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Bury Lit Fest: Meet headlining author Ashley Hickson-Lovence

Appearing at Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival this month, Ashley Hickson-Lovence is author of The 392, the story of a London bus journey, and Your Show, a fictionalised biography of the Premier League’s first and only black referee. He chats to Alice Ryan

Ashley Hickson-Lovence
Ashley Hickson-Lovence

Let’s start at the beginning: with your debut novel, The 392. Charting a single London bus journey, it tells each passenger’s story in turn, in their own voice and from their singular perspective. How did the idea and that structure come to be? And what do you hope readers will take away from those multiple perspectives?
You’ll probably be unsurprised to hear that I wrote most of The 392… on the bus, on my phone, on my way to work as a secondary school English teacher. When it comes to novel writing, I’m more of a blagger than a master planner but thankfully my small (and mighty) independent publisher, OWN IT!, saw something in the voice-driven madness of the novel and amazingly it still seems to resonate with a range of readers from all over the world.

Ashley Hickson-Lovence: The 392
Ashley Hickson-Lovence: The 392

Like life sometimes, it’s a little rough around the edges but it’s fast-paced and unapologetically no holds barred; a novel about the many faces of society that I hope will have resonance for readers - young and old - for decades to come.

Next up: Your Show. As the Premier League’s first and only black referee, we can see why you were drawn to telling Uriah Rennie’s story. . . But what makes giving a fictionalised account of a real life different? Or difficult? You met the man himself as part of your research, didn’t you?
Yes, we met three or four times, up in Sheffield where he is based. But despite gaining his approval before officially starting the project as part of my Creative Writing PhD at UEA, I still had quite a few sleepless nights. I knew it was important to get his ceiling-breaking history-making story right, especially as he is a living public figure.

Ashley Hickson-Lovence: Your Show
Ashley Hickson-Lovence: Your Show

There was lots to weigh up all throughout the writing process, including working incredibly hard to ensure that Your Show was not just a novel for football fans but an immersive page-turner about someone everyone should know about. I am beyond grateful that the book has been well received and, most importantly, Uriah and I are still in contact and he seems happy with the job I’ve done re-telling his journey to the top in the slightly unconventional and poetic manner I have.

Your latest project, Wild East, out next year, is a young adult novel-in-verse. What made you want to write for that audience? And in verse? Is it creatively important for you to change directions within your work?

Ashley Hickson-Lovence: Wild East
Ashley Hickson-Lovence: Wild East

As a former secondary school English teacher, I am accustomed to working with teenagers. Even now, as an author, I regularly do school visits - assemblies and workshops etc - and not all of The 392 is appropriate for younger readers, so I wanted to write something that I could share with them cover to cover. Writing Wild East was challenging at times: many of the scenes are based on lived experience – sometimes traumatic memories; it is written in verse - so there's a lot of rhythm and rhyme in there to get right. That said, I am incredibly proud of the finished book, especially as it’s a story predominantly set in East Anglia, a region I am now proud to call home.

That said: is it fair to say there’s a thread which runs through all your published works? The ways in which masculinity and the Black experience are written and read?
I am, and always will be, immensely passionate about the healthy and honest depiction of Black men in literature. I never really had that in the books I read when I was growing up, so we’ve got some catching up to do!

When you’re not writing, you’re lecturing at the University of Suffolk. What do you enjoy about teaching English and Creative Writing?
The teacher in me is incredibly passionate about the craft of creative writing, the structure of sentences and stuff, but also I love helping others - whatever their level of experience - achieve their writerly aims; whether that be winning the Booker prize or finishing their first ever short story. I get a real buzz seeing others improve over time.

You’re coming to Bury Lit Fest this month (October). What would you say to encourage people to attend the festival?
The wonderful Kate Sawyer has done an amazing job in her first year on the festival committee to help put together the incredible line-up this year. I am honoured to be a part of it; it’s clearly going to be amazing and you’d be mad to miss it.

Ashley is appearing at 3pm on October 21. Tickets are £6 with a £3 concession and are free to under-18s. Book now at burylitfest.co.uk

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