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McWatt publishes novel set in an 'east London university'

students studying at UEL

Tessa McWatt, writer and lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of East London, will celebrate the launch of her latest novel Higher Ed on 9 September at Newham Bookshop.

The novel, McWatt’s sixth, explores the lives of five characters, who have a tangential relation to each other and are all connected to a university – though she makes it very clear that the story is not based on real people and events at UEL.

“The novel is set in an imaginary university that happens to be in east London because I teach here, but I’m not trying to represent UEL,” says McWatt.

Higher Ed is inspired by the amazing people that I know and that I’ve met. If there’s anything that’s real it’s the fact that my experience of higher education is changing due to austerity, rising tuition fees and the pressures that this brings on students.”

McWatt says she wanted to write about London’s complexity but also to describe a London that people don’t see.

“I wanted to write about east London because I feel it isn’t represented often enough in a vivid way,” she says. “London is a microcosm of the world and I wanted to write about the world and explore the different kinds of people in London. So I used London as a laboratory for things that are going on in people’s lives and the world.”

The reader follows each character’s individual journey through difficult times as their relationships are affected by the economic downturn and the unpredictability of life.

McWatt also investigates a sense of belonging, identity and what it feels like to live in a city like London, surrounded by so many people, and still feel incredibly lonely. What emerges is a powerful portrait of people’s similarities, regardless of their background.

“We’re kind of the same; we deal with things in the same way no matter what walk of life we come from,” says McWatt. “We need certain things; we need a certain sense of belonging. Even if we often feel alone in a big city, we are linked to people under the surface. And that under the surface has to do with how people are coping when they’re going through tough times.”

McWatt started storytelling as a young girl and knew she wanted to be a writer by the age of ten. Since then, many things have changed in her life but two things have not: her love for stories and her desire to keep writing.

“I see each character and their story as fingers of a hand,” she says. “The hand is about work; it represents the hand of labour and you need a whole hand to work together.

“My novel is about those different parts of a whole and the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I hope that people will see characters that are struggling against odds, who come together and as a group, and have a lot of spirit, resistance and determination like we all do in our lives.”

The launch event for Higher Ed, hosted by Scribe UK, takes place at 6.30-8pm on 9 September at Newham Bookshop, 747 Barking Road, London E13 9ER. on 9 September from 6.30 – 8.00pm. If you'd like to attend, please email