Thursday 1 September 2016

Under the influence

Fellow writers of a certain age will remember the 1980s children’s TV programme, Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Do Something Less Boring Instead? It was a great show, possibly a little low-key for today’s audiences, but in a roundabout way it led me to become first an avid reader, and then by natural evolution, an avid writer. Because, as a child, when I switched off my television set, I would dive headfirst into a book. 

I’d spend hours in my local library, browsing the shelves with a mixture of envy and adoration, wanting be immersed in the worlds that would open up for me as soon as I selected a book and took it to the counter to be stamped out. Who can remember those lovely old-fashioned library tickets? Lounging on my bed with a bar of Galaxy and a brand-new novel or big fat reference book was an absolute treat. And today, just wandering around a bookshop will conjure all sorts of ideas and nuggets that feed my imagination.

This long-standing love for books was ignited in my childhood by seeing my mother and older sister constantly reading. I was able to dip into novels beyond my reading ability (broadening my mind and so pleasing my teachers no end). There was nothing more comforting than seeing a stack of hardbacks from the library by my mother’s chair waiting to be explored. From Jackie Collins to Jean Plaidy, and Wilbur Smith and Mazo de la Roche (we didn’t have particularly literary tastes), we would devour them, our reading list peppered with the odd classic here and there. And almost by some sort of intellectual osmosis, I found myself wanting to create my own stories, my own worlds just like the ones I had been drawn into. 

I began to make books, prime little examples of juvenilia, from folded up pieces of paper, stapled and scruffily illustrated. I progressed, as I reached my teens, by investing in a typewriter (manual of course, this was the 1980s!). It was at this point that I read the Brontes and knew that my course was set. I began tapping away at bodice rippers and dreadful gothic romances that would make me blush today if I hadn’t shredded the lot in the early 2000s. 

My first book, A Season of Leaves, was published in 2008, so it was a long haul. Before this, I’d spent many years attempting to write what I thought were reasonably mature contemporary novels. These early works, I see now, were all part of the steep learning curve that writers must navigate. A kind of really hard apprenticeship, if you will. When confidence was high I’d trawl through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for names of suitable agents and publishers, send off submissions, enter ‘first novel’ competitions and then sit back to wait for the inevitable rejections to roll in. When confidence was low, I’d escape into the private world of other people’s books – my list of favourite authors includes Kate Atkinson, Barbara Kingsolver and Mary Wesley – become inspired and the cycle would start again. 

It was hard to face these setbacks, but I like to think I rose above them and allowed the harsh experiences to make me more determined. And I’m sure this is what most writers find hard to pinpoint: where does this drive come from and why do we keep going? I guess we must live to write, not write to live, and tap into our creativity whenever and wherever we can. And, first and foremost, switch off that television set!

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