Writing ‘The Observations’

How long does it take to write a novel? One year? Two years? Twelve? Are you kidding? Well – no, not really. In April this year, my first novel The Observations was published. I actually began writing this book in 1993. Had I known then that it would take 13 years before I’d see it in print, I might well have given up before I’d even begun. But, along the way, I’ve learned a few personal rules about writing. And my first rule is: never give up.

The fact that I began writing at all was an accident. By my late twenties, I’d already jacked in a number of potential careers. Having failed to make it on the stage (I was a spectacularly bad actress) I had drifted into singing (at which I wasn’t much better). My final gig was at a seedy London pub, where an audience member showed his appreciation of our set by eating my pianist’s hat. That was the last straw. I gave up performing and decided to work my way around the world. In the end, I only got as far as Portugal. Soon after arriving in Lisbon, I succumbed to the flu, and for days just lay on the couch in my apartment, sweating. I didn’t know anyone. I had no television, no radio, no books, no money. But I did have pen and paper and, out of sheer boredom, started to write a story about my ex-boyfriend Kenny. Kenny happened to be a transvestite and it had always intrigued me that he cried at his sister’s wedding – not because he was happy for her – but because he coveted her big white frock. To my surprise, this story engrossed me more than anything else I’d ever done. I rewrote it 20 times, obsessed by perfecting how the words looked on the page; how they sounded when I read them aloud.

I wrote another story, and then another, until it dawned on me that, finally, I’d discovered what I wanted to do in life. And so, I took a risk. I gave up my job in Lisbon and returned to Britain, where I took undemanding clerical work that allowed me to write in my spare time. Every morning, I got up at 5am to type up stories, and at weekends sent them to magazines and anthologies. Several were accepted for publication, which encouraged me to keep going.

After about a year, I applied to do a Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, and was accepted. The MA made me think seriously about narrative and structure. I still focussed on short stories, but I was beginning to realise that I’d never make a living out of them. Reluctant to return to licking envelopes once the MA ended, I applied for the post of Writer in Residence at HMP Durham and was shocked to get the job. My remit was to help prisoners to write poems, fiction and memoirs, two and a half days per week. Otherwise, I was free to do my own work.

I began at the prison in autumn 1992. By this stage, I’d decided that in order to make a living out of writing, I would have to write a novel. But I had no idea how to go about it. Then I came up with a cunning plan: instead of writing a traditional novel, I would devise about 16 linked stories, all on a Scottish theme, and (hopefully) pass them off as a novel. Some stories would be contemporary, some historical. A few were irreverent tales about Scottish icons, like Robert the Bruce. In my version, his catchphrase “try, try again” evolves not because he’s watching a spider, but because he’s attempting, unsuccessfully, to pleasure himself.

One story I had planned featured a Robert Burns-style poet-farmer. I’d done some research on Burns and was intrigued by the fact that he collected songs from ordinary people. I decided to write about a relationship between a 19th Century bard, and a maid from whom he collects songs.

I only ever intended it to be a story. But, somehow, once I invented the character of Bessy, the maid, she took over. I wrote from her point of view, using a very particular voice, which I could hear clearly in my head. Bessy’s voice is a form of Irish/Scottish Victorian demotic, part-invented, part-inspired by my Irish family and friends, my Scottish upbringing, and (eventually) by Victorian and Irish slang dictionaries.

As the story grew, I lost interest in the poet (although he appears as a minor character in the finished novel). On the first page, Bessy had mentioned a mistress, before I even knew who this character was. As I wrote, I became intrigued by Bessy’s relationship with this mistress, and in the end it became a narrative about two women, thrown together in mutual need, who end up saving each other’s lives.

I put aside the other themed stories to concentrate on Bessy, hoping that what I had was a novel. By this time, I had befriended some local writers. The North-Eastern writing community was incredibly welcoming. Three women formed a writing group and asked me to join. We called ourselves The Lady Writers. The original members were Margaret Wilkinson, Julia Darling, and Andrea Badenoch. Tragically, Julia and Andrea have since died, but back then, they (and Margaret) were full of life, wit and wisdom. We circulated manuscripts, and met regularly to give each other feedback. The Lady Writers were encouraging about Bessy’s world, even though what I showed them was fragmentary and incoherent.

