Twenty years ago today, my first book was published. Calendar Girl, Serpent’s Tail, a mere 207 pages long. It had an ISBN number, it had my name on the cover and again on the black and red striped spine.
Having a book published felt like a real thing, it felt solid, actual. Compared to the theatre work I was making at the time, and especially the huge amount of impro I was doing back then, it was solid, tangible, unlike theatre it was live but not live. Unlike theatre it was more than a passing moment, never to be recreated. (Though, of course, theatre is all the better for being ephemeral, that’s the point.)
And yet, book-writing was a lot like theatre, it is a lot like theatre.
Even for those of us who truly believe that making theatre is as much about process as product, the audience is always important, whether actually in the room as we make, or in our minds as we dream the performance to come.
And the reader is always in the room too, sometimes as critic, sometimes as cheerleader, but definitely there – the one for whom the piece of work is made. Sometimes if feels as if that reader is just me, (often it is just me!), often I can only write to my best ability and for what I care about. After that, is my agent, my editor, other people at my publishers, but there is also – always – the unknown reader. The readers I know and those I have no idea about. The readers I didn’t know would read me, cared about reading me, had any idea that I was a writer.
Interaction with readers has been one of the greatest unexpected gifts of my writing work. I didn’t realise this interaction would happen, and back when I was first published it happened very differently – without twitter, without facebook, without amazon, goodreads, blogs …
Some have become genuine friends, others distant acquaintances I’m always happy to hear from. Some have become people who champion all my work, any of my work, others have been very clear that they enjoy the crime novels but not the literary, or the literary but not the historical, or the stories above all, or the stories not at all. They are an intrinsic part of my writing work and I’m grateful for them.
Another unexpected gift of publishing has been publishers and agents. My two book agents (one after the other) have been, and still are, my very dear friends. Their opinions matter to me, their expertise matters to me, but their friendship has been vital. The publishing teams I have worked with have been amazing, generous, dedicated, and challenging. And I have learned so much from every editor I’ve worked with.
The booksellers and librarians have been a great gift too. People who invariably put reading, sharing reading, above everything else.
The people I have taught or shared thinking with – the mentees, the Arvon students, the impro-for-story learners, the one-off workshops – I’ve learned from them all, and from fellow teachers, in the act of teaching, of grappling to work out what exactly we are all trying to do.
But perhaps the main gift of writing has been other writers. I came to writing from a theatre community that was, twenty-odd years ago, more competitive, less inclusive, less welcoming than I feel it is now (I hope the cheerier-now is also others’ experience, if not, I urge you to find your community within theatre, find your tribe, it may take a while, but ‘your people’ will be there, it may just take you searching them out), but other writers were IMMEDIATELY welcoming, much more like the impro community.
I think I was fortunate that my first few novels were crime novels. Crime writers are great people, hugely political more often than not, warm, welcoming, encouraging, and good at parties. As, I have discovered, are most writers. And I don’t mean good at the absurd shiny cocktail party type of party you always see writers enjoying in tv/film (though maybe that too), I mean late night, long conversations, deeply engaged, sometimes breaking into show tunes, filling-the-bar parties. (Including the non-drinkers.)
And then the others … as my work changed, so did the writers I met. The literary novelists, the short story writers, the historical fiction writers, the women’s fiction writers, the thriller writers, the children’s authors, the YA authors, the fantasy writers – those who, like me, simply enjoyed writing and did it all if we could. (And who often, like me, found all these divisions that are purely about marketing, absurd. We’re all writers, that’s the thing.)
And writers are lovely. They are supportive and generous and welcoming and, above all, they care about what they do. Again, not in a tv/film (why do they ALWAYS get us wrong? you’d think we weren’t written by writers!) naff arrogant/insecure kind of way, the kind of ‘caring about writing’ that translates as pretension – but a really, truly, caring about writing, caring about sharing writing. CARING ABOUT INDIE BOOKSHOPS AND LIBRARIES!
And it’s great to be with people who care about story.
So – thank you. Thank you for 20 years of being published to Serpent’s Tail who got me started, to Sceptre who kept me going, to Virago who brought me to now, to the dozens of short story publishers who have given me the widest of options to play and stretch, to the readers and radio story listeners, to the brilliant booksellers and librarians, and to my fellow writers, my mates. Mates who have been excited for me with successes and sympathetic and generous about mistakes, who have held and shared and listened and told the stories of their own failures to make mine feel less painful. Writer friends who have praised and loved-up and been there, through cancers and deaths and losses, but also joys and pleasures and excitements. Without whom. Truly.