I can remember the moment I decided to be a writer. Sitting cross-legged on a dusty parquet floor in a school hall l looked up and saw a young, blonde woman with glinting cat-like eyes and thought: I like her earrings. Not exactly earth-shattering. But the young woman was Fay Weldon and she had given up her time to come into a Devon school and talk to us low-ranking second year pupils.
I don’t remember a word she said. I was in awe, but not intimidated. She made writing sound like fun. I’ve since met Fay Weldon and was able to tell her that she had inspired me. She had lit a spark by showing me it was possible to be young and female and live a writing life that could be enjoyable.
‘I must have been just starting out then,’ she said and gave a cackling laugh, crinkling those famous eyes. ‘How wonderful!’
Fay Weldon gave me a sense of possibility, a place to aim for, an aspiration. It would take me years to work out what I wanted to say and how best to say it, but I knew that I could be a writer.
While I was in self-training I didn’t read many books about writing. I have the kind of mentality that wants to please and would have diligently read my tutor-authors and tried to put their advice into practice perhaps working against my own grain. I knew that I needed to work out what kind of writer I was and that took a lot of experimenting. For a while I was going to be a poet and then a short story writer, mostly because I was scared stiff of tackling a novel, but once I had started to research my first novel The Avalanche, about a pianist who commits a crime in his sleep, I knew I had found my natural home.
I adore research. I like the adventure of following ideas and leads and trying to piece them together. I would have enjoyed working as a detective, or at least the detectives in fiction or film. One of the best parts about writing The Avalanche was attending court cases at the Old Bailey and meeting the psychiatrist Dr. Peter Fenwick who generously allowed me access to papers at the Institute of Psychiatry and read parts of the manuscript. I like to include real people in my novels and gave him a cameo role. Blending fact and fiction is for me the way to keep things fresh and I think it lends authenticity to the work.
One book that I wish I had known about, though, is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, first published in 1934. I heard about this through a recommendation by Hilary Mantel whose advice was to read it and then do everything Brande suggested. Irresistible.
There is much wisdom concentrated in a book of less than 200 pages. Some of the book has dated but there are pieces that remain timeless such as Brande’s insistence that honesty is the source of originality. Reading her is a bit like having your strict aunt or godmother round for tea. I love her slightly bossy tone and the way she lets you get away with nothing.
‘If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.’
Hard digging indeed.