English teachers with novel ideas

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.

Tara Benwell (at the front) in Brighton with new friends Shelly Terrell, Marisa Constantinides, me and Cecilia Lemos

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 (left) with WH Auden at the start of a train journey to China

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 cover of The Magus by John Fowles

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.

Brian Clough (left), the best manager England never had, and Michael Sheen, who played him in the film of The Damned United

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.

The cover of The Whistle at Siete Vientos by Jeremy Harmer

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.

Jeremy Harmer and me, cutting a cake to celebrate the publication of Just Right Advanced, which we wrote with Carol Lethaby and Ana Acevedo

If you know of any other published ELT novelists – or indeed if you ARE one and want a little extra publicity – leave a note!

64 thoughts on “English teachers with novel ideas

  1. Who knew there were so many? (You, obviously!) Whenever I’m in Indigo (a big chain bookstore here), I’m always filled with aspirations to work harder at my writing, but then when I leave, the reality of my time allocated to ELT projects sets back in and I don’t. Congrats to Tara again!

    1. Tyson, you spend a lot of time on twitter – why not string all the twitter streams you get involved in together, add a murder or two, and see what comes out of it?

  2. Great post, Ken. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tara’s book and was interested to learn more about the other ELT novelists. One I know is an ex-colleague from the British Council, Adam Dalton, who managed the London side of our Second Life project for a while. He is a writer of Fantasy, and I’m very pleased to say that after doing very well with his first trilogy of books, which he published himself, and promoted enthusiastically, doing countless signings in books up and down the UK, he has got a contract with Gollancz for a new trilogy coming out this year. If you like the genre, you’ll find his books absorbing. Learn more about it on his blog http://metaphysicalfantasy.wordpress.com – even if you’re not into fantasy, budding authors can learn a lot from the author tips he has published, where he talks about how he managed to get the attention of mainstream publishers by using social networking and his marketing experience.

    1. Thanks, Graham – exactly the kind of information I wanted – let’s all go out and buy novels by fellow ELT-ers! 😛

  3. Quick correction: JK Rowling wasn’t a teacher at International House. She worked with some friends of mine in Porto. Sadly, I never met her but have heard many stories through friends.

      1. Have corrected THAT too – also the incorrect structure in the sentence about you.

        I really should employ a decent fact-checker and editor. 😛

  4. Wow… more than ever now I want to read Tara’s novel. I have heard great reviews from different people, but it’s not available here. Maybe I’ll finally stop waiting and order one from Amazon. It’s nice to hear about other people in ELT who have ventured into writing fiction. We have so many people who write well and with imaginative minds… Thanks for the great post 🙂

    And thanks Graham for letting us know of another one! 🙂

    1. Hi ceci – I downloaded it for my Kindle. You could have an app on your phone or desktop/laptop if you don’t have a kindle. 🙂

  5. Looking forward to reading Tara’s book. I think Donna Leon and Nick Hornby were also EFL teachers. So there’s still hope for the rest of us.

    1. Nick Hornby?? Fascinating! I’ll check that out.

      You’re right! This is from his website:

      Redhill, Surrey, 17th April 1957

      EDUCATED: Cambridge University (English)
      Highbury (Football/Facts of Life)

      WORKS AND LIVES IN: Highbury, North London

      ‘Every English writer needs their corner that is forever England – but only a few brave men choose to make that corner Highbury. Who would have thought the square mile around Arsenal’s stadium could be a suitable surrogate for the whole wide world?’
      Zadie Smith, Time

      English teacher
      TEFL teacher
      Host for Samsung executives visiting the UK
      Pop Music Critic for the New Yorker

  6. Oh, excellent, Ken. Thanks so much for your recommendation, I love reading books by teachers. I’m currently reading Frank McCourt’s trilogy (Angela Ashes, ‘Tis and Teacher Man), all of them wonderful.

    Well, since you ask, I AM a published novelist:

    If the link doesn’t work, go to any Amazon, and search for “dayrealing”.

    I’d be delighted if any of your readers were to take a look, post a review, etc. I think the Kindle download is less than the price of a coffee.

