What follows is a very personal post, for which I do not apologise. It is likely to be the last post I make to this blog (though perhaps not; see below). I hope that it will not be sentimental. That said, it will be honest. I will write about something that has been very important to me since I was a wee scamp.
A long time ago – when I was an undergraduate, fifteen years back – I read an interview with Stephen King in which he described the moment his novel, Carrie, was picked up by New England Library. He was living in a trailer and had so little money that the telephone was disconnected. The original news about the publication of Carrie came via telegram. King wanted to buy a gift for his wife. He went into town and found the only thing he could he imagine she wanted: a hair dryer.
Fifteen years ago, reading the interview with King, I already had two novels under my belt. They were awful. Since then, I’ve written four more. These last – Déjà Vu, Proper Job, Flashback and The Amber Rooms – are quite good. Déjà Vu has been published and the other three have been with my agent, John Jarrold, for some years. Four, I think. A long time.
Someone wrote – King again, I think – that a writer is a person who will write no matter what. In other words, if you lock them up in a cell without pen or pencil, they’ll write on the wall in their own blood. I didn’t believe that when I read it and I don’t believe it now. Even Stephen King comes to a point when the blood dries up. Writers are people. We – they – would want to play football if they were footballers, not sit on the subs bench; they would want to have a workshop, tools, and customers if they made furniture for a living; writers want to be read.
Fifteen years is a fair crack of the whip. As of now, I am no longer a writer of fiction.
For my part, I cannot write fiction these days. There are too many words unpublished behind me. To write a novel is to commit years of your life. Nobody wants to commit them in vain. They will do this, of course, in the beginning, with a certain faith that if the end product is any good, then it will be published. Right now I do believe the books I’ve written are good. I believe that sections, elements, moments of them are very good. My agent is an excellent one and he would not be wasting his time with me otherwise. The reality is that the publishing industry is small. Only so many doors are open to a writer of science fiction thrillers, and, when you’ve been round the doors once, it’s the same people opening them next time.
What is to be gained by retirement? Why not take a break? These are questions that my agent – who has been very supportive of my decision – has asked.
Since writing the first draft of The Amber Rooms, I’ve felt a deepening disillusionment with the craft of writing. This disillusionment is almost certainly superficial. Much as I hate to write this, the feeling is probably based on something akin to jealousy. It is not jealousy per se. Rather, it is the feeling expressed by the sentence ‘I could do better than that’. Not an easy thing to admit. But with each instance of shoddy, clichéd, or generally below par published writing that I read, my faith that my own long years of effort will ever count for something (that is: readers) diminishes to the point where I am barely picking up a book. The process has become painful. As a child, books were like fuel, crack cocaine, and world travelling rolled into one. My writing has taken me to the point where I am in danger of poisoning the well from which, it seems, the greater part of my mind has sprung. Given a choice between the two – literature and the stuff on my hard drive – I choose literature.
My fifteen-year crack at a writing career has had other consequences. We all know what it’s like to be served at a supermarket by a sulky teenager who might well work in Lidl but, you know: it isn’t what she *does*. Her mind is on greater things. So too has my mind been on greater things. Not all of it, not all the time, and I’ve tried not to be too rude. But many sacrifices have been made by me and the people who love me in order that I have the time and space to write. There is a cost to this; they deserve the benefit of seeing that the cost was not wasted and, as far as I can see, this is not going to happen.
This post is not meant to be a dollop of ‘poor Ian’ schmaltz. I had enough of that in one glance when I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook around the turn of the century. As I gave it to the middle-aged, friendly cashier in Exeter Waterstone’s, she sighed at the cover and said, ‘Aw, you want to be a writer,’ as though I were Grandpa announcing my wish to take tiffin with the Maharajah. The empirical evidence suggests that very few people who write fiction seriously ever ‘make it’ in the accepted sense. We only hear the stories of the successes. But in these days of Web 2.0, and blogs, the process is more public.
A colleague said something to me a couple of weeks back. We had read psychology at the same university, though his was the year below mine. This colleague is now a world-renowned researcher and someone I look up to. I remarked that I was glad he had made such a success of it. He looked at me, blinked, and said, “Well, I’m surprised it turned out like this. You were always the golden boy.”
That startled me. Then I recalled sitting in Dave Earle’s advanced statistics class and skimming over page after page of equations, barely taking them in, because I didn’t really *do* psychology. I was a writer. Meanwhile, there were hard-working friends who had not made it onto the MSc or, if they had, could not afford to take up a place. I was sitting pretty with a full-time competitive scholarship keeping me in pen and ink, not to mention another scholarship lined up to carry me through my PhD – and as the Chi-square contrasts flowed before my eyes, I was more concerned with the opening paragraph to Déjà Vu. In my defence, I did work hard on the book, and the book was good.
Several years later, however, it’s time to *do* psychology.
So now we come to the end of this post, and this blog. It is likely that I’ll continue to tinker with my extant manuscripts (not least to incorporate some notes kindly provided by writer friends). When these are complete, I’ll make them available as print-on-demand books, probably via Lulu, and then archive the site.
Stephen King made me want to be a writer. Or, rather, his book The Stand had such an effect on me that the half-formed idea of writing books for living became what I *did* for the next fifteen or so years. When asked what I wanted to do as an adult, I would, instead of shrugging in a morose teenagery way, say, ‘A writer,’ and the response would be a nod of approval; no doubt it doesn’t hurt to encourage this ambition in a young man, particularly when good English is such a transferrable skill. The model of Stephen King was the one I aspired to: he wrote a thousand words a day, rain or shine, and produced vivid, good quality, character-driven stories that I loved. At the end of each book, he would write his name, his location (usually Maine, USA), and dates between which he had written the book. I looked at those dates and thought ‘That’s what I’ll be doing’ and I relished the prospect of those years.
In 2005, I read a short, handsome review of Déjà Vu in The Guardian as my friends in the Rashleigh pub at Charlestown harbour slapped me on the back. The theme of the evening was that this review marked a milestone on the way to some great, literary city. Outwardly, I wholeheartedly agreed. But I also knew there was a good chance that I was holding the high-water mark of what would serve as a my literary career. It did; that felt OK at the time, and, in the end, it’s still OK.
Thanks, Aliya, the UKA Press, UK Authors, Ken, Neil, the Exeter Writers’ Group, Debra, Scott, and, of course, my agent John Jarrold. John has been tireless and faultless in his efforts to get my work under the right noses. A top man. And not to forget my partner, Britta: she put up with all manner of consequences while I spent time creating alternative realities. I never did get her that hair dryer.
This Writing Life