Literary Leicester: Graham Joyce 

Graham Joyce press picture. Design by James Walker.

The following article is a rough outline of a talk I gave at Literary Leicester on how writers inspire us to make a difference. My chosen writer was Graham Joyce.

Graham Joyce was born in Keresley, Coventry on 22 October 1954. But Leicester was his adopted home.

I first encountered Graham at The Writing Industries Conference in 2010 where he delivered the keynote speech, warning writers that the days of a hefty advance for their novels were over. Anyone serious about becoming a professional writer needed to diversify their output. Digital technology and social media were transforming the literary landscape. Best get involved than be left behind.

Graham was good to his word. He helped develop storylines for computer games, scripted the short film Black Dust, and cowrote song lyrics with Emilie Simon. He was eclectic with genre, writing horror, ghost stories and a form of speculative fiction which defied classification. Some see this as magical realism; I prefer to think of his words plucked straight out of the hedgerow. He described his work as having ‘the flavour of dreams’ but his novels are also grounded in family, relationships, and an infectious zest for life.

Despite his reservations about the financial rewards of novelists, he was incredibly successful. As well as winning the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for The Facts of Life, and collecting an O’ Henry Award in 2009 for the short story An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen, he was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel five times. If he was a football team, his dominance of the genre would make him a Man City. A Pep Guardiola. Graham would appreciate this metaphor, but not the team. He was a Coventry City fan, occasionally writing for fanzines. He also played in net for the England Writer’s Football Team which he detailed in Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.

Talk at Literary Leicester on 26 March. Photo: Aly Stoneman

So, why was he such a successful writer?

To answer this, you need to look at his life. He grew up in a mining village, worked at Butlins in Skegness, and spent ten years as a youth worker in Leicester where he believed the three R’s would get anyone back on track: Respect, recognition, responsibility. Each of these jobs and environments required an ability to connect with people. It’s this humanity which greets you on the page.

Graham was very much a writer who you could enjoy a pint with. He loved the energy of people and enjoyed sharing tales. He had courage and charisma about him. It’s this that led him to start an arts magazine in Leicester in 1980 with Sue Townsend who published a short diary entry about a certain ‘Nigel’ Mole. It was this that led him to quit his job as a Youth Worker in 1988 and drive to Lesbos with his girlfriend Sue, later to be his wife. They lived on a shack on the beach with no water or electric. But what he did have was the freedom to think and the time to write. One year later, his first novel, Dreamscape, was accepted for publication. Aspiring writers out there take note…   

Graham was awarded a PhD by publication from Nottingham Trent University where he taught creative writing from 1996 up until his death. As fate would have it, I now teach parttime at NTU and occupy his former office.

In 2013 I began work on Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel series celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Graham was one of the commissioned writers but soon afterwards was diagnosed with lymphoma and unable to complete the work. He passed away on 9 September 2014.

The following year I was in Leicester with Lydia Towsey who I had commissioned to host some writing workshops. During the break I popped outside for a fag and got chatting to a young woman and her mother about the project. When I explained that Dawn of the Unread was a celebration of dead writers and aimed to bring them back to life by encouraging people to read their books, the young girl, then seventeen, said, ‘My dad was a writer, his name was Graham Joyce, have you heard of him?’

To cut a rather lovely and long story short, it turned out that Ella Joyce – the seventeen year-old women I was talking to – was about to start a Foundation in Art. I asked to see an example of her work and was absolutely blown away. I gave Ella her first commission and she illustrated the ‘Shelves’ comic in Dawn of the Unread.

I know that Graham would love the symmetry and peculiarity of this story. But he would also appreciate that youth had been given an opportunity. The commission gave his daughter respect, recognition, responsibility. We have since gone on to collaborate on Whatever People Say I Am, a series of comics challenging stereotypes.     

Ella’s artwork in Dawn of the Unread issue 14.

I’ve not read all of Graham’s nineteen or so novels. And this is deliberate. Books are precious. You can’t binge watch them like the latest series on Netflix. They need time to settle. I treat myself every three years or so to a new one. This year I will be reading The Year of the Ladybird.

