So, tonight, the evening before my 13th novel was published, at a time and place when the hype about writers might encourage you to think I was having, or about to have, a big fat/shiny/pretty launch, I was giving a speech to a bunch of adult students. People at Birkbeck who had real jobs and real lives, who had chosen to go back and study, while having real jobs day to day and studying in the evening. (I know how hard this is, my wife did it many years back. It’s massively impressive. Even if you live beside it. Maybe because of living beside it. )
And … I was asked to write about how it is for the ‘Modern Writer’, and I truly did wonder if truth or gloss is what people want. Especially if they’re studying the ‘Modern Writer’ and their process, not the work they turn out …
Anyway, this is what I wrote. These truths. It feels really brave. It feels like not at all what people usually do to sell books, to sell themselves. And … this – how it really is, with all the failures and the screw-ups – is what I gave the Birkbeck students tonight :
Last night, on twitter and Facebook, I asked friends and acquaintances whether, in giving this talk, I should tell the truth or be cheery. They came back, many of them novelists and agents, with a resounding “tell the truth” – and a smaller voice at the back saying – “and try to be cheery as well”. I happen to think that’s about the right balance, so – here goes.
I am a writer. I also make theatre. I direct, I devise, I write short stories and plays. But mostly, I am a novelist. I earn my living writing novels. My thirteenth novel will be published tomorrow. The Purple Shroud features two people from opposing camps running a nation, imposing cutbacks and limiting benefits during a recession. As Europe falls around them, they continue to conduct an impossible war in the mountains of Afghanistan, failing to provide the soldiers with the right amour or full pay. There is a huge riot involving all levels of society, with calls to bring in the army to put the rebels down. And a chancellor with great private wealth who, against better advice, cuts back on essential services to the public. Throughout it all, the established church threatens to split over matters of essential doctrine. The novel is set in 6th Century Constantinople and the two people running the nation are Theodora and Justinian. This novel, The Purple Shroud, is the sequel to my novel of two years ago, Theodora – Actress, Empress, Whore. Both of these novels have been optioned for a miniseries by HBO. This summer, after almost a year of deafening silence from HBO who paid the money to option them, they took a single step closer to maybe maybe happening.
That’s the cheery bit.
Here’s the truth.
I have been writing as long as I can remember. I do not come from a family that could support me beyond my first term at university, but they could support me until then, which is why I, youngest of seven from a council estate in Woolwich, was able to get an education. While both my parents had had to leave school at 14, and all my siblings at 16, my mother could quote screeds of poetry by heart, and my father – who, after we moved to NZ when I was five, worked in the same timber mill as my mother – could read a novel a night on shift work. That is, if the boilers didn’t go wrong. He was a boilerman, an essential job in a pulp and paper mill, if the boiler did go wrong, he came home a stone lighter and covered in burns from climbing into the boiler to fix it. But still, while there was no money and no middle class entrée in the world of the arts and certainly no desire for me to become an artist – my Dad didn’t cry when I came out at 18, he cried when I told him, at 21, I was going to be an actor and not the teacher or lawyer he’d hoped. Not someone with a proper job … Still, while we didn’t have any of the things I do see are very useful for making a life in the arts, like even the smallest understanding of how that world works, I came from a home that valued words, and valued reading, and valued story. They had no money to spare once I had left home at 17 and I cleaned the houses of rich people to afford to be at university – that paid for my rent, working in a coffee shop at 6am three mornings a week paid for my books. Yes, it was tiring – but, Birkbeck people, you’ll get this – it was also pretty cool to be paying for my own education. (not for a MOMENT suggesting our govt should not pay for education, but that when we go back, as adults, we learn differently, more passionately.)
I meant to be an actor but there was too little work. And so, like many women performers, I began writing. There is always too little work for women actors, some of you may have seen the pieces in the paper in the past few days about the lack of women on stage, on screen, and the impossibility of asking to see ourselves represented without being attacked as moaning or whining or calling for quotas or damaging the chances of minorities getting on stage as well. Which would be fine, of course, if women were a minority, if women weren’t 51% of the population … but we are. And if we don’t see women on stage, on screen, at all, there is no hope of seeing Black women, Asian women, disabled women, gay women … An aside, but a vital one.
