English teacher Niall Bourke must brace himself for the excuses for late homework every Monday morning.
But he’ll be glad his own writing has got the thumbs up from the people that matter – the critics. His novel, Line, published by Tramp Press on April 8, has seen him quickly recognised as a rising star by reviewers across the UK and Ireland.
The teacher, from St Michael’s Catholic College, in Bermondsey, said: “As an English teacher, I’ve been telling the kids I teach to write in their spare time, so it felt like it was something I should also do myself.
I was adding bits here and there, not necessarily working towards a novel, but eventually, at 15,000 words or something, I thought I might as well keep going.”
It took Mr Bourke five years to write Line and get it published – he’d have been sent to the back of his own class for being that late. But he had to write in the evenings after school, while also marking his pupils’ writing–and looking after his young daughter.
Two of those years involved editing with an agent and then re-editing with the publisher. All the time he was teaching his classes about iambic pentameter – no, it’s not a tropical disease, kids – or about syntax.
He said: “I think the experience has improved my teaching. It has helped me teach the kids how to analyse other people’s writing.
When the students ask me if an author really meant something, I could say, ‘well, I know they would have edited this 50 times with an agent, because I had to, so yeah they probably did mean it’.”
Before his time at St Michael’s, Mr Bourke completed a Creative Writing MA at Goldsmiths that was partially funded by Christ the King College, Lewisham, which was the last school at which he worked. It was part of a teacher/writer initiative to get teachers to broaden their academic reach.
He credits this course with giving him the impetus to finally pursue a writing career, as well as something that helped him secure his current role of head of department at St Michael’s.
Mr Bourke moved from Ireland 15 years ago to teach English. He has taught across London and has been teaching at his current school for five and-a-half years.
He said: “I think being in South London has definitely impacted my book. It’s about a queue, a never ending queue, and I think London has definitely been a lot of the time a seemingly never ending queue, with this passive aggressive policing of the queue, probably more so than in Ireland.”
Mr Bourke said that he has been checking the internet relentlessly for the past few weeks, looking for new reviews about Line. He admits it’s not good for his health and he needs to stop, he’s just eager to gauge the reaction.
He said: “I think, for now, I need to sit back and see what happens. It would be a dream for it to be picked up for a shortlist but I imagine what’s most likely is that it builds up slowly by word of mouth. And, though awards are great, I find that it’s best not to get too obsessed with them, otherwise you end up chasing validation.
At the end of the day, I’ve written what I’ve written and I’m happy with it.” Mr Bourke’s first work of fiction, a book of poetry called Did You Put The Weasels Out? was published in 2018 by Eyewear Publishing. Line is his first novel.
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