A fantastic and inspiring article for any struggling writer – read this and keep the faith!
My first book was published when I was 34. I was at that time a copywriter, earning a living by removing errant apostrophes from clothing catalogues, and drafting news reports for legal journals. Before then, I had been a civil servant (a job to which I was ill-suited in every respect), a minimum-wage shop worker, a nanny, an office temp and a legal administrator. Often I am asked what possessed me to join the civil service straight after graduation, and the frank answer is that I had supported myself financially since I was 18, and needed to earn a living: writing, my long-held ambition, would have to wait.
When it became intolerable to me that I was not doing the one thing I had ever felt would give my life purpose, I applied for an MA and then a PhD in creative writing (funded by a tax rebate and a scholarship respectively). I began a novel, and abandoned it, and wrote a series of earnest and trite short stories; I took up the novel again, and wrote a thesis on the gothic, and all the while carried out my full-time work as a secretary to a committee of barristers.
It never occurred to me that I would be able to make a living from writing fiction, and I did not in the least resent my day job, though naturally I occasionally imagined finding a hoard of Saxon gold in the back garden. I knew that Philip Larkin had been a librarian in Hull, that TS Eliot had worked in a bank, that Harper Lee had worked for an airline. I knew that some books achieved vast advances, but that these were both rare and potentially something of a poisoned chalice. In due course my first novel was sold for an advance entirely in keeping with a strange book already turned down by upward of a dozen publishers, which is to say, roughly a month’s wages.
I continued to write copy for lawyers’ websites, pausing sometimes to look out of the window and think about the legend I’d recently heard of an ancient serpent menacing Essex. Debts were large; money was tight; my laptop – which I’d once inadvertently set on fire while cleaning the keyboard with a canister of compressed air – did not work unless plugged in, and was too heavy to carry for long without backache. The prospect of writing a second novel – destined for an indifferent readership, likely to earn little money – while working late into the night transcribing interminable interviews with businessmen was daunting. But my agent and publisher were warmly supportive, and at any rate I had nothing better to do with my life.
Then, in 2014 I won the East Anglian book of the year award [for After Me Comes the Flood]. The effect of the prize was twofold. First, it conferred the sense of legitimacy that I’d never quite been able to summon up: a group of writers had admired my work, and they wanted me to write more. I was by then already at work on my second novel, The Essex Serpent, but always dogged by a curious sense of foolishness. I was poor, and getting poorer: what was I thinking, staring at the wall making things up, when I could do something both more useful and more remunerative? Ought I to have been a barrister? Should I perhaps teach? Writing felt, obscurely, like a moral failing. Then I was handed a glass trophy and a cheque at a ceremony in a Norwich department store, and felt suddenly at ease.
Most practically, the prize enabled me to replace my laptop with a slender one light enough to carry on trains, and able to retain its charge. I did not need it, precisely – one can write novels in mud with a pointed stick – but I felt like an apprentice carpenter given the tools of the trade by a benevolent guild. I bought stickers reading THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS and DON’T PANIC in nods to Woody Guthrie and Douglas Adams, fixed them to the lid, and set about my writing with vigour vastly renewed. On my laptop, I have written two novels, two short stories, and innumerable essays and articles. It now contains a document tentatively labelled book4.doc, and following a period of immense good fortune I am free to choose what I write, when I write it, and for whom.
This year I am chair of judges for the Desmond Elliott prize, an award for the best first novel of the year. It was set up in memory of the late literary agent, who arrived in London from Ireland with two pounds in his pocket, and went on to represent Jilly Cooper and Penny Vincenzi. But it is perhaps more accurately an award in support of the second novel, since its £10,000 prize is explicitly intended to nurture the winner’s next work, and offer stability and support as they continue to develop their practice.
The debut novelist comes equipped with a certain glamour that swiftly fades. Each year the newspapers present, with an enthusiasm that I at any rate find infectious, the “new intake” of writers. There is always the possibility that among those unfamiliar voices will be one still speaking from the shelves in decades to come. Debuts only rarely constitute the best of a writer’s output but it is striking to note how frequently debut novelists are unable to fulfil their early promise, and how easily the roving spotlight of literary attention moves on to fresher faces.
I am particularly invested in the notion of a prize for debuts which frankly acknowledges the need to help authors into the next stage of their career, because I know how a prize can prove transformative both in terms of financial support and in conveying a sense of legitimacy. When I was first published, I confess I felt some anxiety about myself: about the Essex accent that makes itself known unless I concentrate, my lack of connections through family and friends, my polytechnic degree. Would I feel like Pip in Great Expectations, mocked by Estella: “He calls the knaves jacks, this boy”?
As it turned out, I discovered that organisations such as Arts Emergency and the Arts Council were working to correct a historical skew towards a certain kind of publishing culture (and I was delighted to find that my own publisher was the first to offer internships on a London living wage). Where inequalities in publishing persist, money is often at the heart of the matter. If you are able to devote yourself to writing from, say, your late teens – because you need not earn much, if at all; because you do not need to care for children, or family members; because a friend’s friend needs someone to house-sit their Edinburgh flat for six months – you are at liberty to write, and write, and write. And writing, like playing the piano, or lathing a cabinet smooth, requires practice.
Awards such as the Desmond Elliott prize can help to put a spirit level over the playing field. Any entrant can find themselves suddenly in possession of a sum that is not life-changing, but which will buy a degree of freedom to write, or a necessary research trip, or – as in my case – sharper tools. Writers are not owed a living any more than other artists, and financial prizes are not precisely necessary. Put your mind to it, and you can write a slender volume of verse on the back of till receipts with a stolen Argos biro. But writing is difficult for everyone, and more difficult for some than for others. And in a society in which some communities are significantly more likely to lack financial privilege those difficulties can stultify and narrow the culture. There are many voices going unheard, and it’s both a duty and a pleasure to help pass on the amplifier.