In the last blog published on his website, Graham writes about the Anglo Saxon heritage of Wistow and how Charles Ist once galloped past here seeking refuge in Leicester. As he courts ghosts of the past, the Sence gently bubbles away on its way to meet the River Soar. He talks about his own mortality and ‘the shocking clarity that cancer brings’ only to discover later that a missile has randomly downed a plane in Ukraine and killed 300 people. This has more resonance today, given the current political climate. He then asks, ‘why anyone would want to die?’

It’s at this point a dragonfly whispers in his ear, ‘I have inhabited this earth for 3 million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries. Just cherish it all.’

And then his old friend, the heron, appears, and asks: ‘Why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?’

Let’s make this our mantra today. To inspire each other as Graham Joyce and other writers have inspired us.

Literary Leicester is an arts council funded festival that ran from Wednesday 25 March to Saturday 26 March. The above talk was given during the festival closing event, Mi Duck: Writers Changing Leicester

#MondayBlogs David Belbin and Stanley Middleton

David Belbin and Ella Joyce at Bromley House Library

David Belbin and Ella Joyce at Bromley House Library

David Belbin is the author of forty-something novels since 1990. Here he chats about his friendship with Booker-winning author Stanley Middleton, the focus of issue 14: Shelves
When did you first start reading comics?
My grandparents used to post us comics when I was very young. The Beano for me, TV Comic for my kid brother, Paul. Plus The Victor and Hotspur, because my grandad liked to read them… I got heavily into superhero comics when I was 8 or so – at first Batman and Superman, but then the golden age of Marvel. I had loads of Spiderman, Daredevil, Dr Strange and The Silver Surfer. Sadly, after I went to Grammar School, my mum threw them all out without consulting me. I got back into comics at university, as satirical classic Howard the Duck came around. My interest heightened when my youngest brother, Richard, introduced me to the Hernandez Brothers’ ‘Love and Rockets’ series, which I still collect. I used to buy ‘Akira’ and ‘Watchmen’ as they came out from the original Forbidden Planet store below Virgin on Wheelergate, whose workers went on to start Page 45.

Artwork: Ella Joyce from our 'Shelves' comic.

Artwork: Ella Joyce from our ‘Shelves’ comic.

You are the only writer in our series not to have used thought bubbles in your comic…  
I’ve written a few comics, mainly ones about social issues for Unicef, though not as many as I would have liked had I had the opportunity. I quickly realised that I don’t like thought bubbles – they’re like voice-over in movies, a cheat that interferes with the visual story telling. I’m interested in writer/artists who push the boundaries in how graphic fiction is laid out, like Chris Ware. But for ‘Shelves’, as soon as I started writing the script, I realised that I wanted it to feel like a picture book, or the ‘Rupert’ stories (originally a strip in the Daily Express) which I used to be given annuals of when I was a child. Once you (James Walker) introduced me to Ella, and I saw her style and resourcefulness, I knew that she’d be able to make this approach work. Instead of my putting words into the characters’ mouths, what you get is my speaking directly to the reader  (with a couple of quotations, from Cecil Roberts and Graham Greene, thrown in) with Ella’s wonderful illustrations to help bring my story to life. This makes it feel very personal, probably the most personal thing I’ve written, outside my blog.
You’re best known as a novelist. How does writing for a comic differ to writing a book?
Writing comics is completely different from writing short stories or novels. It’s much more like writing a screenplay. Only, the images are still…

Cecil Roberts Room at Nottingham Central Library

Cecil Roberts Room at Nottingham Central Library

We discussed many potential Nottingham writers for your story but really it was always going to be Stanley Middleton… 
I originally proposed to write a story about Nottingham’s forgotten writers, people like Cecil Roberts and the great Philip Callow (who I knew through Stanley), partly because, after editing two books and organising a day long memorial event at Lakeside, I felt I’d done my duty by Stan. But I found I couldn’t not write about him. He was a near neighbour and we we were good friends for thirteen years, until his death in 2009. It’s all in the story and the memoir that can be found in one of the embeds (click on the starred buttons!). Once I’d started, the happenstance of six of his best novels being reissued and our being given several of Stanley’s bookcases fed into the story. I was really delighted when I could persuade my friend John Lucas, who’s a literary legend, to contribute an essay.
And John is also a legendary jazz musician…
Yes, John and I run a monthly poetry and jazz night. It’s every second Wednesday of the month at the Guitar Bar, on Clumber Avenue, off Sherwood Rise, from 8 until late, and it’s free. On the 13th of May we have great poetry from my old friends Jane Bluett and Mike Blackburn, plus my newish friend Rory Waterman, along with loads of classic jazz. Should be a great evening.