    Keep up the wonderful work, Ken, and thanks for the opportunity to get a free plug 🙂


    1. Thanks, Mike – I asked for people to publicize their own work, and I’m delighted that you took the opportunity! 😛

      1. Hello Ken

        I hope you don’t mind this little plug, it’s just that “dayrealing” is doing surprisingly well at the moment (basically because it’s going free this week!), and I’m pushing for the number 1 slot in “Humour” over on Amazon. Currently #13 in the UK and #6 on Amazon.com:

        Any tweeting, sharing would be greatly appreciated, and I will remember you when I buy my new car, etc. 😉

        Thank you!

  7. Ken~ This is such a fun post! I can’t thank you enough for reading and mentioning my novel. As Jeremy mentioned in a post a few months ago, it’s not easy promoting one’s own work. And, for fiction writers (other than a few exceptions like Rowling) it’s not about the new socks you can afford when a royalty cheque arrives, it’s about the conversations you can have with readers who take the time to say they are reading or have read your book! I received a card in the mail from an old grade school teacher the other day and it meant more to me than all of the encouraging words I received from agents and editors over the years while I was writing this novel. When I started blogging personally I called my blog Beyond ELT, because I believe that the English teachers I know are creative people who like to make music, write, sing, dance, act and take amazing pictures. I’d love to know more about their dreams and what they do with their talents before and after school, and I’m so pleased that they are equally interested in what I do outside of our industry. ELT is a great way to combine dreams with career, and I’m thankful to have helped many English learners realize how fun writing can be. Thanks again for taking a chance on my book. I’m going to go buy Mike’s book now. Cheers!
    PS-That picture was taken at the Fish Bowl where I first met many of you. It was such a wonderful evening because I realized that online friends are real friends. I still have the receipt from that night. It’s in my treasure box.

    1. Tara, yes it is. You’ll find dayrealing on any Amazon, I believe. In turn, I very much look forward to reading The Proper Order of Things. I agree with you about “combining dreams with a career” especially.

      Graham, thank you so much. I hope you enjoy it.

      Ken, I’m not sure if this is coincidence or you are my fairy godfather, but my book has jumped from 250,000 to 45,000 on Amazon overnight(!). Or did Graham order 20 copies?

  8. How about popular, pre-primary and primary ELT author, Charles Vilina, who I’m sure you’ve met, Ken, (Magic Time and Everybody Up, OUP)? He’s well known in the field of Music and Movement for young learners. He has written a novel that suggests a darker side to this talented man (although you wouldn’t know it to meet him…has to be the cheeriest chap I know).

    Here’s the blurb…ain’t no “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” here…or maybe there are…

    “A Kentucky community finds itself in shock and disbelief over the disappearance of two high school boys on a dark December night. Two months later, one boy’s body is unearthed on the farm of a reclusive and enigmatic girl, a foreigner of Asian descent. Her arrest and subsequent trial for murder forces this community, and the reader, to appraise their personal beliefs in the face of their deepest fears.”

    1. Hi Patrick,

      yes, met Chuck and Kathy Vilina in Seoul. As you say, cheery people. Very interesting to hear that Chuck has written something dark. Not so surprising that there’s a ‘foreigner of Asian descent’ in the story.

  9. David Mitchell – not the comedian David Mitchell, but the novelist David Mitchell, author of some superb books (Cloud Atlas, Number 9 Dream, etc )and one of my favourite writers out there, was an EFL teacher in Japan for 8 years or more I think.

  10. Hi Ken,

    Thought that other teachers on the TeachingEnglish Facebook page would be interested to read this so have just posted a link to it here if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



  11. Thanks for this really well-researched and fascinating post, Ken. Enjoyed reading about all the EFL teachers turned-writers. What an amazingly talented group of people!



    1. Thanks, Janet!

      and we haven’t even STARTED about musical talent – Harmer again, Jamie Keddie (used to play piano on cruise ships), Luke Meddings (has played at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club), Sue Lyon-Jones (great soul singer) and Bethany Cagnol (rising opera star).

      1. Thanks, Ken – loving the books – but also looking forward to your musical post along the same theme!

  12. Hi Ken,

    Excellent post!

    One more book – Beads of Water, Drops of Gold:Tibet Against Three Empires by Mike Scholey, a lecture and consultant in international education.

    For 19 years he worked as a teacher, trainer and educational administrator in Africa, the Pacific and Asia. I got to know him when he worked in Plymouth and was a consultant for a teacher development course in Russia. Wonderful professional and interesting person.

