“Have you always wanted to write?”
It’s something I’m often asked when I announce – still rather self-consciously – that I’m a novelist. And the answer, of course, is yes.
Writing’s what I do, what I’ve done throughout my entire career, even if the idea of writing a novel seemed pure fiction – a dream I could barely admit to anyone bar myself – for years.
When I was ten, I won a children’s writing competition, Devon Young Writer of the Year, with a story about some Cornish standing stones. The prize was £75 in cash, £50 in book vouchers - and a trip to Hodder and Stoughton.
The trip was never organized and I stopped writing as the demands of adolescence – exams and friendship problems – crowded in. I can clearly remember fearing that my imagination – which had plagued and delighted me as a small child – was ebbing away.
I still read of course. I was that girl who hunkered under the duvet with a torch and raced through books way into the night: fighting off sleep to finish just the next chapter, and then the next. And so I went to Oxford to read English, barely believing that someone would pay for me to curl up and read novels for three years. (I was lucky: I got a full grant and this was before tuition fees.)
I also began to write, not just the two essays a week required for my degree but features and reviews for Cherwell, the university newspaper. And that paper was my passport to a career in print. It still didn’t occur to me that I could write a novel: literature, my degree had taught me, was largely the preserve of dead white men. But I thought I could be a journalist.
After five months spent learning Pitman shorthand and media law in Hastings, I spent two years as a news trainee at the Press Association and eleven at the Guardian as a news reporter, health correspondent and – in the dying years of the Blair administration – a political correspondent. I loved it. It taught me to write every day, on deadline, to a prescribed length, but more importantly it enabled me to be curious. Why are they saying that? What’s the real issue – the back story, if you like, or the agenda? Why are they behaving in that way?
Of course, like many hacks, what I really wanted to do was write a novel but fear of failure – and life, in the form of two small children – stopped me. I charted other journalists who’d published books but the idea of writing 100,000 words rather than six or eight hundred at most, seemed a bit of a stumbling block. With a news article, you have the security blanket of research and all these quotes from those you’ve interviewed which you have to compress. With a novel, there’s no such safety net – and none of the authority implied by your paper. It’s just you and your imagination – and why would anyone want to know about that?
I left the Guardian and started freelancing and, as my youngest neared school age – and I neared 40 – the itch to write grew stronger still. I wittered on to one of my two book clubs about wanting to do a creative writing MA but not having the money or not being good enough.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Sarah,” one of my friends, a former colleague, interrupted me mid flow.
“You don’t need a course. You just need to get on with it.”
And so I began.
In the week I turned 40, and my youngest started school, I looked at the 10,000 words of the novel I’d tentatively started and came up with a plan. I would get it written and published within a year and if I couldn’t I would have to get a proper job.
To everyone’s amazement – not least mine – the plan paid off. The Art of Baking Blind was sold in a pre-empt to Hodder & Stoughton in October 2013, and 30 years after my promised visit, I arrived at Hodder’s offices to celebrate my two–book deal. The novel was published in hardback in July 2014 and will be published in paperback this August. At present, it has also been sold to publishers in the US, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Poland and Brazil. Each of these editions will come out this year and you can see some of the covers here.
So what happens now? Well, I am currently editing the second novel, to be published in hardback in early 2016. It’s been a rougher ride than my first novel – written in a glorious rush of excitement - but it’s honed my skills. It’s making me believe I can call myself a novelist, after all.
Now, when I’m asked if I’ve always wanted to write, I am less self-conscious. Yes, I say, with a smile.
Writing – and now writing a novel – is what I do.