Pic by Laurie Harris … “A novelist without a publisher is like a singer without a microphone … frankly, an embarrassment”
It’s quite easy for a mainstream novelist to vanish. Poor sales for one novel are enough to make bookshops reluctant to stock the next: low sales figures combined with the writer ungraciously insisting on writing the book she wants to write rather than the book an editor wishes she would write, are enough to alienate publishers. This was more or less the position I found myself in three years ago, when my novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb was having difficulty finding a home. I was writing a book set in the near future, after an act of biological terrorism, and I was electing to write in the voice of a naive and idealistic 16-year-old. It was very different from my previous work. I had written seven novels including Mr Wroe’s Virgins and Island, and had won prizes ranging from the Somerset Maugham award to the Writers Guild best fiction book, but that was no help now. A novelist without a publisher is like a singer without a microphone – mouth going, arms waving, nothing coming out – frankly, an embarrassment to herself and everyone else. I was embarrassed.
But what I’ve learned over the past few years is that writing is like a leak – it will out. If you block its way it finds another channel.
I’d been writing for radio for a long time, mainly adaptations, enjoying it for the escape from self that immersion in someone else’s work gives you, increasing my respect for the dramatic genius of Edith Wharton‘s dialogue along the way. And of course, I did it for the pay, which, if you work quickly, is good. But as it dawned on me that I was probably not going to be able to publish my latest novel – nor indeed any other novel in the future – radio began to interest me more. I began to think about the first-person voice on radio, how it draws you right into the character’s intimate thoughts; how there can be more than one voice, there can be arguments, all inside one head; how engaging and dramatic that is; and how many people listen to Radio 4. Afternoon plays get two million plus listeners, while most literary novels sell, what, 10,000 copies? If you’re lucky. Snobbishly, I’d been valuing radio in the way newspapers do – second-class medium, one measly review a week – instead of acknowledging its power and potential.
Radio is not a place to be a prima donna; no one remembers the writers’ names. I’ve already forgotten who wrote the moving play about an autistic boy which I listened to last Monday – but it was a more interesting piece of writing than the literary novel I read at the weekend. And the writing goes out and there’s a huge audience. What more could you ask for? Added to which, radio takes stories. Not only do they take them, they celebrate them: “Hitting Trees with Sticks”, which I couldn’t get published, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story award, broadcast, and anthologised. It was subsequently published in the US. It earned more than my current novel has done so far. (And while I’m at it, to support the Society of Authors’ campaign to stop Radio 4 cutting the number of stories it broadcasts, please visit the website.
In between cutting and rewriting my allegedly unpublishable novel, I began to write more seriously for radio. Dear Writer, a two-hander where an old woman argues with her indignant childhood self; Red Enters the Eye, in which a naive young western volunteer destroys a women’s refuge in Nigeria; and a cluster of monologues which are still taking shape. I began to understand how much more there was to learn about the craft of radio writing, and to properly admire the skill of those who do it well. And the first-person voices I worked on helped me to focus very clearly on what I was doing with Jessie’s voice, as I revised it.
Knowing that my novel had to be cleared from my desk so I didn’t spend the rest of my life rewriting the damn thing, I discovered an independent publisher to send it to (all the more appealing for being based in the Highlands and supported by the Scottish Arts Council, a world away from London). Sandstone Press liked the novel. I found them efficient and pleasant to deal with, and as able to deliver a paperback into the world as any of the big conglomerates. Sure, there was no big publicity machine, but there was an organised part-time publicist, Eilidh, who had cut her teeth working for the RSPB. She has to spread her labours over Sandstone’s complete output, and she valiantly sent review copies off to all the papers. The papers ignored them because they came from a small publisher. The novel had only two reviews.
Since the book was not stocked by many bookshops, its sales were, as they say, modest. But then two heartening things happened. In June it was optioned for television – reminding me again that there are several ways into the world for a story. And in July it was long-listed for the Man Booker prize – with the result that Sandstone has had to reprint, and there have been 32 media requests for review copies, most of them from the papers that ignored the book when it first came out.
What I understand by all this is that people do still want stories. Mine isn’t an isolated case: I am far from being the only mid-list writer to turn to a small independent publisher – indeed, several other books on the Man Booker longlist this year come from independents. As writers, we just have to be a bit more wide-ranging in our methods of trying to get our stories out there.
So thank heavens for literary prizes that cast their net wide enough to look at the independents – they have the power to make invisible novelists visible. I am neither a better nor a worse novelist than I was three weeks ago, nor am I going to stop writing for radio. But this longlisting has brought me an American publisher again, and will make it possible for me to continue to write in the form I love best.