HOW MY FIRST NOVEL CAME TO BE
Madam is my debut, but in truth it is my third novel.
I wrote two novels in my twenties, the first was during my years at university, it was an experiment but I grew proud of it – an arrogant notion, since it was a pile of crap. The second was written midway through my teaching career, where I rewrote a traumatising experience I’d had. Both were fiction, with touches of the truth, but far too much emotion. I am ashamed to think of them now – but I shouldn’t be, because they got me to where I am. So I accept them and ensure that they never see the light of day.
After the second novel was mercilessly rejected by any agent I sent it to, I realised that my writing wasn’t good enough. But it was something I wanted to do, something I felt compelled to do: I wanted to be a writer. I sat in my classroom between lessons and thought about it. I realised that if I was teaching my students how to get better at Latin, at ancient history, how to express their ideas more fully, how to write stronger essays – then oughtn’t I learn, too, how to write better books? If a student wanted to play a violin concerto, wouldn’t they have to learn the fingerings, study, and practice? Wasn’t writing the same thing?
I was 32, I had nothing holding me back – by that I mean no dependants, no mortgage, no debts (apart from student debt, of course). I made a decision to save up, and give myself one whole year to learn how to write. Learn, study, practice, write. If nothing came of it, I’d return to teaching, and give up the writing ghost.
A nudge came through the television. That Christmas I’d watched a BBC drama on the Brontë sisters called ‘To Walk Invisible’. The three sisters living very ordinary lives worry about their future prospects; their brother drinking away whatever money the family has, their father losing his sight, and potentially his parsonage. The pushy and strong-minded Charlotte forces her sisters to put their heads together, send out their poetry, their novels, with a hope for publication – under male pseudonyms of course. They do so, and the rest is history. The Brontë sisters’ drive and determination in the face of poverty shone out to me like a beacon, like a call to arms.
I kept to my decision. I handed in my notice at school, put my possessions into storage, and moved in with family. To be honest, my year of writing didn’t start well, my courage took a blow thanks to friends and family bombarded me with their concerns that I’d given up a great teaching career on a wild dream. I questioned my decision, and read books to distract myself, and wrote bad prose as a result. Thankfully the change came a few months in, when one sister’s family were hauled over to Los Angeles for a six month film project, and they offered me a bed for half that time. I went, thrilled at the prospect of sunny days and new people in the land of storytelling. I picked my nephews up from school, gave them dinner, and went off to writing classes. They were spectacular and life-changing – the American gift for encouragement and grit blew me sideways. It was the first time in my life that I’d been surrounded by creatives, in the classes, at the house, and everywhere else. My ideas flowed fast and thick, and I soon developed the plot, characters, and spirit I needed for Madam.
I returned to England in the middle of spring and wrote the novel in eight weeks. I tried more writing classes, in London this time. It was different there, less encouraging and more competitive, but I kept going, and kept to my schedule. By the summer I had a solid first draft of a novel. I took the hot months to rework it, and whip it into shape. By September I was ready to submit to an agent, but I’d also run out of money. I took a job with a tea company, doing admin, to keep me afloat. I feared the agent-hunting process now, I was afraid I’d meet the same rejections – so I sat on the book, not knowing who might want to take on this wonderful monster of a novel.
I went to more classes, to lectures on ‘How to Approach an Agent’. I went to a seminar, ‘Meet the Agents’. These did me no favours – I learned first hand that the publishing industry was looking for ‘uplit’ (uplifting literature), and there was very little interest in a dark, gothic, feminist drama with a catastrophic ending. I left each event feeling dejected.
One weekend soon after, one of my sisters listened to my worries. She told me to ignore those seminars, and make a list of the top agents I wanted. The best ones, the ones that had won awards for their work, the ones that liked books similar to mine. She somehow spoke above my own imposter syndrome and I followed her advice. I made the list of my top five agents, followed them on Twitter, and tried the first one. He wrote back quickly. He enjoyed the first chapters, loved the writing, but the story was too daring, too much, the ending too harsh for any publisher. I waited. A month or so later, the next agent on my list wrote a tweet looking for female-led, dark narrative, and it felt like a sign. I wrote my email accordingly, and sent Nelle Andrew my synopsis, my opening chapters. She replied the next day, could I send the whole thing? By the beginning of the following week she asked me to come to her office and meet her. I couldn’t believe it.
We met and discussed a rewrite. We hashed it out – the structure would remain the same, but some components enhanced, others diminished. I agreed, and she offered me representation. It was one of the most exciting, validating moments of my life. Just over a year since quitting my job, I had a book, and an agent.
The rewrite took several months, I went down to four days a week at the tea company, and wrote for three. I did nothing else. By the summer we were ready, I reread and tweaked and fiddled with Madam. In September we submitted to publishers in the UK.
The wait was thrilling but tortuous. Nelle believed in me, and I believed in the book. She believed in the book. I’d worked so hard, it said so much, it spoke so loudly.
I needn’t have worried. The Americans came through with a pre-empt, they’d heard about it through the established grapevine of literary scouts. A few days later the UK deal came through too. I was over the moon. Two years after I took a risk, left my job, halted my teaching career, I got what my heart really wanted, and Madamwould be published in the UK, ANZ, the US and Canada. I couldn’t believe it, and I will never stop being grateful.