This year I have written two drafts of a play script for a director who wants to work with me. I have written two drafts of a film script for another director who wants to work with me. Both of those were on spec, unpaid, I did it because I want to work with those directors, because I believe in them, and I think our collaboration could be fruitful. I also wrote the third draft of another film script, an adaptation of a book of mine. All of that work this year I did for free, in hope. Five years ago I was paid very well to work with a hugely successful Danish director to adapt my own book for film. Then she was nominated for best foreign film Oscar and she went off to Hollywood and the project stopped. This year that film came to life again, but with hope-not-money and so I agreed to rewrite the script for a third time, a massive rewrite, involving moving the location from one country to two others. That’s not find/replace, that’s everything, that’s tone, attitudes, everything. And I was asked to do it in two weeks. And I did, in fourteen and fifteen hour days. I got it done. The script was duly taken to Cannes, I’ve heard nothing since. This doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It means that, yet again, I’m waiting. Much of writing is waiting.
So, it’s July 4th, this year I have written those three scripts, I have done the final edits on the book out tomorrow, I have written a treatment for a non-fiction book (that my agent wants me to rewrite), I have begun the treatment for the novel I want to spend the next couple of years writing and have realised I can’t really write it in a treatment. I’m going to have to, as I usually do, write the book, or at least half of it, out of contract, and then try to get my agent to sell it.
The book that comes out tomorrow is a sequel. But I had never written historical fiction before, so my publishers, for whom I had already written two Orange long-listed novels, modern novels, set in the contemporary world, set in a world we know well, wanted to see how the first one did before they would buy the second. I wrote the sequel anyway, so it would be ready in time if they decided they did want to buy it, then they did, now it’s coming out.
But only because they saw the first one worked. And only because I had already written the second. I’d done the work.
And that’s the thing, that’s the truth thing, publishing is a business. In essence, it’s not about art or story or glorious truth in words, it’s a business.
So, now I’m starting a new book, again out of contract and again I’ll probably write all or most of a first draft before it is bought.
I have never had the big advances. The least I’ve ever earned is £1500. That was for my first book. Which then went on to sell in Japan, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. Despite what the press – and some book publicists – would have us believe, most authors do not get the massive advances. Most authors get middling advances, if at all, and either hope to earn out and make money from royalties – my last book has just begun getting royalties in the States and that feels brilliant, or we get income from overseas sales. For some people that is where the bulk of their income come from. These historical novels of mine are selling in Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland. And, it seems, pretty well in the States. Getting royalties is an amazing thing right now. And neither I – nor my agent – can second-guess any of this. There is no second-guessing, not in a recession, not in a world where publishing is only just waking up to what e-books mean, not when piracy is so rampant and so rife and so commonplace. There’s just making some work and taking it to market and hoping it sells. Like an old-fashioned farmer without subsidies.
So – it’s a difficult business and just because I, about to start my 14th novel, have had loads of them published before, doesn’t mean I’ll have another one published. In 2002 I finished the first couple of drafts of my 7th novel State of Happiness. My then publisher Sceptre, the literary imprint at Hodder, didn’t want it. I’d had a feeling they wouldn’t and had – again – written it out of contract with an assumption it probably wasn’t for them. The trouble was, it wasn’t for anyone else either. The six main publishing houses my agent went to, all of whom had editors who’d said to her “Please can we have Stella Duffy’s next book?” turned it down. It wasn’t what they expected. I wasn’t writing a book like the last book. I have never written a book like the last book. They wanted a book like the last book. Publishing likes that. A box, a hook, a rope to keep you on, tie you in, and fair enough. As I said, it’s a business. Eventually Virago bought it and I’ve now been with them for almost a decade. That book, the one we couldn’t sell, has been one of my most successful. State of Happiness was my first Orange long-listing, it was the book optioned by the Danish company Zentropa, it was the book on which I was paid well to learn to adapt to film with a brilliant director guiding me, and it’s the book I re-wrote again this year for the producers to take to Cannes and am still waiting to hear what next. Nothing is wasted, but it can feel bloody hard in the middle of it.
And yet – I write. If I’m not directing, or devising, or collaborating on a theatre piece, I’m writing.
My partner is a writer, mostly theatre, lots of radio, we have been together for 22 years and in that time we have had one two-week holiday. One. We are both freelance, there is no sick pay – as I found out to my cost when I had cancer and had to keep working through six months of chemo (actually, working through cancer can be very valuable, it’s better than just being a patient) – there is no holiday pay, no compassionate leave. No pension.
