We had the opportunity to interview Glen James Brown, a writer from the North East of England whose debut novel Ironopolis is being released this June by Parthian Books. Our Assistant Editor, Eddie Matthews, discussed the new novel and its contribution to working class fiction in the interview below.
Eddie Matthews: What was the genesis of the idea behind Ironopolis?
Glen James Brown: The initial spark came from the top floor on the Leeds City Museum. There used to be a scale model up there of the Quarry Hill Flats — this gargantuan social housing complex that once stood on the eastern edge of the city. It was home to nearly 4,000 people and, upon opening in 1938, was the largest housing project in British history.
And then 40 years later they pulled it down. This, coupled with serious structural problems due to its pre-fabricated build, meant that the wrecking balls moved in and Quarry Hill’s close-knit community was broken up and scattered across the city.
Early in the writing of Ironopolis, I scribbled a line in one of my notebooks. I don’t know if it’s a quote or if I made it up: people arranged into fixed social settings by unseen forces. All this stuff was swirling about in my head when I started the book. What I learned lit a fire of rage in me that propelled the narratives I was piecing together.
EM: What drew you to writing about the North East of England?
GB: The last thirty years have seen a lot of change and hardship visited upon the north, and how people have adapted to that is constantly inspiring; like elsewhere, they have done it with humour, warmth and grace.
I don’t go in for all this ‘salt of the earth’ stuff — there are good and bad people in all walks of life — but I will say that the north east has a history and people just as rich as anywhere else, and yet it doesn’t get written about as much.
EM: Ironopolis is made up of several different intersecting stories. Did you know how they would connect when you were outlining the novel, or did you find those connections along the way?
GB: If I’d sat down and plotted everything that happens not only in each individual story, but how those stories criss-crossed and influenced each other, I’d never have written a word. The best I could ever do was to have a vague sense of the next day’s writing, even if it was just a scene or line or image. That Hemingway idea of leaving water in the well — giving myself just enough to get going the next morning. I wrote the book like that for more than two years. Still, things do get clearer the further you go.
One day the solution for how the stories fit together dropped fully-formed into my mind while I was stupidly out running in the middle of a heatwave. I sprinted home, terrified I’d lose it, and scribbled it all down with a hand so sweaty I could barely grip the pen. When it’s ready, it lets you know.
EM: Ironopolis is comprised of working class characters. Why should people read literary fiction about the working class?
GB: There is a debate at the moment about the lack of diversity in publishing; working-class fiction is just one section of society — one huge section — whose voice is not being heard enough.
One of the biggest turning points in this respect happened for me about 10 years ago. I was living in London at the time, and my dad came down and took me and my friend out for a curry on Brick Lane. At some point he started telling stories about his life, the people he’d know, and about his factory job making shells for the Navy. He told stories for hours, weaving them together into this tragic-comic tapestry – the weirdest, darkest, funniest, most horrific, poignant, flat-out crazy stuff you’ve ever heard.
I remember thinking that all of life was there in what he was saying — all the chaotic, beautiful, hair-raising mess of life. And it was being enacted by people who lived in dying pit villages, who grafted in a factory making military shells. I wanted to do something like that with this book.
Glen James Brown
Glen was born in County Durham in 1982 and studied English at Leeds Becketts University. In 2013 he won an AHRC scholarship to study for an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, where he graduated with distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Award. Ironopolis is his first novel. He lives in Manchester.
You can pre-order Ironopolis in hardback by clicking here.