Stanlet shared the Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer

Stanley shared the Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer

Despite winning the Booker, not many people have heard of Stanley Middleton…
Stanley was never a big seller and didn’t aspire to be. He didn’t play the game by moving to London or even getting an agent. He was Nottingham through and through and liked being a schoolteacher. Until Holiday, I don’t think he ever had a print run exceeding a thousand copies. He’s a very fine writer and his work does get steadily better, with early peaks like Harris’s Requiem and late ones like Married Past Redemption (both recently reissued). I think his work tends to get overlooked because of the ‘provincial’ tag and because there’s so much of it: too much for academics who want to ‘discover’ a writer to read and extensively discuss. Also, let’s be frank, he kept writing until his late 80’s and the books do go downhill from his mid 70’s. So there’s a lot of late, not so good novels. I think he knew that, and didn’t care much. He just wanted to keep writing. It kept him alive.

Another thing that makes your comic very personal is the artist is Ella Joyce, daughter of novelist Graham Joyce. How was it? 
I worked with Ella’s dad, Graham, for twelve years and had signed a couple of books for her, but we’d not met until she visited Nottingham to discuss ‘Shelves’. I gave her a bit of a tour of the city, including The Nottingham Writers’ Studio, which didn’t make it into the story, and Bromley House, which features heavily. She was great to work with and already knew a lot about how comics work, even though she hadn’t done one before. Perhaps being new to the form made it easier for her to adapt to my deliberately old-fashioned approach, I don’t know. What I do know is that she brought great style and intelligence to the piece, tactfully improving some of my image suggestions and proposed lay-out. She also managed to get away with making the story three pages longer than usual! She’s a terrific artist and I wasn’t at all surprised when, while in the middle of doing the comic, she got in to Ruskin to study Fine Art. Her dad, I’m sure, would have been very, very proud of her. I hope she works in comics again but she’s a terrific artist, and so young, she ought to be able to do whatever she wants.
As well as helping us promote Nottingham’s literary heritage through Dawn of the Unread you’re also chairing our UNESCO City of Literature bid… 
The bid call for the Unesco City of Literature bid has finally come out, four and a half months later than we were originally told it would. This has delayed the next Bone and Cane novel somewhat and messed with our budget, but does mean we’ve had more time to prepare, to set up projects like the Big City Read and Write, which we’ve just got a big grant for, and to get the company making the bid registered as a charity. We have a team primarily drawn from the city’s two universities working on the bid, which has to be delivered by July 15th. The forms we have to fill in require some tough answers. It’s like the city’s being asked to take an exam and we don’t know how high the pass mark is. Regardless of the outcome, the city of literature project has already done a lot of good, celebrating, coordinating and enabling literature related events in Nottingham, and it will continue to do so. I’m proud to chair it. The bid has brought together all sorts of people, highlighting the diversity and grassroots genius that this city should be shouting from the rooftops about. We punch way above our economic weight.
Now the hardest question of all: Please recommend three books for readers from your own shelves…
Only three? I have to mention Moon At The Park and Ride by Sue Dymoke, who’s been my partner for 31 years. It’s her second collection of poetry from Nottingham’s Shoestring Press. Yes, the title refers to the Forest Park & Ride, where we launched the Sillitoe tram back in November. I was with Sue when she took the great photo on the cover, which, in turn, inspired the title poem. We’d just come out of one of many visits to Christian Marclay’s wonderful ‘The Clock‘ at New Art Exchange. The book’s launch in 2012 was at The Guitar Bar, with Four in the Bar playing, and led to the monthly Jazz and Poetry event starting that autumn.
In Shelves, I say how Stanley and I had a lot of the same books on our shelves. One writer we agreed about was Brian Moore, not so well known now, who I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on at the University of Nottingham. Moore, from Belfast, is probably the novelist who has influenced me the most. Hard to pick one novel, but I’ll go for No Other Life, about Haiti. I bought a copy of that one for Stan and we both loved it. The story’s inspired by the thwarted presidency of a former Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste Aristide, a radical leftist whose return the US is still trying to block. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Graham Greene, who I love, and who was a big fan of Moore’s. Just thinking about the novel now makes me want to read it for a third time. I think I will.
Only one more? I’m tempted to pick a crime novel by Ed McBain, Lawrence Block or Walter Mosley. Or there’s The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations, two of the greatest novels ever written. But I have to go for Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, which I reread every few years. It’s hard to sum up what it’s about without giving too much away – let’s call it a mystery thriller, which is how my first novel was labelled, but it’s much more than that. 31 years ago it introduced me to Young Adult novels and showed me that they could be as ambitious and involving as any adult or ‘literary’ work. I’ve never written anything half as good. But I keep trying…
DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale: The Magic of Graham Joyce Lives on…

