Paul Auster once said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You didn’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were pretty much useless for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.
I concur with that attitude, and I think this is something that will resonate with the majority of writers. It is a ridiculous, lonely, insular, unsocial business, but it is something that has to be done. There is simply no choice in the matter.
Between November 1987 and July 1993 I wrote every day, except for three days when I was going through a divorce. I completed twenty two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words. At first I wrote in longhand, then with a manual typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad dedicated wordprocessor that took about half an hour to warm up! I was obsessive, verbose, driven. I sent the material to dozens of UK publishers. I spent a little over twelve thousand pounds on photocopying and postage, and received about five hundred complimentary, very polite ‘Thanks but no thanks’ letters.
My belief was that if I just kept on going I would eventually find the right person in the right company at the right time.
I’d heard this quote from Disraeli that went something like, ‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose’. That carried me for six years, and then I thought, ‘Enough’s enough’. I stopped writing altogether. I studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001.
It was the day after 9/11, and the one abiding thought I had as I watched those terrible events unfold was of all those lives left incomplete. I thought of the unrealized aspirations, all those things that people had planned that never came to fruition, and it was heartbreaking.
Later I recalled something my grandmother used to say: “Never lead a ‘What if…’ life. Don’t get to the end of your life and wonder about what might have happened if you had just persisted with your goals.”
I stepped back for a moment. I looked at what I was doing with my life. I knew what I wanted to do. I was just trying to convince myself that I could pursue some other purpose and be happy. I figured that I’d rather be an unhappy and unpublished writer, than no writer at all.
It was then that I wrote ‘Candlemoth’, after eight years of writing nothing. I sent it to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back. All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through eleven books.
Now, in hindsight, I am aware of how many ways I could have been more efficient and effective. I could have gotten an agent. I could have worked on one book and made it better instead of just writing another and another and another in the hope that I would luck out. But I did it the way I did it, and now there’s no going back. Hindsight is wonderful, of course, but however good the advice it might give you for the future, it does not have the power to change the past.
Perhaps my willingness to persist was borne out of personal circumstance.
My father left before I was born. I never knew him, still don’t to this day. My paternal grandparents are also completely unknown to me. I was adopted at birth, taken in by a family who apparently physically abused me, and at some point – when I was about eighteen months of age – an elderly great-aunt, believing that I was in trouble, despatched her nephew to find me. He located me in a house where I had been left unattended and unfed for a week, supposedly being cared for by this adoptive family. He took me from the house.
The ‘theft’ was never reported, and my great-aunt kept me secretly for six weeks until I was physically well. She then persuaded my grandmother to let my mother have me back. I don’t think my mother had wanted to have me adopted, but my grandmother – alone since the fifties as a result of her husband drowning in Wales – was very strict, very Victorian in her views on life, and she believed it unacceptable that a single, unmarried mother should have children.
So my great-aunt and my mother won my grandmother over, and I returned home and stayed with my mother until I was seven. It was then that my mother died of pneumonia and I was despatched to a series of three different boarding schools.
I spent five years at one, was expelled from the second, and finally wound up at a place called Kingham Hill in Oxford, a ‘school for orphaned and wayward boys’ that had been established by members of the Barings-Young Bank family. These orphans and wayward boys were supposed to stay at Kingham until they reached seventeen, and then they were sent to a farm in Canada to learn life and survival skills that would equip them for the modern world.
That practice had stopped before I went there, so I stayed at Kingham until I was sixteen, and then returned to my home city of Birmingham and my maternal grandmother. I started Art College, and a little way into my diploma my grandmother died of a heart attack. I dropped out. I started taking drugs. I got in trouble and ended up in a borstal in Nottingham.
Once released I moved to a suburb of Birmingham called Handsworth, just in time for the 1982 Handsworth Riots.
Those first sixteen or seventeen years of my life were an interesting time. I absorbed a great deal from my childhood – some of it good, some of it bad. We all absorb events and circumstances, we deal with them (or not), we recover, we carry on, we try our best with everything we do. Sometimes we get it right, other times we get it wrong.
That is life, and that is living.
As with any field of the arts – whether it be painting, sculpture, choreography or music – the creator must draw on personal experience and personal perception in everything he or she creates. I think that what we paint and what we write and what we sing are merely extensions of ourselves, and that extension grows from personal experience. I think there are very few writers who write their own lives into novels, but I think there are a great deal who write their perceptions and conclusions and feelings about their own lives into the characters they create. I see that now, perhaps more clearly than I have before.
Ever-present themes in my work seem to be justice and redemption, the fact that people are all basically good, even when they make mistakes, and that there is – ultimately – a light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite the fact that every single one of the books is entirely different from the last, there is – for me – a common theme, that of an ordinary individual placed in an extraordinary situation.
That is what fascinates me.
And why crime fiction?
Well, it gives me an opportunity to place people in difficult situations, and thus write about the vast spectrum of human emotions and reactions they experience. That is my fascination, and I think, ultimately, that this fascination has come from my own experiences.
I have a lot of life left to live, and I make it my business to live it as rapidly and as fully as I can. And to continue writing all of my conclusions and experiences into my novels, not with specifics, but with the emotions they engender.
Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” T.S. Eliot said, “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”
I say that every published author was an unpublished author yesterday, and that if you’re thinking about writing a book then you’re more than likely a writer. It’s something you can’t fight, so don’t fight it.
And if you’re not a writer but a reader, then I go with Logan Pearsall Smith’s famous line: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”