The Faber Academy and the Writing a Novel program

Joey Connolly, Head of Faber Academy in the UK, on the beginnings of the Academy, writing communities and what comes next for Faber in the UK.

FWA: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Faber Academy?

JC: Faber Academy began eleven years ago as one person with a laptop and a phone in the basement of the Faber headquarters in Bloomsbury. Its growth since then has been spectacular, going from one course a year to over a hundred run during 2020, as well as having expanded to provide manuscript assessments and mentorships. From small beginnings, the organisation now serves over two thousand aspiring writers a year.

We’ve helped well over a hundred alumni into their first publishing deals across poetry and fiction. Richard Skinner has been around since the beginning, and remains on today as the Director of the Fiction Programme. That’s helped to ensure that the Academy’s core values – that good writing comes from careful craft but also from passion, freedom and confidence – have remained in place as we’ve grown to become the crucial part of the writing ecosystem that we are today.

FWA: Can you tell us about how you came to be in your job?

JC: I’m a writer myself and I’ve worked in and around poetry for years, but teaching has always seemed a really important part of a literary life, to me. And I’ve personally benefited enormously from the writing courses I’ve taken, as well as having made lifelong friends, and so when a job initially came up at Faber Academy I jumped at the chance (Faber, of course, is the halcyon triple-star gold-standard when it comes to poetry). Since then I’ve held various roles in the organisation and took over as the Head of Faber Academy around 18 months ago when my excellent predecessor Ian Ellard left to run the V&A’s education programme. It’s been a challenging time, with several changes to the department followed quickly by COVID, but it’s been immensely invigorating and joyous as well. There’s nothing like getting an email from a student saying that studying at Academy has changed the course of their life. All credit to the tutors for that, of course, but it’s so gratifying to be involved in.

FWA: What is the main reason people choose to study with Faber Academy?

JC: I think for a long time it would have been the authority that came with the Faber name that brought people to Academy and led to them choosing to entrust their writing lives to us. But as time’s gone by, word of mouth endorsements together with our track record – having 132 graduates with publishing deals, including huge names like S. J. Watson, Gail Honeyman, Rachel Joyce, Alice Feeney, Richard Scott – means that Academy’s reputation is a draw in itself. Also, I think everyone who speaks to anyone in our team comes away with the sense that we’re a dedicated group of people hugely passionate about writing and reading, and that goes a long way too in convincing people we’re much more than a creative writing business; we’re really a community of writers, our staff and tutors being as excited about writing as our students. 

FWA: What outcomes do you hope all course participants will take from Writing a Novel

JC: Writing a Novel has a special place amongst the Academy courses, as it’s where we’ve started and it’s been at centre of our programme for over a decade. With no other course do we so often get the feedback mentioned above: ‘these last six months have changed my life.’ It might be a bit much to hope every participant would find the course life-changing, I suppose, so I’ll hold off from that. It can be tricky talking about creative writing teaching, because in this business we tread the line between the knowledge that writing is an art and a craft like any other, with a range of skills which need to be sharpened and honed; and at the same time we all know that writing at its best contains a kind of inexplicable, ineffable mystery. So while I hope that everyone who takes Writing a Novel comes out with an increased appreciation for the craft of writing, we also aim to leave everyone with a quiet internal feeling of permission to participate in the grand project of ‘Writing Books’. 

FWA: The Faber Writing Academy is running Writing a Novel in Brisbane for the first time in 2021. How does this expansion fit with Faber Academy’s over all goals? 

JC: I’m delighted that Writing a Novel is going to be taught in Brisbane this year. The course has such a proven record in bringing creative focus and joy into writers’ lives all over the world – an exciting city like Brisbane will make a natural home for the course. Over the next ten years one of the goals for Faber Academy is going to be the project of building a global community of writers, linked by their engagement with Faber Academy, able to offer mutual support and encouragement as well as the feeling of being part of a literary culture. Expanding to Brisbane will be a fantastic step in that process.