Spotlight: James Barrowman on Collaboration and Dundee’s Literary Scene
Creative Dundee has commissioned a series of Spotlight interviews from local writer Holly Girolami. Over the coming months you can follow her work here as she explores the process of a variety of Dundee-based makers. The first interview in this series is James Barrowman, the former host of the Amplify writing group and the editor of Dundee’s Dostoyevsky Wannabe anthology.
Holly Girolami: Hi James! Tell us a bit about Amplify Dundee!
James Barrowman: I started up Amplify about 14 months ago, and we actually just had the last of our traditional meetings just last week. It was basically a kind of effect of my position at the time when I started it up. I was working full-time at Caffe Nero, getting many a rejection from graduate jobs. Any steps towards making myself more present in the literary scene kind of made me uncomfortable – there was always a hierarchy behind most of the traditional avenues for writers, and I had a lot of imposter syndrome, as someone who hadn’t been published and didn’t have that experience. I basically felt like a writing group where democracy was at the heart of it, collaboration was at the heart of it, was something that we didn’t really have. I really couldn’t have anticipated how much it grew. Looking back, I’ve made countless friends from the process, my confidence as a writer and as a public-facing person has grown immeasurably and it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life.
HG: So, you became involved with Dostoyevsky Wannabe through Amplify?
JB: Yeah pretty much, it was actually very informal which is hard to believe considering how high-quality and professional the book looks. The excellent thing about Dostoyevsky Wannabe is that they too are two people with full-time jobs, who started up a publishing company in an effort to find the passion to get that creative outlet. I reached out to them and explained the reasons I’d started up Amplify, the vision I’d had for the way the city should be treated in literature, and we just had a very similar viewpoint on the current state of publishing, the current state of work being produced, and we just hit it off personally. I think they were keen to elevate cities that weren’t conventionally anthologised.
HG: Have you got some favourite contributions?
JB: It’s hard to choose – it’s such a consistent collection, we have fifteen writers in there from a variety of backgrounds, and a variety of mediums. Ones that are especially close to me include two of the writers who are very accomplished in their own right but who also play a very active part in the community: Anna Stewart and Erin Farley – who both work at the Central Library in the Wellgate. Those pieces were important to me not just because they’re incredible pieces of work but because those people are active in the literary scene, working face to face with Dundonians and in a part of the city and a part of the industry as a whole that just doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves.
HG: Do you think Dundee is a good city in which to be a writer?
JB: I think it is a good city to be a writer, yeah definitely. I think the scene right now is very open and welcoming, there’s some amazing nights. Amplify will continue in other capacities but we have Hotchpotch, which is an open mic night is really distinct in its accessibility, we also have nights like Scrieve, where playwrights like myself can submit work and actually see it performed by actors.
HG: Do you feel like the city supports the creative community?
JB: I think the city does support the creative community, but in some areas more than others. I think it’s excellent that the city has such a thriving art school and broader art and design community, and I think there’s a lot of opportunities there. In terms of my part of the scene, more could be done, it’s definitely not an element of the city’s creativity that is known about to the same extent. I think one thing that most of the people involved in the literary scene are aware of is that we don’t really have a central base, we don’t really have a space where we are allowed to come together. This is something that we’re keen to develop over the next few years. I think if the broader establishment in Dundee, like the Council, were willing to take the punt and allow us a space they’d be amazed at the things we could pull off. We’re already achieving so much with so few resources.
HG: You’re also involved in the upcoming Being Human Festival?
JB: One of the reasons that I feel comfortable ending Amplify sessions at Nero is that really everything that we’d hoped to achieve when we started Amplify is kind of coming together in our plans for the Being Human Festival. I’m working closely with Erin Farley at the Central Library and we hope to set up a space for the entirety of the festival – a space that allows us to print new publications, sell existing publications by local writers and run workshops and talks by local writers. Looking back, one of the main problems with the book was that we really struggled with distribution, there was really no interest or engagement from local shops in trying to stock it. This will really allow us to be able to sell books, zines, anything that people have poured their hearts and souls into.
HG: We’ll finish off with a question from our previous guest – did you collect anything as a child?
JB: I collected the classic 90s child items: Mr Men books, Pokemon cards, Gameboy cartridges. The more unusual one that I’ve found has left me open to mockery as I’ve grown older is that I actually used to collect rocks. I had this bucket in my garden every time i saw a nice stone I’d take it home and put it in the bucket. And you now, Cumbernauld – not on the coast, landlocked, New Town… there were not many nice rocks to be found.
HB: So it was a small collection?
JB: It was a small collection, yes. It left a lot to be desired.
HG: Do you have a question for our next guest?
JB: One thing that doesn’t really get acknowledged enough is how art, literature, music, any sort of creative project plays a part in political change. So, my question is: how do you relate your work to the broader political context – is your work politically motivated or does it have a relationship to the politics of the moment?
HB: Thank you!