What makes the east of England such a hub for lovers of books, reading and writing? As Norwich celebrates its tenth year as a UNESCO City of Literature with a host of city-wide events, we caught up with National Centre for Writing and the author of Everyone is Watching, Megan Bradbury, to find out why successful writers from all over the world choose to live, work and create in the region.
What drew you to the east of England?
I was born in the US, but grew up in south Norfolk, so it might be more accurate to say that I was drawn back to the east of England. After studying creative writing at UEA, I moved away, briefly to New York City, then onto Edinburgh and then Penzance, but I think I always knew I’d return to Norwich eventually. I came back after winning a writing fellowship at UEA, and after that my husband and I decided to stay on. We have lots of friends and family in Norwich, and it’s a great place to raise kids. It’s relatively cheap to live here, which means we can afford to write, but it’s also culturally vibrant, not just with regards to writing but also musically and with regards to visual art. I love being so close to the coast, and London is only two hours away. Norwich is also special because it’s not a satellite city. It has its own character and identity. And it’s always evolving.
Norwich is home to five percent of the UK’s independent publishers and a host of award-winning independent bookshops, including The Book Hive and Bookbugs and Dragon Tales. Why do you think independent publishing and bookshops are so successful in the region?
I think this is in part because Norwich is not generally a place you pass through. Geographically speaking, Norwich is quite cut off from the rest of the country (there are no motorways here!). The city exists in its own little nook, and people in nooks like to read. When I was younger, the UEA was the main institution of cultural production in the city, but since then the city has grown to accommodate a range of centres dedicated to promoting the arts: the National Centre for Writing, Norwich University of the Arts, the Forum, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. So here, culturally speaking, the arts are coming at us from all directions. It makes sense to me that independent publishers and bookshops should want a home here. These days, everyone can engage with the arts. One doesn’t have to be a student to get involved in things, as was the case when I was younger. Bookshops are particularly important in this regard because they are there for everybody. As an ex-bookseller myself, I have first-hand experience of the vital role bookshops have in cultural exchange. They are social places, lively places, and through the books they sell they represent the community they serve.
Is there a special place where you go to write?
My favourite place to write is at home. I live within walking distance of Norwich city centre, and so am surrounded by the noise of the city, and yet this space is private and comfortable. If I write anywhere else then it tends to be Cafe Bar Marzano at the Forum, or the Millennium Library. This is also where I meet and work with other writers who I mentor. I love the Forum’s open space and general cacophony. I also love working in the UEA library, which is like a concrete cocoon.
Are there any hotspots you’d recommend for keen readers and writers to get some inspiration?
There’s something for everyone here. In the wider region, I’d recommend the coastline for general inspiration: Holkham beach, Blakeney, Cromer. The grounds of Felbrigg and Blickling Hall are lovely. For eccentric inspiration, go to Sheringham for their 1940s weekend, or Poppylands Cafe at Horsey (the beach there is also great for seal-watching). For social history, there’s the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, and Stranger’s Hall and the Brideswell Museum in Norwich. Norwich Cathedral always lifts the spirit. Take a tour of Dragon Hall, or better still, go to a reading there. Cinema City is also a fantastic place to gain inspiration. But for me (and for the sake of disclosure, I should admit that my working there for a number of years has made me biased), you can’t beat sitting in an armchair in the Book Hive with a pile of books on a Saturday afternoon, reading and talking with all the other creative strays that happen to wander in.
You were a mentor for the National Centre for Writing’s Escalator talent development programme for writers based in the East of England. How was that experience?
That’s right. I have done this for two years, and I love it. It’s been such a privilege to support these writers who are working on ambitious and important projects. There are so many talented writers in this region, and the Escalator scheme gives writers from all backgrounds the opportunity to dedicate time to their work. It’s important to have faith in one’s own writing, but sometimes you need someone else to have faith in it too, and this is what the Escalator scheme is all about, supporting and encouraging talented writers who don’t typically get the attention they deserve. I mentor many writers, each with a range of backgrounds and interests, and it never fails to amaze me how the seemingly biggest problems related to writing can be unlocked just by having someone else to talk to about it. The writing process can feel very isolating, so having regular contact with another writer and a forum to discuss and exchange ideas can be life changing.
Escalator needs your help! The National Centre for Writing is trying to raise £8,000 to support early-career writers whose voices are under-represented on UK bookshelves. You can show your support by gifting a one-off donation or buying a limited edition screen print. Find out more here 🡪