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Literature and Empowerment: An Interview with Literary Activist Steve Dearden

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Steve Dearden is a literature activist, consultant, and writer. He coordinates the Writing Squad, a program for writers between the ages of 16 and 20 in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, and Light Transports, a project commissioning and publishing writers in journey-sized chunks for free distribution on the transport network.

He also works with a range of literature and cultural clients on project, business, and organisational development. He has written for radio and for magazines in the United Kingdom and Australia. One of his short stories has been translated into Swedish.

Steve Dearden spoke about the work he is doing.

You have been described as a "gamekeeper turned poacher." How and why is this so?

It's a shorthand other people use and I don't recognize. I worked for the Arts Council for nine years, but it was a different beast in Yorkshire at the time. We were part of the profession, we got in there, got our hands dirty, intervened, collaborated, did strategic work, supported exciting individuals with energy and commitment. Again pastoral work in some ways, producer work too, a blend of strategic and focused intervention.

There was the same old bureaucratic shit, but I always saw it as my job to protect my sector from that, not from good business practice, and good policy implementation — they often drove that in any case — but from the kind of policy that is driven by central government rather than artistic agendas.

I've no problems with the government agendas. It's just that they are imposed rather than interpreted by Arts Council officers who have a lot of experience of meetings, little of making art and relating to readers or audiences. I always saw my job as representing the arts to government; now it looks the other way round. Sometimes I think Arts Council Officers seem scared of artists. They certainly don't create many 'big tent' opportunities for us jointly to create and deliver a strategy for literature.

So if people insist on using the analogy I would say that I was never a gamekeeper, always a poacher. If I was being ridiculous I'd say that I was the game.

What unites all the projects you are involved in? What motivates you?

I can't express it better than my mate Ralf Andtbacka, who put it very well in his introduction to my contribution to the Interland project: "… literature seems to be an integral feature of Steve's way of being in the world … [in] the way he goes about his writing: there is always focus on the process itself, on producing a good text, rather than on the potential benefits of being a writer, all the useless hype. For him, I believe, literature above all signifies empowerment, intellectually and existentially, and this is the key motivational force behind his work both as a writer and a literary activist. "

How do you find the time to do all the things you are doing?

I'm not sure there are that many things, and they interconnect. It helps that I'm doing what I would do if I wasn't doing anything. I don't feel that I "go to work"; rather I work at what I enjoy. Let's keep things in perspective, I am not running a city, nor am I a farmer or a nurse on an A&E ward.

How does all this affect your own writing?

Luckily I write short stories; maybe if I didn't do other things I might discover whether I have the patience and stamina to try something longer. I'd like to. But for now, I book time out, at least six weeks at the beginning of the year somewhere out of the gray and rain. I also spend a lot of time on trains. Movement is good for writing and, of course, working with writers and readers is a great stimulant to writing. I like commissions and requests; they kick things off and the deadlines are good to get things done, but also to stop me editing, editing, editing. I enjoy the honing much more than getting stuff down on the page in the first place.

Of the projects that you are currently involved in, which would you say are the most exciting or challenging?

It would be hard to choose between them and although they're opposite ends of what I do, they are connected.

The Writing Squad is a two-year program for 15 writers, aged 16 to 20, in Yorkshire. We give them a mixture of Squad Days with visiting tutors, one-to-one sessions, and they have their own private website to chat and exchange work on, to stay in touch with each other. 

We are on our third cohort, so we also keep developing writers from previous Squads who stick with us. For example this afternoon I'm going to the reading of a play by Nick Payne from the last Squad; we're giving him some money towards taking it to Edinburgh [theatre festival in Scotland] this summer. I'm helping him with the script.

There's a lot of pastoral work, particularly by my co-director Danny Broderick. I could go on for hours about the individual relationships he's built up and the results.

We take a holistic approach, like the best football academies, working on technique but also the other skills our writers will need to play the game. That's the development side, which I love, helping people release the text they're striving for.

In Light Transports, I'm pursuing an idea I've had for a long time: "Why go to all the trouble of marketing and selling new writing to tiny readerships? Why not just give it away?" So I'm commissioning and sourcing journey-length stories — a commute, an intercity — to give away on five Yorkshire mainline railway stations.

I'm also trying to demonstrate, through the choice of writers, my belief that regional literary ecologies are not defined by geography, or by birth or residence, but by the complexion and connections of the people, promoters and publishers who live and work there. That's what gives each literature ecology its unique DNA — so some of my writers on this project live in Yorkshire and others in Calgary, … Finland, Portland Oregon, Singapore, [and] Guyana — locally grown and locally sourced product, which explains Yorkshire and its place in the world in a way that escapes the stereotype.

The connection with the Squad?

Well, we'll have stories by two, possibly three Squad writers in the mix, their first publication, on merit. That feels very good.

I'm a great believer in giving people chances as soon as possible, supporting them, but throwing them in there, too. It seems crazy to me that you could be captaining your country at a sport, or touring the States in a band, but be branded a Young Person as a writer and excluded from mainstream funding and support.

I realize I haven't answered your question about challenges, but that's boring. Just keeping it all going, I guess, the dull admin and money-raising that underpins these projects. The rewards way outweigh the challenges.

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