And yet we do it.
Writing isn’t just sitting at my desk alone, it’s being in a room with twenty-five collaborators, working on the Chaosbaby Project in two weeks’ time, a new large-scale theatre project with directors and writers and performers and designers and musicians, starting with a very simple narrative idea and finding the show, finding the guts in a room, in such a way that we can share it with an audience when we make it next year. We – a group of about sixty theatre makers, from all disciplines – have been getting together, unfunded, four or five weekends a year over the past two years, to work on this absurdly large project. This year we applied for funding and, astonishingly, got it. I’m leading our six day R&D in two weeks’ time, and we had already all promised ourselves we’d do those six days, with or without money. We want to make the work. We want to tell this story.
Because writing is telling story.
It’s walking around my bit of South London and trying to piece together the two stories – one actual event from 1912, and one man’s life covering 60 years, to find the juice that will link them so I can start making my new idea into a novel.
It’s saying yes, even though I have no time, to writing a piece for a Manchester theatre company, because I like what they’ve asked me to write about.
It’s selling my own book, my own work – like this – gig to gig, event to event, on twitter and Facebook and my blog, because most writers these days need to be promoters as well as writers, and – actually, when I think of the Woolfs it occurs to me we’ve always been self-promoters, it just looks prettier when your husband is also your publisher.
It’s knowing that of the 200-odd published novelists I know, only two – TWO – sold their first books for massive advances on three chapters and a synopsis. It’s knowing that the truth is MOST people finish the book before they sell it. MOST people need to finish the book before they sell it. Most of us don’t really know what we’re writing until we’ve done at least one draft. We find the story in the writing. The story that is not plot, not what happens, but Story with a capital S, the story that wants to be told. The thing beneath. The story that wants to be written if only we can get our own selves – our busy-ness and preoccupations and procrastinations and voice and style and issues out of the way and let the story be. Let it breathe.
It’s finding that some publishers like what they perceive to be my ‘style’ and realising I don’t want to have a style. Finding, as I write more, that I deeply and fervently believe that style or voice is irrelevant. That story is all, and that the voice or the style we write in can – and should – change for the story. That the story merits and deserves primacy. The writer’s job is to serve the story.
It’s being immensely grateful for being born in a council flat in Woolwich, the youngest of seven, and then moving to a small timber town in NZ as a child and growing up in a multicultural town before multiculturalism was trendy. Having friends who were Nuiean and Samoan and Tongan and Maori and Cook Island and Dutch and French and Swedish and Swiss and English and Scots and Irish and Welsh and seeing that every culture tells stories, that we are human beings and we get story, it is in us. It is as much our core as the Higgs Boson.
And that’s why I have never had a proper job in my life. Why I don’t have a pension. Why I don’t really do holidays. Why I agreed to be here before I have to run off and be a patron at an event for a youth diversity charity I support, why I’m usually working on three or four or five projects at once, why I say yes to gigs for no money as well as to ones that pay brilliantly, why I want to share what I do, why I work in Open Space in theatre in order to not be a hierarchical director or writer, but to welcome the input of those I work with, why I (sometimes) teach. Because story is at the core of humanity and I am human.
And, I do it because I was born in a council estate and come from a family that lived through real poverty and am immensely fortunate to do what I do and I know my siblings are bright smart creative people who simply didn’t have my chances. Because I want to say we can all be brilliant, all change the world, all make a difference if we’re given a chance to. If we take the chance to.
Because I don’t believe in talent, I believe in craft and skill and working hard. I believe we might all have been Mozart, you might all have been Mozart, had your dad made you a scale model violin at the age of 3, and had he been an amazing music teacher, and your sister an acknowledged better composer than you when you were both children, but hardly anyone ever heard her work, she was a girl after all. Mozart was great, but he had the circumstances and good fortune that allowed him to shine. We need to find the way to shine, and through our work, through sharing story, we can help others to shine too.
My Dad was a boilerman. He was a blue-collar worker from the age of 14 when he started work, to the age of 65 when he retired. He died at 67. He had four years ‘off’ as a German prisoner of war from the age of 21 to 25. He hated his job. His work was hard work, I work hard at telling story. Telling story is not hard work. Telling story is what we all do, what we exist to do.
That’s the truth, AND it’s cheery.