Ella Joyce and David Belbin discussing their forthcoming chapter at Bromley House Library
Ella Joyce and David Belbin discussing their forthcoming chapter. Picture taken in the attic at Bromley House Library by James Walker.

I’ve got some good news that I’ve been desperate to share. But it starts with some sad news first.

Graham Joyce was originally commissioned to be one of the writers for Dawn of the Unread. There were many reasons for his inclusion, not least the ridiculous amount of times he won the World Fantasy Award, but because of his keynote speech at the 2010 Writing Industries Conference when he talked about writers having to become more adaptable and writing across mediums if they wanted to make a living as a writer. Dawn of the Unread is a combination of videos, social media, and essays all held together through a graphic novel, made available across media platforms. This made him perfect for the project, in addition to being one of my all-time favourite writers.

Graham passed away from cancer earlier this year and a packed memorial was held for him on Saturday 22 November in Leicester. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building. But now I’m smiling because I can share my happy story, one which I know would make Graham very proud.

A few months ago I was in Leicester for the launch of a poetry collection and a mini graphic novel that was created in collaboration between ourselves, NHS, Bright Sparks and Everybody’s Reading. We took the format of Dawn of the Unread and expanded it to Leicester.

During the break I was stood outside and a woman came up and asked me what Dawn of the Unread was all about. I explained how we were bringing dead writers back to life in support of libraries and bookshops and celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. A young lady overheard the conversation and said ‘my father has just passed away and he was a writer from Leicester. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him but his name was Graham Joyce’. I said ‘of course I’ve heard of Graham Joyce!!!!’ and then told her about how he had been one of the commissioned writers. Her name was Ella.

The lyrics in the above song by Emilie Simon were edits that didn’t make it into Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

We got talking and Ella said she was an artist about to embark on a Foundation Course in Art. At this point my brain started going mad with possibilities. ‘Can I have a look at some of your work?’ I said, and she showed me a book cover she had drawn for one of her dad’s short story collections. It was outstanding. Ella then explained how Graham had submitted the drawing to his publisher but hadn’t said who drew it. They were blown away and accepted it.

Artwork by Ella Joyce
Artwork by Ella Joyce

I then asked Ella if she would like to be an artist for Dawn of the Unread as this would be a fitting legacy to her father and mean that Graham still had a presence in the project. She burst out crying, we had a quick cuddle, and then began devising a plan.

Ella will be working with David Belbin, who used to share an office with Graham at NTU, to help illustrate the life of Stanley Middleton, the only writer from Nottingham to have won the Booker prize. It is a beautiful, symbolic gesture that has absolutely made this project for me, and the kind of layering of meaning that is so essential to us editors.

We met up again this Monday and David and I took Ella around Nottingham, showed her some key locations in the script, and discussed how to approach illustrating Stanley’s Middleton’s life given that Ella has never worked on a graphic novel before. I’m not going to give anything away here, but Graham will feature in the story.

There was always something special about Graham Joyce. He was one of the most charismatic writers I’ve ever met and someone who absolutely loved life. It is, perhaps, not such a coincidence that his last three books should have been dedicated to his immediate family; this was a man who would leave candles out in his back garden for the fairies before going on holiday, while his wife Sue sorted out the passports and luggage! Graham adored his children and was always very proud that they had turned out to be so creative (his other son plays classical music), not bad for the son of a miner. Graham’s writing always suggested that things weren’t quite as they seem and I like to think that Ella’s commission is testament to this (as well as her immense talent) Like his magical stories, this is turning out to be some kind of fairy tale…