top of page
  • Writer's pictureElliot J Harper

A Brief Chat with Stu Hennigan

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Stu Hennigan is a writer, poet and musician from the north of England, currently based in Leeds. His short fiction has appeared in Lune Journal and the anthology, The Middle of A Sentence, and his poetry has been published in multiple places online, including at Visual Verse. He is currently working on a new novel as well as several other shorter creative projects. Listed as one of Blackwell's Best Books of 2022, and recently serialised in Prospect magazine, Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic, is his first full-length published work, which has already been widely compared with George Orwell’s classic text, The Road To Wigan Pier. He also works as the Senior Librarian For Stock and Reader Development at Leeds Libraries.

Hi Stu, thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions. First and foremost; Who is your favourite writer?

These questions are always extremely difficult to answer. There are lots of writers whose work I love for all sorts of reasons, but I read an incredibly diverse range of books including a lot of non-fiction and poetry, so it’s hard to say definitively as it’s impossible to make comparisons between different disciplines, for a start. There are also writers whose work has been critically important to me at various points in my life that have been left behind for one reason or another, often because their work has lost resonance due to changes in my circumstances, reading habits or whatever. None of this really helps answer the question though…….

Over the last few years my two favourite British writers have been Heidi James and Ben Myers. Both are Proper Writers – technically brilliant, full of ideas, true to their ideas and writing books that fit in with their singular vision. They’re both at home writing across forms too, which is something else I find hugely impressive. They write great novels, their short stuff is excellent (for a critique of a short story apiece of theirs, see the Personal Anthology I curated for Jonathan Gibbs recently, they can write poetry (like the ones Ben did to accompany The Offing), and they can do non-fiction too. Check out Heidi’s ace essay on Elfriede Jelinek in 3:am Magazine, for example, or Ben’s excellent music journalism.

Coincidentally, both writers have been previously published by Bluemoose Books. Among the many things that have been great, surreal, and exciting about the release of Ghost Signs, one of the things I find most pleasing is that it shares a publisher with the writers of Pig Iron, Wounding, The Gallows Pole and The Sound Mirror, four of the finest novels of recent times. Extremely flattering to be in that kind of company for my first book, and discombobulating cool as well.

What is your favourite book?

As above, in real terms, this is a question that’s impossible to answer definitively so I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’m going to talk about the two best books I’ve read this year so far, one fiction, and one non-fiction.

The best fiction I’ve read this year is The Trees by Percival Everett, by a country mile too. Like many people, I’d never heard of him until Influx Press started putting some of his stuff out over here, but as soon as I read him he went straight to the top of the list of writers who I want to read every single book by. And there are many, now I’ve looked him up……..Like the two discussed above, he’s a Proper Writer. He ticks every box for me. Ridiculously gifted stylist? Check. Whip-smart dialogue? Check. Books that make you think about the world in a completely different way? Yep, that too. Stories that you can’t put down once you’ve started? Yuh-huh. The Trees is, frankly, a fucking masterpiece, a history of lynching in the United States that begins as a kind of crime novel (complete with dialogue that even Elmore Leonard would find sharp) before taking a turn for the weird and heading somewhere else entirely. It’s enraging and crushingly sad, yet here’s the thing – there were points in this book where I was pissing myself laughing, and there aren’t many writers who can make me do that. You wouldn’t think there’d be much scope for humour, given the subject matter – how can you joke about that? - but he does, then you catch yourself, thinking, hang on, I can’t possibly be laughing at this. But you are. It goes at a furious pace from the off and still manages to accelerate as it goes along, with the last hundred pages getting better and better as he hurtles towards a stunning denouement and a killer last couple of lines. He’s such an allusive writer, so he’s great fun for those who like a literary jigsaw puzzle; he’s also has a wonderful tendency to ramble off on long shaggy dog stories that have you chuckling away, then he’ll throw in something that harks back to an idea introduced ten or fifteen pages ago, just to make sure you’re still paying attention; or he’ll have you in stitches riffing away iconoclastically as he slays some sacred cow or other, then throw in a single line that stops you dead in your tracks, like when he says that he considers cop killings of black people in the US to be lynchings. A final thought on this – there’s a savage skit on Donald Trump towards the end that’s so perfect you can actually hear the big orange bellend speaking them words in your head as you read. It’s a set-piece that totally exemplifies the mix of horrifically raw satire and howlingly funny one-liners he excels at, and is worth the cover price alone.

