I’ve never really seen myself as an inspirational figure – I’d be a bit worried if I did – but I guess, for fellow writers, my writing career does have an obvious message.
For the last few weeks I’ve been finding my way around Hollywood – yes, really. All those magical names: Hollywood and Vine, Melrose Place, Mulholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard, and me, a lone English pedestrian (it’s true, nobody walks, God knows why they bother building sidewalks; they might as well make them into traffic lanes), strolling around with an expression of shock and bemusement only disturbed by an occasional broad smile or even a burst of laughter.
How on earth did I end up here?
My writing career is far longer than I care to admit, and, actually, started off quite well. In the late 1980s – yes, it really is that long ago – I had a sitcom on Channel 4, dramas on BBC radio, I sold a few sketches, wrote, produced and performed in a stage play, but then – don’t ask me why – I got this idea that I wanted to write books (become a ‘proper’ writer, maybe?). A bad decision, some might say, because from thereon my writing career went into freefall, year after year after year. I wrote several books I was happy with, and yes, there was a certain amount of interest, but nothing that ever looked like it might lead to publication. Agents came and went, the process of finding a new one becoming progressively more difficult, and one by one my friends and relations stopped asking me, ‘What are you working on at the moment?’ (and in their position, I probably would’ve been reluctant to risk that embarrassment, too). The lone furrow is the longest one to till (did I just make that up?). Like some mad scientist working away in the basement, I beavered on and on, searching for my breakthrough, shouting for Self-doubt to ‘Get out!’ the moment he put his head round the door.
About midway though that period I wrote a book called The Detainee – in 1998, to be exact. I had a few things on my mind: the fact that the UK was one, if not the, most watched society in the world and perhaps even more so, the ever-growing elderly population, not just here, but in many developed countries. What would happen when there weren’t enough people working to support those who weren’t? What if the State actually went bust and couldn’t support those who needed help: the old, the unemployed, the sick, etc? Would drastic measures have to be taken? But this was seventeen years ago and in a world where everyone was seemingly well off and financial institutions went unquestioned, what could possibly go wrong?
The Detainee did arouse a certain amount of interest. I remember Transworld spoke highly of it and several agents were enthusiastic, but in the end, in Tony Blair’s Britain, well, I guess it just wasn’t its time.
Then, of course, came 2008, the financial world wasn’t made of bricks at all, but of paper (and only worth the ‘IOU a bloody good explanation’ written upon it). I was working as a TEFL teacher and hadn’t built up the resources to take enough time off to write a new novel and so I dug out The Detainee and brought it up to date. Maybe it stood a better chance now?
When I finished, I went back to those people who’d expressed interest and jogged their memories: ‘Remember this? How much you said you liked it?’ Well . . . let’s be fair, it was ten years later. I tried just about every agent I could think of, and then did that old stand-by of just going through The Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, approaching the As, the Bs, and so on. Still no one wanted to know.
About this time – excuse me digressing into my personal life for a moment – and after living in London for twenty years, I came to one of those impasses we all are occasionally faced with: I had to find somewhere new to live, I was fed up with my day job and wondering if I should perhaps move on. At the same time, my ninety-one–year-old mother was finding it hard to cope alone in her Wiltshire home and really needed someone to be there for her.
It wasn’t an easy decision – I’m a single man, with no one to lean on, to help me through. What’s more, one of the reasons I’d lived in London was to be where it’s happening, where I might meet someone who might help my career. Was part of this decision me finally admitting defeat? Was I in effect calling an end to my writing career?
Sometimes irony really is delicious: within a month of making that fateful move, I received a letter . . .
Next time: those people who change your life for ever.