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Wednesday
Oct302013

My Writing Life Part II - How I Won The Smarties Book Prize

In my first post [down, if you're scrolling] I wrote about the sweet success of having a first book published after a writing life extending back to the age of nine, and in my third post [scroll up] I brought the story up through a further eleven novels, and what they taught me, to the present day.  In this post, however, I'm writing about the fifteen year gap I took from writing after the publication of that first book, and how I came to write 'Midnight Blue'.   

During those years, as befit a child of the sixties, I did the hippie thing, moved to the countryside from the city, grew vegetables [not very well], baked bread in a solid fuel stove, collected cats and dogs – and five children.  I also taught myself to weave, and made cloth, wall-hangings and rugs.

Then suddenly I found myself heading for my forties, the mother of five children under the age of eleven, including a new baby. And despite all my busyness, an overwhelming sense of emptiness settled like fog upon my life.  Who was I really?  Was I the person I seemed to be, or someone else? Where was I going?  Where was the person I used to be? That little girl once called Pauline Fisk who had so longed to be a writer when she grew up – where was she?

For more than a decade, Dave and I had lived in a cottage in a village on the Shropshire flank of the Long Mountain.  Our house overlooked the Norman tower of its parish church. We had a huge garden and good sized rooms, but there weren’t many of them, our windows were tiny, our ceilings low and it was easy to feel cramped.  Bringing up three children in that cottage felt like a crush.  Four and I was panicking.  Five, and we had children sleeping on window-sills.  I kid you not.  When you’re married to an architect, you have to prepare yourself for lateral thinking. Architects don’t solve problems like anybody else.     

At the front of our house was a tiny study with a huge open fireplace, which we’d pile into on winter nights because it was so warm.  Dave came up with the idea of a swing-bed on the wall, which we could sleep in, freeing up a bedroom for a couple of the kids. He built it out of a massive old door, with a mattress tucked behind it, hinged up against the wall by daytime and pulled down by night.  It didn’t look particularly inviting, and was hard to climb up into, but it turned out to be a bit of a nest.  In fact I learned to love that bed. The only time I didn’t use it was when Idris was born. 

Even so, he was born in that room – the fourth of my children and the first to come into the world by acupuncture home delivery. And my fifth child, Grace, was in that room as well, sleeping in a moses basket when it suddenly hit me that I had to start writing again.

This is one of the strangest episodes in my life. I was seated in my favourite armchair by the fire, with an empty armchair opposite me and Baby Grace in the moses basket on the floor. Suddenly a strange man appeared before my eyes.  He literally came into existence in the armchair opposite me. I can’t remember his face, but I remember that he wore a white shirt, and that blood was pouring down it from a gaping wound.  Before I could say or do anything, he fell out of the chair, collapsing onto the floor - and died.  Before giving up the ghost, his last words were, ‘If you don’t write my story, nobody will ever know who killed me, or why.’

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have an imagination.   Sometimes that imagination is a problem, sometimes it’s my friend.  On this occasion it was my conscience, pricking me to life.  Ever since my first book of short stories had been published, I’d been burying myself in other things.  Something had been wrong with that book, but I’d been too young and inexperienced to know what it was. The result of this was that a crushing fear of failure stood in the way of my writing any more. For one glorious moment I’d been on the verge of a literary career, but then I’d got cold feet. It was so much easier to say you know I could have been a writer if I wanted than to take the plunge and really go for it, only to find that I didn’t have what it took.

What was wrong with that first book, I now realize, was its lofty, highly-unnatural tone, pitched half way between Tolkien and the King James Bible - this being what I reckoned a book had to sound like if its author was to be accepted as a ‘proper writer’. I had yet to learn to trust in me, in my own voice.  The most important lesson an author can learn. And yet even all these years later, when I did start writing again, shocked into action by the man with the bloody shirt, I still wasn’t using my own voice.

For the next few years, I wrote articles, radio plays, short stories and poems, all in the house style of who ever I was trying to pitch to.  That, I was told, was the way to make money as a writer.  And sometimes I did, but more often than not I didn’t.  And then, in a sudden, completely unexpected ‘what the hell’ moment, I gave up on trying to do it that way, and started doing it my own.  I made a conscious decision to write in my own voice, and only write what I wanted, never mind the money, or the pitching or anything else.  I didn’t have to sound like Tolkien to be a proper writer, or Ray Bradbury or Raymond Chandler or anybody else whose books I liked.  I had – note that word had - to sound like me.

Finally I had got it.  The penny had dropped.  Why then I’ve no idea, but life’s like that sometimes.  Things just come. And that’s when I started writing ‘Midnight Blue’.   What did I want to write above everything else?  Novels for children and young adults [though they weren’t called young adults back then].  What did I want to write about?  Magic hot air balloons.

Years before, back in the Brick Barns days, which I wrote about last month, I’d written a story, ‘Ben the Balloon Man’, about a magic hot air balloon piloted by a sky gypsy. Now I read a book called ‘The Flight of Condor I’, by adventurer Jim Woodman , who along with the English balloonist Julian Nott, had attempted to prove, out in the deserts of Nazca, that the Inca had the technology and skill to fly balloons a thousand years ago.

