Dudley Moore: I’m writing a book.
Peter Cook: Really? Neither am I.
Peter Cook’s quip is at one end of the spectrum of responses you get when you tell someone you’re writing a novel. At the other end are those people who say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been thinking I might write one,’ as if a novel is something you can dash off over a couple of weekends, pop in the post to a literary agent, get a big advance and plunge into a new life that will revolve around drinking champagne with your editor, and hanging out at cocktail parties in Bloomsbury telling Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling where they’re going wrong in their careers.
It took me three and a half years to write my debut novel Wrecker - or thirty years, depending on how you look at it. What drove me to dedicate countless weekends and much of my annual holiday leave to writing a book? In my twenties, my idea of writing was pacing up and down in the bedroom of my hard-to-let council flat, chain smoking and listening to The Ramones at volume 11. Somehow I managed to write a few comedy sketches and even an entire musical play called Miss Success. It was about a female office worker’s hallucination about finding herself inside the pages of a woman’s magazine. The writing was patchy, at best, but the production was okay because the cast and musicians were great. And I would return to a female protagonist later when I wrote Wrecker.
In the years that followed, in between playing saxophone and rearing two children, I went to a writing class in Covent Garden, London, led by the playwright John Petherbridge, a brilliant creative writing teacher. Recently, I came across feedback from my fellow writers in those workshops and realised I’d have progressed a lot more quickly if I’d taken it all on board at the time. I am fortunate that I now live in Brighton and have been able to go to the New Writing South workshops, and learn with two great writers and tutors, Catherine Smith and Susannah Waters. Even more handily, my wife, Sally O’Reilly, is a published writer and teaches creative writing at the Open University. We go out for coffee a lot (Brighton is the only British town which has more cafes than people), and we talk endlessly about fiction.
So why did I write Wrecker, a novel told from the point of view of a young woman in a remote village in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century? While holidaying in Cornwall, I saw an old photograph on the front of a book – of a girl in the nineteenth century carrying pales of water down a steep lane in Newlyn. My entire novel grew out of the atmosphere of that grainy image.
I didn’t initially set out to write the story from a woman’s point of view, although the setting was always an isolated community of women. The events of the story are driven by the women’s rivalries and the social pecking order, the ways they keep one another in their place and maintain the village norms– and most importantly what happens when a woman refuses to play along.
Originally the story was told from several points of view, including that of the Methodist Minister Gideon Stone. My heroine Mary Blight’s voice eventually took over, but the decision to make it her story was also made to focus and streamline the novel.
I know that proper men write – and read – books about boysy stuff like military history, spying and so on, but I’m happy to be a literary transsexual, although I won’t be following Grayson Perry or Eddie Izzard down the transvestite route. The joy of writing for me is to submerge myself in the consciousness of characters who on the surface don’t resemble me at all.
Wrecker will inevitably be compared with Poldark, given the popularity of the TV series, and also to Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornish novels. But I’ve only seen two episodes of Poldark, and I’m yet to read Rebecca or Jamaica Inn. My main influence was Thomas Hardy’s novels, particularly Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Other more recent novels that have inspired me include Emma O’Donoghue’s Slammerkin, Rose Tremain’s Restoration and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.
I took the business of submitting Wrecker to agents very seriously. It always amazes me when writers ask published authors or agents the most basic questions. If you’re serious about being a writer you should at least bother to find out how the publishing industry works. Over the years, I’ve read four books on getting published, as well as learnt from the experiences of published writers.
I only submitted Wrecker to agents who stated on their websites that they would consider literary historical fiction. I made sure to look at who else each agent represented to see whether their work was at all similar to mine, and I tried to gauge what the agent’s approach was from their biographies. I anticipated months of silence punctuated by the occasional standard rejection email, so I was surprised and delighted when I got a quick response from David Headley.
I remember going to a literary conference a few years ago and one of the agents speaking addressed us by saying, ‘Hey, you wannabes out there….’ It gives me huge satisfaction to think I’ll soon be a published author, and able to leave my wannabe status behind.
Now all I have to do is write another book, and this time to a deadline that’s a bit tighter than thirty years.
Follow Noel on Twitter: @noeloreilly