On Harvest, Dandelions and Giving Up Writing

And so to Harvest, and Jim Crace’s much reported declaration that he is going to give up writing, and the accompanying theory that his Booker nomination is a plea on the part of the establishment for him to reconsider. I don’t buy it (well I did buy Harvest.) Firstly, if Jim Crace wants to give up writing, that’s his business. I’ve given up writing three times during the past decade, each time a considered response to the enormity of what I was trying to do, the complete mismatch between the effort I was putting into it and the success I was achieving, and a testimony of love to my husband and children, who seemed to be paying as big a price as I was. I needed a book deal. My family needed me to get one. I’d been out of the profession in which I’d once earned a living for ten years – would I even get another teaching job? If I went back to teaching, would I still write? What would happen to the five novels I’d written in those ten years if I did? And so I found myself creeping back to it, just one more novel, and one more, until I realized I’d given up giving up.

I used to love ‘how I got published’ stories. A guest writer came to talk on the Curtis Brown course I did I 2011. She told us that her first novel HAD to get a deal as she’d spent LITERALLY her last penny on the laptop she’d written it on. But what if that novel hadn’t sold? Would she have given up writing? We all know the story of J.K. Rowling freezing to death in a café as a single parent – but have you been to the Elephant House on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh? It’s a world away from the café in The Apprentice, where the losers sit and contemplate their shame. I could write a novel there, especially if I had friends there who would keep an eye on my children, and some alimony. Theses stories do no one any favours. Who are they for? The writers themselves? The publicists? Unpublished writers? The place for invention, for manipulating events, for telling a story, is in the novel itself. Anyone who’s had the good fortune to get a deal owes it to those who are still trying to tell the truth about it.

I wrote a play in 1995. I believed in that play. My Theatre Studies A level group and I took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dandelions got a four-star review in the Scotsman and a mention in the Daily Mail. I honestly thought this would be the beginning of the writing career I so desperately wanted. But did I send it to any agents? Did I research theatres and publishing houses and send them tickets? Did I make a noise? No. Because writing careers happened through contacts, or by the kind of lucky accident that only happens to other people. I’d put myself in the way of such an accident. But no passing patron was blown away by my wide-eyed sincerity and unsung talent. The famous actor from the show down the road didn’t come to see ours and ask to be in a West End transfer. The director of the Traverse never did seek me out and insist that I write a play for him. And so I left it, and taught with all my heart, and didn’t write my first novel till eight years later. Because I really thought I’d tried, and failed, when all that had happened was success. I’d created the circumstances for the luck; the luck hadn’t come, and I called that failure. It wasn’t. It wasn’t even rejection.

If the stories I’d read, or that the writers I went to hear so avidly at the Edinburgh Book Festival year after year, had been more honest, would I have done things differently? I think I would. The years of weeping over rejections, of failing again and failing better, would have started earlier – and so would the bloody-mindedness I’ve discovered later in life (this, incidentally, is why I celebrate the bloody-mindedness of my own children, to the collective concern of their grandparents).

Jim Crace is no more owed a Booker nomination than I was owed a book deal (although I am of course delighted for both of us). There is no great God of publication who makes things fair and even. Why does one debut get a six figure advance and sales in twenty countries, whilst another is lucky to get four figures, or anything at all? And another gets nowhere? The first novel must be better, right? The second not quite as good and the third really a bit rubbish? But that way insanity lies. You don’t get a deal by cutting out all adverbs, or writing with a green pen in the grey light between the sunset and the fall of total darkness, or by spending LITERALLY your last penny on a laptop. You don’t leave your only copy of your manuscript on a train where it just happens to be picked up by a publishing director, or write a shopping list on the back of your synopsis so that the agent who plucks it from your abandoned trolley goes wild searching the world to find you. The best advice doesn’t come from any of the manuals or courses or the stories writers tell (or are encouraged to tell). The best advice for aspiring writers comes from Dory, the blue fish in Pixar’s film Finding Nemo. She gets lost, she doesn’t know who she is, she forgets where she’s been and where she’s going and that sharks are dangerous things driven wild by blood. Just keep swimming, she says to herself, over and over. Just keep swimming.

And now, I am going to read Harvest, by Jim Crace, and we’ll see if this Man Booker nomination keeps him swimming after all.

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