I grew up in Felling on Tyne, close to the city of Newcastle and not far from the icy but beautiful North Sea. I had four sisters and a brother. My dad worked in the office of an engineering firm. My mam was shorthand typist. We lived on a council estate until I was 13.
I think I was a happy kid, but there was also a good deal of sadness – one of my little sisters died when I was seven and my dad died when I was fifteen. We were Catholics, and I was an altar boy, so I spent a lot of time in church. I loved roaming the streets and fields, playing football with my mates, camping, heading off to beautiful Northumbrian beaches. I liked primary school but disliked grammar school. I loved our little local library. I knew I wanted to be a writer and I dreamed that I’d see my books on its shelves one day.
To the astonishment of some of my teachers, I went to UEA and studied English and American Literature. Over the years, I’ve been a labourer on building sites, a tank cleaner in a shipyard, a brush salesman, a postman, a hotel porter. I became a primary school teacher, which I loved. I wrote short stories at the weekends and during the holidays, and started to get my work published in little magazines. As I approached thirty, I gave it all up, resigned from my job, sold my house and lived in a Norfolk commune for a year and kept on writing, writing, writing.
My first novel took me five years to write, and was rejected by every UK publisher. I shrugged, spat and kept on writing. I wrote stories, poems, plays. I travelled. I worked in Adult Literacy and as a part-time special needs teacher. I edited a literary magazine, Panurge, for a few years. My first two story collections were published in tiny editions by the heroic Iron Press. Then I was ambushed by a story that turned out to be called Skellig, and everything changed.
Skellig has been published in 40 languages. It has sold over a million copies in the English language. It has become a stage play, a radio play, a movie and an opera. Skellig opened up a whole new creative world for me and I’ve written many more novels, stories, plays, opera librettos and songs. I’ve won some of the world’s major literary prizes.
Recently I have been awarded the Nonino International Prize. This is one of Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes. Past winners include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Ismail Kadare and John Banville. The full list can be seen here. The prize was estabished in 1975 by the Nonino family to save the ancient Friulian vines, which were in danger of extinction, and is supported by the Nonino Distillery. The award called me ‘a rare, doubly gifted writer’, able not only to craft stories but also be understood and appreciated by children. This is the first time the prize has been presented to a writer for young people, and the first time to a writer from the UK.
On April 19 2022, I was formally presented with my OBE for services to literature. It was presented by the Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear. The ceremony took place at Gateshead Civic Centre, just over the hill from where I grew up.
I live in Newcastle. I have one amazing daughter. I’m Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. I’m fascinated by the nature of creativity, by the writing process, by education. I work with artists, musicians, actors, teachers, directors, dancers. I work with, and write for, children and adults. I’m astounded by this amazing world, by the universe in which we live. I love beaches, light, music, Italy, skylarks, garlic, pasta, theatre, sardines, chilli, cinema, books. Every story that we write or read or act or sing or dance is an act of optimism, a move against the destructive forces that want to stifle us. I keep on writing.
More about me: some appearances in the media