The writer of Lowborn talks to Julie Vuong about easing the path into literature for marginalised writers with the launch of the Breakthrough Festival
For anyone who knows the slightest thing about Kerry Hudson, be it from her novels or the publicity surrounding her new memoir Lowborn (Chatto) or even just her engaging Twitter account, her new festival for under-represented writers won’t come as a surprise. Her Twitter bio might read 'big mouth' but 'big heart' might be a more apt descriptor. Because for one day next month, Hudson is inviting up to 70 writers from marginalised backgrounds to the Breakthrough Festival, where they will have free access to workshops, talks and one-to-ones with a cohort of well-known names. Everyone involved is waiving their fee - from Twitter UK, which is playing host at its London office, to the stars in attendance.
This is all Hudson's work: rallying friends to get involved, asking for donations towards attendee travel costs, and pulling in favours from the likes of Kit de Waal, author of the hit My Name Is Leon - who, in return, has asked Hudson to support Primadonna Festival, a new, inclusive literary festival launching this summer.
"There are people who are just as or more talented who cannot access the industry, for all sorts of reasons"
"What I imagined to be quite small could be something great," Hudson says. "Lots of people immediately said they’d like to be involved including Louise Doughty, Joanna Cannon, Jessie Burton and Philippa Perry; and organisations such as the Society of Authors, Spread the Word and Writers & Artists. It just grew and grew."
Demand for tickets is guaranteed to be high. "If we go over 70 applicants, which I believe we will, it will go to a lottery system. Applicants will have to explain why they feel they need access. We have to trust people - it’s stated on the form: to please make sure you’re applying because you couldn’t afford it otherwise."
The goodwill towards Breakthrough is testament to the high esteem in which Hudson is held in publishing circles and with the public. Her two novels, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma and Thirst, sealed her place as a champion of working class voices.
She is full of spirit for the cause, using her profile to bang the drum for marginalised writers. "These people have every right to be in the publishing industry," she says. "I wanted to find ways to make Breakthrough genuinely inclusive for people who have no money. That includes subsidising travel, and we’ve launched a Go Fund Me campaign this week. Spare Room will put people from out of town in touch with hosts. I’m still trying to find a catering sponsor."
Gateway to publishing
Hudson speaks from experience. Lowborn, her new book, is a memoir about "growing up, getting away and returning to Britain’s poorest towns". It’s released this month, and Hudson is on a whirlwind book tour around the country shortly before Breakthrough takes place.
While she confesses she found her own route into publishing her debut easy, she’s convinced she was a lucky exception. "I’m not the ideal example of marginalisation [in publishing]" she admits. "But hopefully I’m an example that it can happen! I met my agent Juliet Pickering early on and she’s still my agent now; she absolutely championed me and understood exactly what I wanted to do, and found me the perfect editor at Chatto. I was very lucky my first novel was well received, and it gave me the momentum I might not have had. People who like my books, like them with loyalty, but I know my story is rare; there are people who are just as or more talented who cannot access the industry, for all sorts of reasons."
The general talk around supporting under-represented writers is "heartening", Hudson says, and is evidence that publishers are starting to take the issue seriously. "I think it’s really commendable; these are not just token gestures but changes in procedure and recruitment policy. Random House, such a huge publisher, understands and consults on these issues; Hachette, too, has done an extraordinary job. But it’s a longer term project. People from entry level positions still have to climb up the ladder until they reach a commissioning level or get the chance to run an imprint. We will start to reap the rewards in a few years when they reach decision-making level and there’s a spectrum of people."
Hudson is not a lone voice in the fight for greater diversity in publishing. "Sharmaine Lovegrove has to get a mention for being a tireless worker," she points out. "I feel like there is a whole gang of us who won’t shut up! And I know there are people who've been banging on the door for decades. Now it’s gaining more traction. I spoke to Eva Lewin at Spread the Word recently about diversity, and she said, 'Oh yes, we’ve been working on this since the 90s.' But, yes, a crack has been opened. Part of that is thanks to people like Kit de Waal, who’s used her platform, and Nikesh Shukla, someone who very publicly got publishers to talk."
Back to Breakthrough, and Hudson hopes it’s not a one-off. "Let’s see how well or terribly it goes, but I see it going on, as long as the goodwill exists. I ran events for an NGO, and I own my own clipboard, so I think we might be fine!"
Breakthrough Festival takes place on Saturday 29 June