Two years ago it had never occurred to me that I might write an unfinished Ngaio Marsh novel. Today I finished Money in the Morgue.
Two years ago (almost to the day) my agent received an email from Harper Collins explaining about the unfinished Ngaio Marsh novel (3 and a bit chapters), the couple of pages of notes, and asking if I – a writer of literary and crime fiction, a theatremaker, a London-born, London-living NZer/Aotearoan, wanted to try finishing the novel by Ngaio Marsh – a writer of crime with great literary merit, a theatre director, a London-loving NZer.
I didn’t spend long thinking about it. I had no idea how it could be done, I had no idea how I would do it, AND it was such a delicious challenge – about the craft of writing more than anything else – I really didn’t think I could say no.
It then took months for the publishers and the estate and the agents to sort the deal. Meanwhile I finished the edit on The Hidden Room, got on with other Fun Palaces work, read all the Marshes again, read the biographies and autobiography. I re-found the woman I had (like many of my NZ-age theatre friends) dismissed for her outdated, outmoded (in the 70s and 80s) Anglo-philia, her old-school theatre work, her love of the English language (and yes, her rudeness towards the kiwi accent, it’s right there in the books). I remembered she’s so many other things too though. A passionate lover of the land of Aotearoa. For her time, class and race, a (fairly) respectful writer of Maoritanga. She’s a woman who worked by and for herself her whole life. There’s a huge amount to admire. A huge amount to live up to.
The day after Fun Palaces weekend 2016 (ie, thirteen and a half months ago) I started writing the book. Marsh had written the first 3-4 chapters. (3-4 because they were all a little short, a little sketchy compared to her usual opening chapters.) I’ve just finished my last edit. It’s now with my editor and is ready to be copyedited, ready to start to look like a book. The bulk of my work is done. I’ve done it now, albeit with those fiddly final page edits to come. We’ll see if people like it when it comes out in March. So far, the trusted (v successful crime-writing, Golden-Age-loving) friends who’ve read it have been very positive and supportive.
And here’s the thing. When I said yes to doing this, I had no idea that I could do it. I said yes, as I so often do (Fun Palaces for eg!) because it seemed like I was the right person at the right time and so I ought to do it. I said yes because it was an exciting if terrifying offer. I said yes because it was a challenge.
I have been so lucky that so many writer friends I respect have been very supportive – not just of Harper Collins’ choice to ask me, but of the possibility that I could achieve this piece of work. That I could do it justice.
This is what I want to offer to anyone else scared of a Yes …
You don’t have to know how to do it to say yes. You don’t have to be asked to do it to say yes. (No-one asked me to start Fun Palaces. I asked me.)
You don’t have to be paid to say yes. (There was no Fun Palaces money when we started, we still struggle hugely, funding is SO HARD.) If you are drawn to it, you can say yes for you, and fit it in around the other work you need to live. You can, it’s what artists have done for millennia. It’s not great and it’s not ideal, but it IS possible.
You don’t have to know ANYTHING to say yes.
Saying yes can be the path that leads to the research and the learning and the beginning. Saying yes can be the start of the practice. Saying yes can begin to make it happen.
Go for it.
PS – no I didn’t have a mentor. I have never had a mentor. We need to stop telling young/new Makers they need mentors. What they need is the support to be their own mentor. (Btw, Tara Mohr‘s ‘Playing Big’ has some v good stuff on this.)
PPS – you can, I can – of course – always ask questions, ask for info, ask for a bit of support. That way no one has to feel they’ve got to be (big Greek drum roll) MENTOR, and we can all still get and give help.