I think one of the hardest things about writing a novel is convincing others you are up to the job. For some reason, saying you want to be a writer is akin to saying you want to be an astronaut or a brain surgeon. You get that look – you know the one adults use with children? Oh, that’s nice! And really you know they’re inwardly shaking their heads or, worse, they’ve already dismissed the thought so that, the next time you mention it, you either get a blank stare or that look my mother used to give me when I insisted on doing something she didn’t like – Well, we’ll speak to your father about it, but I doubt he’ll like it either.
Zimbabwe had descended into complete economic and political chaos while I was in the throes of writing This September Sun and suddenly everyone was writing their memoirs: the war years, the years on the farm, their years in Africa. I remember clearly someone’s response to me telling them that I was writing a novel: they laughed. Is everyone in this country writing a book? I felt summarily dismissed.
If I wasn’t writing my memoirs, what was I writing? Fiction? Oh, that’s nice – but it probably won’t be much good! One of things I have discovered since becoming a writer is that the ‘job’, for want of a better word, is shrouded in mystery, as is the person. By this I mean that no one ever expects to actually know a writer. Well, not a good writer anyway. Writers are faraway people who sit in some distant land penning novels surrounded by the mists of secrecy. A writer is not your next door neighbour, nor your colleague at work or your customer buying a litre of milk and a loaf of bread. If you are a writer and you appear to be normal like anyone else, then you really can’t be very good.
A friend of mine who bought a copy of my book declared he was quite surprised to find himself engrossed in it. To tell you the truth, he said, I didn’t actually think it would be much good. And why? Because you don’t expect people you know to write well! A similar comment came from a colleague of mine who told me she was enjoying reading the book, and was quite surprised. Don’t get me wrong, she said. It’s just that, well, I know you.
Being taken seriously as a writer continues after you have had a book published, especially when you want to give up your job and dedicate yourself to it wholeheartedly. There is still a sense it is a hobby and that you can easily dedicate a couple of hours to it a week; hours that usually come out of your weekend. If you are really serious about it, then why not get up an hour earlier or, better still, write late at night, when you've already done a day's work, made a meal for a family of four, done homework with your children, made sure the washing up is done and prepared for the next day? It’s forgotten that writing is actually a job. Yes, it is the sort of job I enjoy doing, but it needs a lot of time dedicated to it and, not only that, but mental space, too. Also, it’s very easy to get into the sort of routine where you hardly ever get a break because, when you aren’t at work, you are working at your novel.
Weekends are also for family time. My fear is that my children will come to resent my writing, although I only get the chance to sit down and write when they are otherwise occupied. Because writing is such a solitary occupation, it is impossible to get them to join in in any way. Enid Blyton is the world’s most prolific children’s writer, writing over 700 books, yet her youngest daughter couldn’t stand her. Blyton saw her two young daughters for an hour a day which is obviously why she managed such an output. Rosalind Prichard, daughter of Agatha Christie, had incredible respect for her mother, but described her as ‘distant’. She was looked after by a nanny and then went to boarding school. As an only child, it must have often been a lonely life.
However, I have also come to agree with Christie who once wrote about writing: ‘All you need is a chair and a table and a typewriter and a bit of peace.’ Waiting for the ‘right’ moment is a waste of time. Sometimes I write while waiting for the kettle to boil or supper to be ready. The most important thing is to write, even if it is only a few lines. I find that once I start writing, I start thinking, and writing every day, even if it is not a huge amount, gets the ideas going!
My latest work is a crime novel. It is a challenge because it is completely different to This September Sun in that I have had to start at the end and work backwards. Still, I often come up against technical difficulties - A can't be doing that then because A is supposed to be with B until two o'clock when C arrives - so I tend to walk round in a bit of a reverie, talking to myself under my breath and occasionally shaking my head - or pulling my hair out. Then I'll suddenly get a burst of inspiration, usually while doing the washing up or brushing my teeth, shout ‘Yes! Of course! That's it! ’ and go and jot it down before the moment is lost. The great thing about having a work in progress is that it comes everywhere with you and even the mundane can become a source of inspiration. I was in an IT training session recently where the trainer had a habit of putting a box around keywords which he wrote on the board and I thought this would be an interesting habit for one of my characters to have. On another occasion, a pair of shoes suggested a character and a tree the murder weapon.
Sometimes my dream of being a full time author seems to retreat before me, much like Gatsby’s green light, at other times, I just need to remind myself that I am already an author. If no one else will take me seriously, I must. I've come now to introduce myself as an author, rather than a teacher and try not to be so apologetic about my success. Writing, as I said, is a solitary job. There is no one to drive you but yourself and there are few to cheer you along the way. My hour, or more likely, my snatched minutes every day with my notepad or laptop, keep me balanced and, if not sane, at least a little less insane that I might be without it.