Image Manchester from the Sky Daniel Nisbet
From an early age Karen Woods knew she wanted to write. “I used to get bundles of paper off the local market for about 5p, fold them into books and just start writing…once upon a time.” Later on she realised that she had a skill in writing when she became the unofficial writer on her council estate. “People used to ask me to fill in forms for them, write letters to the court or letters to people in prison. I realised that I could touch people with words.”
Karen left school at 15.“It meant nothing to me, just somewhere to meet your mates and have meals.” She was pregnant and went onto have four children. After leaving her abusive partner she made a fresh start in a new area and decided to get a job. “I was a cleaner and went to work for Manchester City Council and was encouraged by the manager to apply and get a senior supervisor’s job.”
It was while working in this job that again her manager encouraged her to improve her literacy skills. And she says; “It was one of the best things I have done in my life.“In 2013 she was given the Adult Learners Week Award
Karen went on another course, Wellbeing, and when the participants had to stand up and say what they wanted to do in life she stood up and said. “I want to write a book.” She was then in her 30s. “That night I went home and sat down and wrote for days and when it was finished I showed it my English tutor who was impressed and told me I should get a publisher.”
Getting a publisher to take on new writers is very difficult but that didn’t stop Karen. “I emailed the local paper and told them this is my story and they put it in the paper.” She was then contacted by a publishers who agreed to publish her novel Broken Youth in 2010. Like many of her novels it reflects the life on a council estate. At its centre is the story of a woman who is a victim of domestic abuse and who is betrayed by her best friend but goes on to take revenge against her boyfriend. Broken Youth was voted number 1 on Waterstone’s Readers reviews in April 2010. Karen later wrote the script for a sell-out performance of the play Broken Youth at the Lowry Theatre in Salford in 2013.
Since Broken Youth she has written 11 other novels. The titles sum up a northern slant on life: Northern Girls Love Gravy, Sleepless in Manchester and Teabags and Tears. Karen believes that their success is that whilst she might be writing from her experience as a northern working class woman in Manchester, women and stories like hers can be found in any town across Britain.
Three of her novels have now been dramatised with Karen writing the scripts and being involved in the productions. These have filled large auditoriums and attracted audiences that do not normally go to venues such as the Lowry Theatre in Salford. Her latest venture is to collaborate on a film script of her novel Grow Wars. Her books reflect the raw and gritty life on council estates, portraying a side of the city of Manchester that rarely gets a mention, apart from crime reports in the local paper. She says; “I only write about what I know about and I write because I want to write.” What does Karen think about the soaps that claim to represent a working class view of life? “I think the characters are plastic.”
Women are at the heart of all her stories but would she consider herself a feminist? “I am a feminist if it means women should be able to go to work and have a career. My books are about showing women that they can change their lives, however much they are down in the dumps.”
Karen is an astute businesswoman. She understands how to promote her novels. For her first novel she produced a banner announcing its publication and had it hung across one of the main roads leading into Manchester. She is in charge of her publicity and regularly emails newspapers and magazines about her upcoming novels and has appeared on television.
Through Facebook she is in contact with her readers and takes on board their responses. “I announced that I was writing a book about a heroin addict and someone replied saying that I didn’t know anything about it. I told him that I did, that my 17 year old brother was one, and that I would send him a copy of the book when it was published. I did and after reading it he said, ‘hats off to you’.”
Karen has built a strong fan base for her novels but getting into the mainstream media world has proved more difficult. Even though she is a popular novelist she has never been invited on to locally produced Women’s Hour or asked to write articles about her Manchester for the Guardian. It is ironic that creative writing courses have never been so popular, but only if you have the money to pay for them. They are big business for universities such as the Manchester Metropolitan University or University of Manchester: they can afford to offer professorships to well-known literary figures such as Colin Toibin and Jeanette Winterson who hook in students with the money but not always the ability. The courses have links with publishers and may lead to a book deal.
These courses are a world away from writers such as Karen, who had never heard of her “local novelist” and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, Jeanette Winterson. But she was keen to “network” with Jeanette and sent her an email.
“I told her I am a Manchester author and it would be great to catch up and I thought she might be able to help me.” But the response, via Jeanette’s P.A., was not so positive as Jeanette was too busy with meeting a deadline. Karen is sanguine about this response.“It is about who you know and where you live”.
And perhaps the deadline was an article written by Jeanette which appeared in the Guardian review on 14 February lauding the opening of the redevelopment of the Whitworth Art Gallery while in the same month Manchester City Council announced £90 million pounds worth of cuts. In the article Jeanette reminds us that the Victorian philanthropists such as Joseph Whitworth believed in education for the workers. Unfortunately this was only so they could pull the right levers in the factories, they were not in favour of them getting their grimy hands on the levers of political power!
Karen is keen to help other writers and is happy to spread the word about her own success. She regularly gives inspirational talks to groups. Her life changed because she had teachers and people around her who could encourage her to follow her dream, just like the way in which her books have in turn become an inspiring message for other working class women, who want to tell their stories.
“I was in a relationship from the age of 14 for 13 years. I never knew what I could do and thought I would spend my life on benefits but it was a bit of positive thinking that changed my life.”