Despite their encouragement, after about 20 thousand words, I ran out of steam, because I still couldn’t structure a full-length narrative. I lost faith in what I’d achieved and gave up. In addition, I abandoned the linked stories. All my research notes and fragments of writing were stuffed into a cardboard box. For a while, the box lived under our bed and then, after a move to London, it was stored in the attic.

The London move was pragmatic, so that my husband could go to The National Film School. However, London-living is so expensive that I ended up taking on several free-lance jobs. As well as teaching Creative Writing to undergraduates at UEA, where I commuted once a week, I started to work for film companies, like Working Title and Miramax, assessing scripts and novels to see whether they were worth making into movies. I also worked for The Literary Consultancy, reading novels and stories and writing reports on how to improve them. All this was poorly-paid, time-consuming work but ultimately (I did it for seven years), it taught me a lot about writing, particularly about how story works.

Meanwhile, my own writing became squashed into a few hours at the end of each day. My husband needed short scripts to direct, and so – feeling disenchanted with prose – I started writing short films. Several of these were made and they did reasonably well, in short film terms: they won prizes and two were BAFTA nominated. Following this, I was offered a commission to write a full-length feature script. I had an idea for a dark comedy about bitter, middle-aged divorced men in Norwich. Unfortunately, the production company wanted something more commercial – a romantic comedy about young people, in Brighton. Desperate to please, I compromised my ideas. The first draft of the resulting script was a mess. Before I had embarked on the rewrites, the production company folded, and so did my development deal.

Disillusioned, I returned to fiction, and attempted a contemporary novel. I finished a draft in about eight months. But, on re-reading the manuscript, I realised that I could never publish this novel, because it contained autobiographical elements, and was too revealing. I’m a private person, and couldn’t bear to think of this material being out in the world, with people assuming that, somehow, it told some truth about its author.

By this time, it was spring 2002. In despair, I decided to dig out my old writings, to see if there was anything worth salvaging. I brought some boxes down from the attic and rummaged through them. The minute I unearthed the files of material on Bessy, I knew that I’d found something I could get excited about. I still loved her character and voice, and was now more confident about plot. I dashed off a paragraph, summarising what might happen in the story, and showed it to my husband. He said he thought it might work.

Thereafter, I spent three frustrating months working on a more detailed plan. Only when I was really fed up, did I begin writing the novel itself. Although the new plot was very different, I re-used much of the original material. For instance, page one of the novel is exactly as I wrote it in 1993. Many other fragments remain, but they’ve been woven into a different, more complex narrative. It was rather like making up a patchwork quilt from squares of material. Initially, I only had 25% of what I needed. In order to finish, I had to create the other 75% of the squares, then stitch the whole thing together in a way that made sense. Because so much of what I was writing was new, it wasn’t too difficult to keep the voice consistent.

The first draft took eight months, and then, because I was desperate for money, I worked hard at rewriting the first 100 pages, in the hope that I might get an advance based on a partial manuscript. Both my husband and my agent gave me invaluable editorial advice. At last, my agent sent the manuscript to a number of publishing houses and – to my enormous relief – three editors were interested. There was a modest bidding war and, in the end, I decided to go with Faber and Faber, because they publish many of my favourite authors.

After that, it all got a bit crazy, with foreign sales headed up by a pre-emptive bid from Penguin in America (which meant that they made a substantial offer, hoping that I wouldn’t consider any other publisher). Translation rights sold first to Italy and Holland and, to date, The Observations is due to be published in 14 different languages, with rights still selling, most recently to Brazil, Sweden and Israel. In Italy, the book came out in April and was a bestseller. Rights have also been sold for radio and television adaptations, and an audio book is in the pipeline.

All this seems unbelievable to me, even now. It’s been a long, messy journey to this point, with many disappointments and frustrations. But I’m so glad that I never gave up. Rediscovering Bessy was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me. In fact, my second novel is also inspired by one of the linked stories that I’d stored away in that cardboard box. It all just goes to prove my second rule of writing, which is: never EVER throw anything away.