Meet the poet Andrew McMillan who has written his first novel and it's set in Barnsley

Andrew McMillan might be best known for his poetry but hehas just published his debut novel, set across decades andinspired by his birthplace of Barnsley. Catherine Scott reports.

Poet Andrew McMillan admits to being a litter nervous about his debut novel, Pity, which is set in his home town of Barnsley. “I really want he people of Barnsley to like it,” he says. “It was important to set it there.”

But there was one local that he really wanted to like Pity – his dad, Bard of Barnsley and Yorkshire Post columnist Ian McMillan.

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"Once the book was finished I let my parents read it, and my mum got back to me really quickly and said how much she’d enjoyed it but my dad just hadn’t said anything and I was really worried that he didn’t like it but he just hadn’t got round to reading it. But when he did he sent a very beautiful supportive message."

Poet Andrew McMillanPoet Andrew McMillan
Poet Andrew McMillan

Pity is about brothers Alex and Brian who have spent their whole life in Barnsley where their father lived and his father, too. Set across three generations of South Yorkshire mining family, McMillan’s novel is a lament for a lost way of a life as well as a celebration of resilience and the possibility for change.

“I live in Manchester now (he is a Lecturer of Contemporary Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University) but it felt important to me that Barnsley wasn’t just a setting that it was more of a character and I also wanted to explore the conflict that people felt about it, to tell a story of Barnsley that wasn’t just one of decline or of people leaving. I did leave but I felt it was important to tell a story of people who stayed there and who built their life there and really celebrate that place. It was important to have the word Barnsley in the blurb and not just ‘a Northern town.’ To really emphasise it was a specific place.”

“It is set in Barnsley as that’s the place I know best but it could really be set in any post industrial town in Europe or America. There a lot of place in the book that are specifically Barnsley, but equally be Burnley or the Welsh Valleys or any mining town in the north of England. The tale of post industrial decline is not unique to Barnsley. Hopefully people will be able to see the universality of it. I still think of it as my home town but I guess I am now an outsider writing about it and of all the events we are having to promote the book the one in Barnsley is the one I am most nervous about.”

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Best known as a poet, Pity is McMillan’s first foray into novel writing. “It was always something I wanted to see if I had in me although I never had an ambition to be novelist and I still think of myself as a poet,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could stretch that muscle and it’s a pretty short novel – about 33,000 which felt was just about my limit."

Andrew McMillan
Picture Sophie Davidson.Andrew McMillan
Picture Sophie Davidson.
Andrew McMillan Picture Sophie Davidson.

Although he never had a burning ambition to be a novelist, the idea for the story behind Pity came to him when he was studying for his A’ levels at Barnsley College. "We studied a play called ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore which is about a brother and sister who fall in love and I was beguiled by that play. We went to see it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and I wondered then what it would be like to write a contemporary version set in Barnsley.”

Now aged 36, McMillan admits that the novel he has ended up with, published earlier this week, is a long way away from that play he saw as a teenager. "There are still echoes of the play though, obviously in the name Pity and in a couple of the characters names that are haunted by the play. I tried for years to write it, it was about finding my way into it. A lot of the novels I read are contemporary literary fiction and I was trying to write in that third person narrative voice but I sounded like I was taking the p**s it just didn’t sound right. It took me years to find the right voice into it. I’ve ended up with something more experimental than I intended.” The book is dedicated to his grandma who died last year. Although not autobiographical, a lot of Pity was inspired by his own experience

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"When I was describing the allotments I was very much thinking about my grandad and his allotment which was over the road from my grandparents house so it was nice to be able to dedicate the book to her,” says McMillan.

Andrew McMillian was introduced to poetry by his father poet Ian McMillanAndrew McMillian was introduced to poetry by his father poet Ian McMillan
Andrew McMillian was introduced to poetry by his father poet Ian McMillan

“One of the things that is very in vogue at the moment is autofiction where authors include their lives in their novels, I was keen that I didn’t want that, the joy of this was just being able to make it up and hide behind characters. Which is why at one point a young poet turns up to run a workshop with an accent started in Barnsley that flourished elsewhere. I thought if I write myself into cameo then nobody can think that any of the other characters are me.”

Writing Pity was a vey different experience to writing poetry for McMillan whose debut collection of poetry, physical, was the only poetry book to ever win the Guardian First Book Award. His second collection, playtime, won the inaugural Polari Prize and a third collection, pandemonium, was published in 2021.

"A novel needs a narrative and a timeline but in poetry that never really comes up, the beauty of poetry is that it’s a glimpse. Also I had never written everyday. Poetry just happens in the margins of your life but I’d try to write this like that and then after a few days I’d sit down and try to remember what was happening and who the characters were. I had to develop a discipline of sitting down in my study everyday and write a few thousand words. ”

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​So did McMillan always want to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

Andrew McMillanAndrew McMillan
Andrew McMillan

"Growing up I wanted to be any thing but be a poet. I have two sisters with normal jobs. But being surrounded by books of contemporary poetry and with dad going out to work as he did you grew up with the knowledge that poetry was something you could make a living from and raise a family from. But I think whatever our parents do, even if they are James Bond, you think it is the most embarrassing thing for a teenager.”For a long time he says he wanted to be a politician, doing work experience in Dennis McShane’s office. "I thought it was going to be like the West Wing, but it was actually quite dry. Then I wanted to be an actor, I liked being on stage as I felt safe there.”

At Barnsley College he studied Philip Larkin and that changed the trajectory of what he wanted to do and he decided to study English at university rather than Politics.

He says having a poet for a dad has been helpful in his career, but has also brought them closer. “We have a shared bond and it is something we have a connection over. When I was first starting out I was much more cautious, I really wanted to make my own way in the world and write very different poetry. Whereas now it feel just like a really beautiful thing we can share.” He says there’s no rivalry between him and his dad. “I think we are just really proud of each other.”

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​He says he hopes Pity won’t be his only novel. "I really want to write a Zombie novel set in Barnsley. I want to write something that’s really fun.” Although his next book will be another book of poetry which he says he find causes him ‘crippling anxiety.’ “The kind of stuff I write feels so exposing. You can hide behind a novel, where you just can’t in poetry.”

Andrew McMillan’s debut novel Pity is published by Canongate

For more information and details of book signings visit