Number 3 in The A to Z of the Writer’s Affliction, part of the A to Z blogging challenge.
My first attempt at writing a novel was back in the eighties. No, I tell a lie – actually, there were a couple before then. But what do you say we call them juvenilia and forget about them? Good. So as I was saying, in the eighties, there wasn’t all this guff about ‘How to pitch your novel’ or ‘Write the perfect query letter.’ You just stuffed it into an envelope and sent it off. And agents answered. After a while you got a lovely letter with a handwritten signature in blue ink, saying, ‘We thought long and hard about this, but… etc.’ Apparently, it was highly original but not quite ‘focused’ enough.
So after a couple of those, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll fix that. No problem. Might take a while but who cares? As long as there’s food on the table.’ Which, thanks to the day job, there was. And 23 years later it was fixed. Still highly original but this time focused. And a hell of a lot longer.
A lot happened in those 23 years. Communism collapsed. So did Apartheid. The Internet arrived, AIDS spread and Posh Spice got married. The literary world changed. Agents still replied, but not so often, and nor did they think long and hard, at least not about French Sally. ‘In the current climate,’ said one, ‘a book like yours is virtually impossible to place.’ I became quite used to that expression ‘the current climate’. It means something like, ‘People are stressed these days, you know? Do you seriously think they want to read something long and complicated that has over 30 characters and doesn’t fit into any known genre? Please don’t get in touch with us again until you’ve written the next Harry Potter.’ Which, incidentally, is long, complicated and has lots of characters. But at least it fits into a genre.
And then a brave soul, Charlie Taylor, who was starting his own publishing venture, said, ‘I love it. It’s not an easy read but it’s highly original, wonderfully written, and I’m going to take a gamble on it.’ So in 2009 French Sally became the third book published by Unbound Press. I would like to say that thanks to the huge amount of work put in by Charlie and his wife, it was released to widespread acclaim. No. It was met with a resounding silence. Nothing to do with the Taylors’ work, which was indeed huge, but already by then the game was being played on social media, where Charlie’s presence was perfunctory and my own non-existent. Within a couple of years, Unbound Press had folded, one of many small indie publishers to be crushed by the reality of the market. And the work of French Sally, that edifice built over 23 years, crumbled into dust.
But you know what? I don’t regret it. The outcome will never eclipse my gratitude to Charlie, nor the joy experienced during the writing itself. Which is why, whenever I come across the question, ‘Why do you write?’, I can but smile. Or maybe it’s a sort of wry, defiant grimace. Because the only proper answer can be, ‘Because I’m crazy.’