For non-fiction, there’s only one book in it for me, and that’s The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins. Fitzcarraldo Edition are one of the best publishers around when it comes to essay, memoir and non-fiction writing, and this is an A1 example of why. In the book, Aikins, a journalist based in Kabul, makes the decision to ditch his passport and travel undercover with his friend Omar, who is leaving the warn-torn hellscape of 2016 Afghanistan as a refugee, seeking a better life elsewhere. What follows is a first-hand account of the immense hardships faced by refugees, the uncertainty, the danger, the constant question of who can and can’t be trusted, the hunger, the pain, the hidden dangers that lurk around every corner. The media in this country do a great job of dehumanizing refugees, writing them off as migrants, boat people, statistics to be twisted and spun as and when policy requires, and the government need some right-wing fury to distract from whatever it is they’ve fucked up this time. This book cuts through all that and shows how truly desperate refugees are, how much scorn and hatred they’re prepared to weather in the hunt to try to improve life for them and their families. It’s not often I’ll say a book should be read by everyone, but this staggering work of extreme empathy and peerless reportage is one of the rare ones.

Want to give a shout out to Naomi Booth, who’s new Animals At Night short story collection (out now with Dead Ink Books) is a thing of wonder, and also to Wayne Holloway, whose Our Struggle is out in October with Influx Press. I had a GREAT time reading the proof, and both these titles are likely to figure highly on my list of Books of 2022.

What was the inspiration for writing Ghost Signs?

This is actually quite a long story in some ways, but I’ll do the tl:dr version here. I work for the library service in Leeds, so when Covid happened, all our sites, in common with pretty much every other public building in the country, were closed. Staring down the barrel of an indefinite period of working from home with two young children, I volunteered to work as a driver for the council, delivering food parcels from a huge warehouse to people who were self-isolating and had no way to access food shopping. I wanted to write something about Covid for posterity as much as anything, so I took a notebook (and later my laptop) out on all the deliveries with me, and started making notes about everything I said and did.

While all that was going on, I was putting little vignettes online, detailing some of the more notable incidents that had happened and some of the sights I was seeing, and Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose asked if I was writing any of it down? When I said I had about 40k worth of notes at that point, he asked if he could see it. I said no as there was nothing to see, but said he could have a look once I’d knocked it into some kinda shape. Kev and I had met a couple of times before through my work and had kept in touch after I invited him to appear as part of a panel event about independent publishing that I recorded and put on the radio about five years ago. Around the same time, I submitted a novel to Bluemoose, the first thing I’d written seriously after binning writing as a serious pursuit in my mid-20’s about 15 years previously because I got fed up of all the rejections; Kev didn’t want it, said he thought the writing was great but he didn’t want the story, and that was fine, but I think it counted for a lot once he got wind of the fact that I was writing about the food deliveries because he clocked straight away that there was a story to be told about the poverty as much as the pandemic and because he’d seen my work before I think he knew I could pull it off. Moving on, we decided on a timescale for what period the book should cover, and everything else went from there.

So what started as a personal diary about what I did during Covid turned into a completely different thing, a book about 21st-century poverty, with Covid simply as the framing story that allowed me front-row seats to report on what was happening. It happened almost organically, as crazy as that sounds, although obviously there was a huge – and I really do mean HUGE – amount of hard work that went into it as well. There was never a conversation where we said, yeah, we’re definitely doing this, we just cracked on and did it and that was that. The idea of the book is to shine a light on the catastrophic damage done to the UK by a decade-plus of Tory Austerity, and the shattering effects this has had on our most vulnerable communities, so I guess if you work backwards from there, you could say that the inspiration for the book was to put these people in the spotlight, give them a voice (like in the Aikins book) and show the wider world that they really, really need some fucking help.

How have you found working with Bluemoose Books?

The whole process has been fascinating for me. I’ve had a couple of little bits and pieces published previously, but never anything full-length; I’ve written four novels before, but none of them have ever been published and for that, I can only be thankful at this stage because I’m capable of far more now than I was when I wrote them and I’d be mortified if they were in the public domain. They were all good practice though. I think the main thing it highlighted for me was what a collaborative process writing can be. Everyone speaks about it as such a lonely, isolating thing – which it is, when you’re sitting on your own typing away when it’s absolutely the fucking last thing that you want to be doing – but there are so many pairs of hands and eyes that go into making a book.