    1. Thanks, Svetlana – I’ve certainly heard of Mike and am racking my brains to remember where we might have bumped into each other.

  13. I had no idea there were so many. Thank you for shedding some light on this – I have added to my reading list for 2012 and cannot wait to dive in!

  14. Continuing this list… My facebook friend, Lizzie Eldridge, a theatre performer and EL teacher (ring any bells, Ken?), from Scotland and living in Malta, has written a wonderful book called “Duende”, which is set in Spain during the 1920s and 1930s, and explores the prevalent philosophical and artistic topics of the day:

    It’s also a beautiful love story at the same time, and I enjoyed it very much.

  15. Just remembered another Japan hand, Tim Murphey who wrote ‘The Tale that Wags’ quote
    An engaging tale that lays bare the fundamental unfairness of the university entrance examination system in Japan. Much more than that, it takes on broader issues within the Japanese educational system: lack of gender equity, the backwardness of yakudoku, the place of foreigners in the Japanese educational system, and the passive acceptance of the system by Japanese students, their parents, and most teachers.

  16. Hi Ken and todo el mundo.

    For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the author of The General Interrupter, who absolutely NAILED the life of a Tefler in northern Italy, in this case the fictional university town of Pandora.

    It was like holding up a comedy mirror.

    1. Are you sure that’s the title, Alan? Doesn’t seem to show up in searches.

      Does anyone remember this book and the writer?

    2. Could it be Cara Massimina by Tim Parks? That features a disaffected English teacher in Verona.

      Another Italian based British writer, Michael Dibdin wrote Dirty Tricks about another disaffected English teacher returning to the UK after 20 years and finding himself unprepared for the Thatcherite values that have taken hold in his absence. Very dark and very funny.

      1. Ouch! i should have remembered Michael Dibdin! Not only was he an International House teacher, he also did a very interesting presentation at 106 Piccadilly about the life-changing experience of reading a Maigret novel to brush up on his French. Reading about Maigret made him think about a fictional Italian detective – how would the story be different? This all led to the creation of Aurelio Zen, central character of a number of Dibdin novels such as Vendetta. Pity the TV version starring Rufus Sewell was so poor.

  17. I have combined my writing passion with teaching and have had four graded readers published to date. A fifth is due for publication any time now. Writing for me is like brushing my teeth, I really couldn’t imagine not doing it every day.

      1. Ok, here goes… ( a little late)
        Missing in Sydney
        Home for Christmas
        A Dream Come True
        I Want to be You
        A Message from a Ghost
        The Truth About Professor Smith

        They are all published by Cideb Black Cat

  18. Hi Ken – what a joy again reading this post. It was really nice to trace back teachers that have become novelists and vice versa. Can we nourish any expectation for the first novel by K. Wilson?

    1. Hey Evandro – as you well know, I’m more comfortable writing dialogue than prose and as I said in the blog itself, I’d be more envious of an ELT colleague getting a play put on in the West End or on Broadway. I may try to write something shallow and funny one day… 😛

  19. Hello Ken,

    thanks for mentioning my novelistic efforts! I too have read Tara’s ‘Proper Order of Things’ and enjoyed it very much.

    Some of us have enjoyed writing ‘original’ fiction for Philip Prowse in the Cambridge English Reader series. My three books in that series (only two appear on their out-of-date website) have been some of the most fun writing I have ever done.

    Another author in that series is Penny Hancock, Cambridge resident, ex TEFL teacher and part-time primary teacher. This evening I went to a lunch party for her debut novel. This is penny http://authors.simonandschuster.co.uk/Penny-Hancock/82603263

    and this is her novel Tideline http://books.simonandschuster.co.uk/Tideline/Penny-Hancock/9780857206282

    She’s about to be very ‘big’ I think. Exactly the kind of person you are talking about!!


    1. Hello Ken

      I was at the launch of Penny’s Tideline with Jeremy and was very proud to see ‘one of us’ emerge as a mainstream fiction writer. Another new mainstream novel from the ELT community is by Sorrel Pitts.

