A new group to bring Oxford’s writers together has proven a soaraway success. Olivia Gordon listens as its founder and stellar literary supporters explain why it meets a vital need.

Elif Shafak and Sophie Badman at the Oxford UnionAbove: author Elif Shafak in conversation with Sophie Badman at the Oxford Union launch of the writers’ hub

 

April Pierce and Asiyla RadwanBy Olivia Gordon

‘It's mad not to have a central hub for writers across Oxford.’ That was the realisation of April Pierce, contemplating a city and university with an unparalleled wealth of literary heritage that is also home to uncounted numbers of current writers. The new hub she went on to launch is now backed by literary luminaries from Hermione Lee to Philip Pullman.

Pierce (St Anne’s, 2012), an English Literature graduate, fiction writer, and devotee of TS Eliot, linked up academics, artists, students, and ‘literary activists’ from across Oxford University and the city to start Oxford Writers’ House (OWH). Launched at the start of Michaelmas term, its aim is to bring Oxford’s writers together for readings, socialising, workshops, mentorship and more.

‘Oxford's prodigious literary heritage makes it an obvious place for writers to converge,’ says Pierce, (pictured top right with (in red) Asiyla Radwan). ‘There are dozens of clubs and writing workshops silently scribbling away at nearly all hours. However, it can be hard for us to find each other. Oxford Writers' House aims to inspire, connect, and give voice to a community that is already flourishing here, invisibly.’

At a gathering at Waterstones to celebrate OWH’s successful first term, north Oxford resident Mark Haddon gave fellow author Anna Pasternak (Christ Church, 1985) one simple reason why he was supporting OWH. ‘Writers just don’t get out of the house enough,’ he said. But he acknowledged that this isn’t solely about creative community. ‘Writers always want to meet and think they’ll talk about writing — then they meet and talk about anything but!’

Anna Pasternak and Mark HaddonAbove: Anna Pasternak chats with Mark Haddon at the Oxford Writers’ Hub’s Christmas celebration

OWH’s first seven events — each sold out — have included a talk by the bestselling Turkish author Elif Shafak at the Oxford Union and a gathering of Oxford writers sharing their work on the subject of winter. There is much more planned for 2017, including publisher–author ‘speed-dating’ to pitch book ideas (next Thursday, 26 January); a new competition for budding authors aged from eight to eighteen, the Peregrine Prize; a Valentine’s evening where singles must come with their favourite book; an open-mike event with Oxford University’s Poetry Society; and a ‘creatathon’, in which writers and illustrators will collaborate and then exhibit their work.

Through the OWH website, Oxford writers can also share details of writing groups, look for writing jobs, read articles on writing, chat on a forum, and employ writing mentors.

Words for Winter – Euton Daley and Kate ClanchyAbove: Former Pegasus Theatre director Euton Daly and poet–dramatist Kate Clanchy at the Words for Winter event

Pierce has attracted a stellar line-up from the literary firmament onto OWH’s advisory board, including Oxford alumni Haddon (Merton, 1981), author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; Philip Pullman (Exeter, 1963), author of the His Dark Materials trilogy; former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion (University, 1981); Amit Chaudhuri (Balliol, 1987), whose books include A New World and The Immortals; and Kate Clanchy (Exeter, 1984), author of Slattern and other novels. Also on the board are fellows Professor Seamus Perry, a literary critic and the chair of the English Faculty Board; Dame Hermione Lee, Professor of Literature and biographer; and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature and novelist. Many other Oxford University academics, alumni and students are involved with OWH, too (as well as others with no connection to the university).

Yet this is a project aiming far beyond gown and into the town. Writing mentors were only hired if they expressed an interest in teaching disadvantaged writers. ‘Oxfordshire as a county has one of the lower literacy rates in England,’ says Pierce. ‘That's absurd, when you know how much literary talent there is here. Our organisation is set up to start addressing the needs of this region. Part of the challenge involves a longstanding town/gown division of interests, and another part has to do with uncharted waters. We want to work across schools to help deliver high-quality projects and literary expertise, and to lift up the voices of marginalised and peripheral communities throughout Oxford.’ The new director taking over from April, Asiyla Radwan (St Anne’s, 2015), a mature student at the Ruskin School of Art, is keen to start working with local state schools early in 2017.

Mary Loudon, Philip Pullman and Oxford Writers' HouseAbove: authors Mary Loudon (second left) and Philip Pullman (second from right) with Oxford Writers’ House members at the Waterstones-hosted event Why I Write

Pierce won funding for the project from St Anne’s Incubator Project, which supports three student business plans. The not-for-profit organisation run by young volunteers has won the support of a wide range of partners, including Oxford University Press, Torch (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), Oxford City and County Councils, Blackwell’s, Waterstones, the Albion Beatnik Bookstore, St Anne’s, Wolfson and Somerville, the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, the Rhodes Trust, and Oxford Brookes University.

This is not the first time an attempt has been made to establish a central space for writers across the universities and city of Oxford. Indeed, in the estimation of one local bookseller this may be the eighth attempt to create a permanent space for Oxford writers and writing. But Pierce sees reason for optimism.

‘There are reasons other projects have failed. Ego, intellectual provincialism, timidity… Believe it or not, lack of available financial resources has been a major issue. But we have our fingers crossed this time. So far, what we have created is working.’

 

Olivia Gordon, who writes regularly for Oxford Today, is one of the mentors for Oxford Writers’ House.

Photos of Mark Haddon, Anna Pasternak, April Pierce and Asiyla Radwan by Olivia Gordon for Oxford Today. All other photos © Izzy Romilly, reproduced with permission.

Comments

By Michele
on

This new hub sounds great! But is it open to those outside of the university? My partner is not associated with the university, and he has also not yet published any of his work, but he is in the process of polishing off some fiction work that he hopes to publish later this year. Would it be an appropriate thing for him to join?
Many thanks in advance for your assistance with this query

By John Tepper Marlin
on

Glad to see this is working out.

By Simon Boyd
on

Can we have an extension in Cambridge, please?

By ann
on

How do you link up with the Society of Authors and Writers in Oxford?
The lattter has been going for some years now. Philip Pullman was a founder member. So was I.

By Asiyla Radwan
on

Hi Michelle - Yes, we're open to all writers in Oxford, whether from Oxford University, Brookes, or the City, and we welcome writers at all levels of experience, from complete beginners to published authors.

Hi Ann - We collaborate with writing groups all over Oxford in different ways, for example as well as keeping a comprehensive and up to date list of Oxford's writing groups and journals on our website, we also signal boost their events on our calendar and social media.

In addition, we run partnered events with Oxford's writing groups as part of our aim to work across boundaries of University/City, writing genre, author experience etc.

By Simon Altmann
on

How does one join? I have published 10 books, five non mathematical, and some poems. I am an emeritus of BNC, aged 93 but active (this month I sent for publication a major paper on the Annunciation from the pictorial point of view, which has already been accepted.)

By Asiyla Radwan
on

Hi Simon - You can join via the membership page on our website: https://www.oxfordwritershouse.com/member/membership You can also submit writing to us via the website as we're always looking to showcase Oxford's writing talent!

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