I’m reading The Proper Order of Things, a novel by Tara Benwell, and a rattling good read it is too. What makes it more fun is that I have met the author, always a nice sensation, and furthermore she’s an English teacher.
I’m so pleased that Tara got her book published, and – if you understand what I mean – I’m pleased that I’m pleased. Tara’s young enough to be my daughter, but I fear that had we been same-age colleagues, my main emotion might have been envy. So I’m pleased that I’m beyond that and can enjoy what you might call the extracurricular successes of people who make a living in the same business as me.
But then I’ve never wanted to write a novel. If Tara had written a play that had been staged in London’s West End or on Broadway in New York, I may have been well fussed!
Tara isn’t the first EFL/ESOL teacher to be a published novelist. The twentieth century is littered with people who swanned around Europe teaching English to finance their desire to write.
Christopher Isherwood was attracted to Berlin in the 1930s by the relaxed attitude to sexual orientation. He worked there as a private English tutor while writing the novels Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. One of the central characters of the second book was the cabaret singer Sally Bowles, who of course reappeared much later in the stage show and film Cabaret.
Irish writer James Joyce was an English teacher in Trieste and other places. I doff my hat to my friend Mark Andrews as the expert on Joyce, and thoroughly recommend his blogpost about Joyce’s possible unplugged teaching experiences. – http://bit.ly/yPjuYe
The 1966 novel The Magus by John Fowles was a dark and mysterious story whose central character was an English teacher on a small Greek island. Fowles based it on his experience of working on the island of Spetses, where he taught English for two years. I remember being a little surprised that in the middle of this tense psychological thriller, the narrator of the book suddenly started complaining about having to use the Candlin English course!
You may also have heard of someone called JK Rowling. In her pre-Harry Potter days, she was an English teacher in Porto, Portugal. Cyber-chum Andy Hockley knew Rowling during that time and wrote a very nice guest blog for me about the time they worked together, which you can read here – http://bit.ly/dkpAYo
I originally wrote that another cyber-chum Anna Pires was a colleague of Joanne Rowling’s. I’ve corrected this after Anna’s comment below.
The other EFL teacher-novelist who comes to mind is David Peace, author of The Damned United, the partly fictionalised true story of mercurial English soccer manager Brian Clough and the dramatic 44 days he was in charge of Leeds United in 1974. It was a richly textured story of success and failure, which was turned into an enjoyable but much less complex film, starring Michael Sheen.
The Damned United is the best sporting novel I have ever read, and it’s a pity that John Giles, an Irishman who was one of the stars of that Leeds team, chose to sue the author for libel in 2008, successfully as it turned out. Gilesy was one of the best players who ever played the beautiful game here in England, but I do feel he was missing the point somewhat!
But then Peace is no stranger to controversy. He wrote another four novels, Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999), Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000), Nineteen Eighty (2001) and Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002), which are known collectively as The Red Riding Quartet. The books are set in the northern English county of Yorkshire at the time of some terrible crimes in the late 1970s, known the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Peace wrote uncompromisingly about police corruption and the TV dramatization of the story caused a real stir when it was shown on Channel 4 in the UK.
Not content with stirring hornets’ nests in his home country, Peace also wrote three novels about the defeat of Japan in World War 2 and the subsequent American military occupation.
He seems like someone who enjoys causing trouble!
He taught English in Istanbul for a short time before moving to Tokyo, where he worked from 1994 until 2009. Does anyone remember meeting him during these years? I would love to hear what sort of teacher he was.
What about the current crop of ELT novelists? Apart from Tara, the only one I can think of is Jeremy Harmer, who self-published The Whistle at Siete Vientos, an atmospheric novel set in Mexico.
If you know of any other published ELT novelists – or indeed if you ARE one and want a little extra publicity – leave a note!