      Sorrel’s novel, The River Woman, is described by Sir Michael Parkinson as ‘A fascinating story told by a very promising writer.’ In the book, Nicola is saved from an almost certain snowy death, and finds herself drawn into the secret of her father and son rescuers, while she still guards her own dark secret. Like Tideline it has a surprise, shocking, ending.

      Sorrel edited the Macmillan Readers Series and is now Readers Editor at OUP. The River Woman is available at http://www.indigodreamsbookshop.com

      I bought both on publication because I knew the authors and haven’t regretted it! But be warned they’ll both come back to haunt you!


  20. Hi Ken, great post, very interesting theme.
    I’ve taught in Ukraine, Italy, Romania and Portugal, but have never run into any ELT novelists.
    That said, I’ve currently got two novels available on Amazon.

    They’re aimed squarely at the Twilight market, YA paranormal romance, and I’ve sold about 500 of them since October.
    If anybody has got teen students they think might like to engage with the books, or get in touch with me, let me know. I can probably rustle up some discount copies…

  21. Hi Ken
    Caught up with this thread pretty late I’m afraid. Definitely some novels I want to pick up when I’m over in the UK in May.
    In the 70s I worked at Bell in Norwich and if I’m not mistaken, the then principal told me that Ian McEwan had done a summer stint there, but I could be wrong. It would only have been en passant though, since like Juilan Barnes his only references to EFL are pretty snide ones!
    More solidly, I worked there with a teacher called Mick Austin (or Austen? honestly can’t remember) who went on to publish a novel. Can’t remember the title but Dave Allan in Norwich will probably know.

    1. Hi Jeff

      It’s Mick Austen but he publishes as Michael Austen and his latest is a great Cambridge English Reader called Berlin Express!



      1. Hi Philip
        Good to know he’s still around! And good to hear from you, as always.
        Forte abraco!

    1. Hi Anna Ken and everyone

      Here’s another ELT author gone mainstream! I’ve just finished reading Julia Newsome’s ‘The Boy With Two Heads’ which is set both in ancient Greece and today. Very topically it takes us back 2,400 years to the early Olympics and tells the tale of young Themis’s struggle to get to Olympia and triumph there. To be candid I bought the book because I know Julia (she’s an author of Cambridge English Readers and the winner of two ERF Awards). However despite having lived in Greece for a couple of years I learnt so much about ancient Greece from the story and was riveted by it. The detail and research are amazing. It’s available on Amazon and direct from the publishers http://www.trifoliumbooks.co.uk


  22. Greetings all and thanks for your work, Ken!

    I enjoyed this blog post, but was disappointed wth the omission of these three names, one which decorated the door across from my office 22 years ago:

    Alan Glynn
    Keith Heller
    Mark Salzman

    Dave Hill, Urumqi

  23. Hi there

    Thanks for the interesting blog… and a good idea to connect we former ELTers that form other lives and interests. I was a TEFL teacher for about 12 years, but have been struggling with being a writer for a lot longer. I have now published my first novel, Wee Davy. http://weedavy.co.uk has sample chapters with video and audio recordings of me reading from the book.

    On it’s first draft, Wee Davy had a long scene of a struggling first time teacher with a very difficult class of Korean youngsters, but I’m afraid it has been edited out. Thankfully though I have posted some unpublished extracts on the website, and the classroom scene is available there: http://weedavy.co.uk/when-william-first-arrived-in-korea/ If you jump straight into that, then it’s worth knowing that Wee Davy is a 2 foot tall, nasty wee ancient Scotsman who is nothing but uncanny. Oh, and there’s very likely some strong language in there.

    The book is now available as both digital and paperback form Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wee-Davy-ebook/dp/B008EVFWB4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340918404&sr=8-1

    Also available from ITUnes and Barnes and Noble.

    All the best


  24. Hi Ken
    a colleague told me about this site…what a great idea!
    justletting you know that I published a tongue in cheek novel called Shedding Skin (Penguin, NZ) in 2005 and it has just come out as an e -pub, on amazon, kobo, nook, etc.
    It’s about a dodgy English school above a massage parlour in downtown Auckland. Sub themes are immigration and bio-security.
    I hope you have a chance to check it out.
    I am currently teaching at UNITEC in Auckland. previously I taught atIH London, and various places overseas, including Morocco, Turkey and Argentina.

    send your email and I will ‘gift’ you a copy!

    Nick Marsden

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s