Jim Woodman is now dead, but Julian Nott has gone on to greater things.  He’s the balloonist who’s broken all the records and been the one to do new things first. Nowadays he’s to be found working for NASA, putting balloons around Saturn. However, he says the Condor I flight was the stand-out ballooning event in his life. I’m proud to say that he has the artwork for the new ebook version of ‘Midnight Blue hanging in his office in California.  If you visit his website, you can find the Nazca link, and see that ‘Midnight Blue’ gets a mention.

But having ideas is one thing, executing them another – especially if you have five children.  With a toddler still not old enough for school, and four other fairly young children in a variety of different schools, it was a hard time to start on a novel. Every day I’d get up at 5.00am and write for two hours before the children awoke.  This has since become a life’s habit [I’m writing this at a quarter to five]. I’ve talked about this before, I know, but there’s something special about that first hour between sleep and wakefulness.  The writing I do then is like the cream on top of the milk. There may not be much of it, but little and often is still how I like to work.  That way the writing never goes cold on me.  The ideas keep coming and I keep getting them down.   

‘Midnight Blue’ was about the countryside around me, the Devil's Chair, the Stiperstones, the Long Mountain and the Rea Valley that lies between those hills, driving them apart.  It was also a huge success.  Nothing prepared me for this.  After the book was published, I went down to London for some reception – I can’t remember what. Everybody at my publishers seemed to think my being invited was a big deal, but a big deal for me was the fact that I had a novel in print.  When I arrived at the reception, I was completely unprepared for what happened next.  People kept coming up and wanting to meet me, and congratulating me. I didn’t know that I was on the Whitbread Children’s shortlist, because it had only just come out.  Then it turned out I was on the Smarties shortlist too. Nobody had ever heard of me, and I was up against big names for these prizes, and everybody wanted to give this unknown author from nowhere a bit of a once-over.

The award ceremony for the Smarties was at the Barbican in London.  I took Dave and two of my daughters along for moral support.  Nobody else had children with them - though, as this was a children’s award, I couldn’t see why not.  The place was packed with publishing people who obviously all each other [everybody seemed to know everybody else, except me].  The big names stood in the midst of their entourages.  Roald Dahl wasn’t there because he was in hospital, but I remember Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice fame, and his shock of white hair, and Gene Kemp was there, and lots of other authors too but, looking back, they’re all a bit of a blur.    

I do remember Susan Hill though, who as head of the judges came to tell me how much she loved my book.  Someone else said it was the book that everyone was talking about. Someone else mentioned the words annus mirabilis.  Even so, it seemed to me that my chances of winning were fairly remote.  As an unknown author from a fairly unknown publishing house, I hadn’t even given an acceptance speech a moment’s thought. I was just happy to be included in the event. 

When ‘Midnight Blue’ was called out, the words seemed to come from a million miles away.  I remember stepping forward to receive congratulations for winning my category award and it being a struggle to get my head round beating Roald Dahl. But then, after all the other congratulations for other categories, the name ‘Midnight Blue’ was called again. There were gasps all round the Barbican. I stood there feeling sick.  I had won the Smarties Gold Award.

I don’t remember what I said, except that it ended with a Bob Dylan quote and somewhere in the middle of it all I said something about my children and Dave never having matching socks. Afterwards I was interviewed , filmed and photographed.  Then there was lunch with my agent and publishers, my daughters going on about the cost of it all and who was going to pay  [a common theme in our house].  Then it was off to Liberty’s - a triumphal trip that saw me sitting atop a pile of Persian rugs in my posh [charity shop] frock, pulling them back one by one deciding which to spend my prize money on.

It was a big cash prize.  I have that Persian carpet to this day.  I also have the Parker Centennial fountain pen, all £250 pounds worth of it, that I bought the following day. I remember reading somewhere about JK Rowling’s first indulgent purchase being an aquamarine ring.  Well, my indulgence was a fountain pen. For years I’d been eyeing it - and now it was mine. And I’m telling you, writing with it feels as good now as it ever did.

So there you have it, Part II of how I became an e-book writer - Me and ‘Midnight Blue’.  We didn’t win the Whitbread, but it was still an amazing year.  Jenny Nimmo, who lived nearby, said from her experience of winning Smarties Gold too, that nothing in my life would ever be the same. And she was right.

So what did I do next?  By this time, ‘Midnight Blue’ was being translated and read around the world. My publishers thought a sequel would be a great idea, but I had ideas of my own. So many authors who succeed with a first book discover they have nothing else in them.  I was determined to prove that I wasn’t one of those.  I knew I was still an apprentice writer and had a long way to go. And I wasn’t going to learn anything, I reckoned, by regurgitating ‘Midnight Blue’.

In my next post in this series [scroll up] I’ll tell you about the long apprenticeship that has been my writing life since, and that lasts to this day. Part III of my writing life is about finding my way into e-publishing [scroll up even more]. In the meantime, in celebration of the 21st anniversary of its Smarties win, ‘Midnight Blue’ has been published for Kindle.  If you’d like to read it, here’s the link

 

 

 

 

 

 

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