration for your reading list, these three authors are taking a fresh look at the North East. From prison memoirs to erotic fiction, your reading pile is about to get a shake-up.
Jessica Andrews was born in Washington, Tyne and Wear, in 1992. She spent time living in Donegal, London, Santa Cruz and Paris and is now based in Barcelona.
She co-runs and organises events for The Grapevine, an online arts and literary magazine that showcases the work of underrepresented writers. She also co-presents the literary podcast, Tender Buttons, and teaches creative writing.
Her debut novel Saltwater was published last year and is a beautiful exploration of mother-daughter relationships and how where we live shapes our identity. It follows Lucy, a young woman from Sunderland who moves to London for university. She’s looking for everything her small-town life can’t offer but struggles with the transition from quiet suburbia to frenetic city living.
Saltwater will be achingly familiar to anyone who has left the North East or wanted to. It captures the yearning to break out of small spaces while acknowledging how those places imprint our identities. Jessica also perfectly portrays the fleeting period of youth where you’re able to make choices that shape the rest of your life. It’s a lyrical coming of age story with the North East at its heart.
Saltwater won the Portico Prize in 2020, which celebrates books that best evoke the spirit of the North of England. The prize judges said Saltwater “showed that the spirit of the north is not just around us, or a particular location to visit – but a place within us.”
Jessica is currently writing her second novel.
Eliza Clark is a 26-year-old from Newcastle. By day, she works in social media marketing, including a stint at Newcastle-based women’s creative writing magazine Mslexia. She moved to London to study at Chelsea Art College and is now based in the capital.
In 2018, Eliza received a grant from New Writing North’s Young Writers Talent Fund, which supports writers aged 15-25. Her horror fiction has been published by Tales to Terrify and she’s currently working on a novella. She also co-hosts the You Just Don’t Get It, Do You? podcast where she talks about film and television that squanders its potential with her partner.
Eliza published her first novel, Boy Parts, in 2019. It’s a black comedy based in Newcastle that explores the taboos of sexuality and gender in modern life. The protagonist, Irina, obsessively takes explicit photographs of average-looking men she meets on the streets of Newcastle and persuades to model in a selection of risqué poses. When she is offered the chance to exhibit her work at a fashionable London gallery, Irina falls into a self-destructive spiral that reveals the true extent of her obsessive relationships.
Boy Parts is dark: the publisher describes it as a “pitch-black comedy both shocking and hilarious” while The Guardian said “it will make most readers howl with laughter and/or shut their eyes in horror”. It’s erotic, grubby and sweary. In fact, Eliza’s dedication in the front of the book reads: “For my mother and father. Please don’t read this.”
Eliza’s voice is excitingly fresh and honest. Her exploration of gender, class and sexuality feels extremely current and Boy Parts is a book that captures this moment in time superbly.
Mim Skinner is originally from London but is an adopted North Easterner who lives in Chester-le-Street. She works as an artist in a prison and is a women’s support worker at Handcrafted, a charity that helps people disadvantaged through crime, illness, alcohol or substance abuse to find work and housing. She is also the founder of REfUSE, an organisation that collects and redistributes food that would otherwise go to waste.
In 2019, Mim published her memoir Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison and shared her experiences of teaching behind bars. Her students included drug addicts, violent offenders and pregnant women, each with a compelling story that led them to jail. Mim explores those background stories in detail and uncovers childhood abuse, poverty, domestic violence and desperation. In many cases, the crimes committed against these women are much worse than the ones they have been incarcerated for.
Mim considers the long-term impact a prison sentence can have on a woman’s life. Most women are jailed for non-violent crimes and spend less than six months inside but they can lose their children, job, tenancy and support network as a result.
Jailbirds includes a glossary to translate the prison lingo and Mim describes how prisoners adapt everyday products for pleasurable treats – including smoking Buscopan as a mood downer. It is both poignant and funny and an insightful reminder of the human side of the UK prison system.