Are these the best books written by teachers?

Teacher and author Alan Gillespie reflects on some of the great novelists who started out as teachers

Alan Gillespie

The best books written by teachers: Alan Gillespie reflects on great novelists who started out as teachers

I used to think, entirely wrongly, that all English teachers were secretly frustrated novelists. And while I accept that this does a disservice to the art of teaching, I still believe that most English teachers do have a good novel in them. Some of the finest fiction in the world has been written by schoolteachers, irrespective of their subject speciality. In no particular order, here is an entirely subjective list of my own personal favourites.

Great books written by teachers

Alan Bissett was not in the classroom for long, but anyone who has seen him perform on stage can easily imagine how energising and engaging his lessons must have been. A former English teacher in Elgin, Bissett is one of Scotland's foremost contemporary novelists. My personal favourite is Death of a Ladies' Man, about the doomed charmer Charlie Bain. Bissett has focused on drama and television writing lately, but with a novella released last year and a new book in development, his will be a welcome return to the Scottish literary landscape.

William McIlvanney, the godfather of tartan noir, inspired a generation of crime writers to pitch a blood-smeared saltire into the publishing world. McIlvanney was, for years, an English teacher and assistant headmaster in Ayrshire, and a new campus was named in his honour in Kilmarnock. His books explore the dark underbelly of Glasgow society through the eyes of the complex detective Laidlaw, who serves as a prototype for so many fictional detectives. Later this year, McIlvanney’s final novel, The Dark Remains, will be published posthumously in collaboration with Ian Rankin.


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Anne Donovan is best known for her incredible Scots novel Buddha Da, as well as the wonderful short stories that have been included on the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) Scottish set-text list for National 5 English. How strange that must feel, for a former English teacher (and Tes Scotland contributor), to have her work studied so frequently in the same classrooms she once worked in. Donovan's writing focuses strongly on characterising working-class communities in Scotland. She is particularly adept at writing about the intricacies of childhood – partly thanks, no doubt, to her extensive experience in schools.

Janice Galloway has inspired a generation of Scottish writers with her rich, powerful prose. But before she published her debut novel, Galloway worked as an English teacher, and has spoken glowingly of the impact that her former music teacher had on her life and her work. She is another Scottish writer whose work has broken into the SQA’s circles, with many teachers choosing to study the iconic The Trick is to Keep Breathing with their Higher English classes. The strong characterisation and powerful impact of the book will continue to resonate with pupils across the country.

Stephen King is a publishing phenomenon, with a ridiculous list of bestsellers and Hollywood adaptations. But King started off in the classroom, teaching high-school English at Hampden Academy in Maine, where much of his fiction is set. He stole time to write on his lunch breaks and in the evenings. In his memoir On Writing, he describes the phone call offering him $400,000 for paperback rights to Carrie, which is centred, funnily enough, around a student outcast and a prom night that goes disastrously wrong. My favourites are Misery, the story of a writer who meets an obsessed fan, and 11/22/63, a more recent time-travelling novel about the Kennedy assassination.

Kent Haruf is another American writer who spent time at the chalkboard. He worked in a variety of school and college positions in Colorado, across many years, to supplement his writing income. Haruf, who died in 2014, was a delicate, astonishing writer who famously used to type his books with a woollen hat pulled over his eyes, so he could not see the story as it formed: a combination of writing and dreaming, which is precisely the impression his stories leave on me. When he passed away, he left a small but perfectly formed body of work, of which his 1999 novel Plainsong, which captures the fracturing lives of townsfolk in the American Midwest, is probably the most memorable.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow. His debut novel, The Mash House, is published on 6 May

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