Once I’d done the first couple of drafts (with some invaluable editorial advice from Heidi, who’s a good mate as well as one of my favourite writers), I sent a manuscript to Kev and he’d be very clear about what work he thought he needed to be done next; there was about six months of back and forth before he hooked me up with Annie Warren, who edited the book, and that was a whole new ballgame, learning how to use track changes, the dialogue you have on the page with someone you’ve never met in person etc. We got on famously and worked really well together, which was a plus. We had a good chat before we started work and we were on exactly the same page, so to speak, from the outset. There were no major disagreements or even discussions about most of it, really, we just cracked on, did the work and the book was all the better for it. Once that was sorted, Lin Webb, senior BM editor stepped in, although I’m such a bloody perfectionist she said that by the time I’d finished with my final edits and proofreading, there wasn’t really a lot left for her to do, so I was really chuffed with that. Had a great time sorting the cover art with Fiachra Murphy too. It’s not always been easy but it’s been such a novelty doing all these things for the first time. Hopefully, I’ll get to repeat them all again sooner rather than later, and they’ll prove to be every bit as exciting the second time round.

What are your writing plans for the future?

I’m currently about 90% of the way through the first draft of a new novel, which I’m tremendously excited about. It’s about addiction, trauma, grief, death, loss, family secrets and how people’s lives can be shaped by things completely beyond their control. For the first time in a long-form piece, I know exactly what the end product is going to look like, and now I have some experience with the whole process of writing/rewriting/rewriting/rewriting and having done it with a publisher and editor behind me, I know exactly what I need to do in each of the next two or three drafts to get it to where it needs to be. Then I’ll get my critical friends in on the blag, we’ll fucking dismantle it and it’ll get rewritten a couple more times, but it’ll be worth it if the final thing is anywhere near how I envisage it to be. I thought I knew from my previous unpublished stuff how much hard work, rewriting and editing goes into a book, but believe me, it’s nothing compared to doing it when you know it will be published and there’s a whole team of other people involved too.

I’ve been working on some short stuff as well. I’ve got one on submission that I’m pretty hopeful about, which was good to get out just to try to keep up some creative momentum as much as anything. I’m consumed by a kind of creative mania at the moment. I’ve got short stories landing pretty much fully formed in my head, and a word document with complete outlines for at least half a collection written down. I’m just spannered by a lack of time. I work full-time, I have two young kids, and I’ve got a huge amount on in terms of promoting Ghost Signs, doing interviews, events, booking appearances/readings etc, so I just do not have the time to write at the moment, which is hugely frustrating. It’s not likely to change any time soon though, so need to wait until things settle down a bit and then it’s going to be back to the eight till midnight graveyard shifts for me until such a time comes where I can make enough money from writing and related activities to match or outstrip what I earn at work. At that point it’ll be crunch time – play it safe, stick with the security of work and try to fit everything around it, or take the leap and see what happens. Never been one for playing it safe so I don’t think there’ll be much of a decision to be made, but if that point ever comes, it’s not going to be for a few years, I wouldn’t have thought, so no point losing sleep over it now.

Thank you, Stu, for answering those questions in such detail.

I read Ghost Signs in four sittings over three days, and I simply couldn’t put it down. To say it's harrowing is an understatement. The sheer scale of the poverty that’s affecting the poorer regions of Leeds is terrifying. I love this city, and I consider it my home. I was excited to return here when we left America at the end of 2021, and I’m even more excited to stay in this region for the rest of my life. But when I saw Garforth, Rothwell, and Woodlesford (the village where I actually live!), mentioned as places where Stu dropped off food parcels, it startled me with the brutal reality of the situation and it has left me shaken.

Twelve years of Tory rule has left the country on the edge. Over a decade’s worth of cruel austerity, the criminal defunding of the NHS, and the shitshow that is Brexit, had left the UK teetering and then the pandemic hit and, consequently, we get the scenes that were expertly portrayed in Stu’s book. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me really as I’ve long since realised that this government doesn’t give one solitary shit about us, but to read it in such awful terms, to know that it’s happening in the city I live in, and in all the others across the country, it’s really broken my heart…. But it’s also made me very, very fucking angry.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t say this because honestly, it feels trite in the face of the problem, but VOTE. In the local elections, in council seats, in the General Election, and in anything else that’s happening. Vote the Tories out because I doubt we can survive another five years, let alone another decade.

And if you’re still on the fence, or if you really don’t think there’s a problem, or even if you’re still somehow, in the face of such blatant disregard for your own self-preservation, a Tory voter, stop what you are doing and read this book. If that doesn’t change your mind, then I really don’t know what will.

You can buy it directly from Bluemoose Books here.

Thank you for reading this Brief Chat.



Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page