I wrote my first novel in 1976 and was first published in 1984. In between I had written maybe half a million words, graduated, teacher trained, and worked for five years as a comprehensive school and FE teacher. But this, of course, was before the age of the internet and self-publishing, an age which has made everybody able to reach an audience and generally very impatient to do so. But the fact that far more people want to write books, particularly children’s books, means that major publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. So it has never been easier to get a book published, but a lot harder to get a book published which will appear in Waterstones.
The old adage ‘write what you know’ was something I certainly practised in those early days. The experience of teaching teens naturally led to me wanting to write for them, and I was not so old to have forgotten my own teenage experiences, particularly my year selling furniture and carpets in Habels of Parchment Street, Winchester. I wrote a series of stories based on this, fictional but drawing heavily on fact, and it was these stories I first sent to a variety of publishers gleaned from The Writers and Artists Yearbook, then the only comprehensive source of information about the world of publishing.
In those days everything was sent by post, of course, but the corollary of this was that, unlike with emails, you invariably got a reply. Most came in a few weeks, sometimes a short letter, sometimes just a postcard with ‘not for us’ written on it. Needless to say each rejection was felt like a body blow, but looking back now it really wasn’t that long before a got a positive response. An editor at the Bodley Head had seen something in my writing, and I was asked to send a couple of stories for consideration for an anthology, edited by Peggy Woodford, about various misfits.
If you are creatively minded there will inevitably be ideas that lurk in the back of your mind, returning again and again until you finally make use of them. So when I was asked to write about a misfit, I immediately remembered the bizarre metamorphosis of a boy at my school. He was a slight, quiet, angelic-looking character but somebody knew he had a drumkit at home, and when the very traditional boys’ grammar decided to give the sixth formers their own common room, he was encouraged to provide some entertainment with a pair of drumsticks on a couple of stools. This was an excuse for the unleashing of six years of bottled-up energy as breaktimes turned into increasingly wild primitive rituals. The little angel was elevated into a minor god, and although our worship of him was clearly tongue-in-cheek, he took it very seriously. Soon he was bringing in real drums, and after that abandoning the kit to gyrate Elvis-like while singing into a chair-leg microphone. I’ll never forget the moment someone took this imaginary mic from him and he screamed “Giz the mic!” with complete conviction that that was what it was.
Eventually things got too far out of hand, someone smashed a window with their fist, teachers summarily ended their experiment with liberalism, and the little angel went back into his shell.
It wasn’t too difficult to transform these real-life events into a story: I just had to map out the key stages in his metamorphosis, and add in some more of my own invention, such as acquring a girlfriend and a personal honour guard. It’s always seemed natural to me to blend fact and fiction in this way, but I know from my creative writing classes that many people find it hard to depart from reality when writing stories based on their experiences. I’ve developed some exercises to counteract this.*
I’ve always been fascinated by processes of change: the incremental steps through which regeneration or degeneration take place, power relations are overturned, the persecuted become the persecutor, etc. Nothing could be more boring in my eyes than the 2D portraits of heroes and villains which dominate children’s fiction. The world is in a continual state of flux, both nature and human society, and it is vital that children develop an intuitive understanding of this.
This is maybe why I enjoyed the adventures of Professor Branestawm so much as a child. Almost every story involved an invention leading to events spiralling further and further out of control. But the story that really hooked me I cannot even name. I’m sure it was by Thurber and appeared on TV in an animation. It was about a preacher who came to tea and just never left. I’ve been rewriting that story in different forms throughout my writing career.
I saw no reason to depart from my usual preference of a first person narrator for the story, but I did try to make it more conversational that my furniture shop stories. In my mind I was Mark Twain but the reality fell far short. Mark Twain was not only familiar with the Missisippi dialect but had the ability to imitate it, just as a good impersonator can imitate the spoken voice. The result is fluent and eloquent and never sounds false. I can’t say the same of King, and I changed my writing style subsequently. But the story still works because its central idea is compelling.