This writing life
I fell in love with James Cagney when I was a small child. He was vulnerable and tough and odd-looking and he embodied glamour and excitement. He could also dance. I made up stories about him in which he always did the right and noble thing. American stars such as Cagney made a big impression on me when I was a child; I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t stirred by beautiful – at least to my mind – male faces. And no one is more beautiful than Cagney, unless it’s Montgomery Clift, unless it’s Marlon Brando.
I’m often asked why I write mainly about men and why my male characters are often the leads in my novels. And why are those male characters always at the least good-looking if not astonishingly handsome? I never answer this question truthfully – the answer is far too personal, too intimate, it’s to do with the strong, physical sensations I had from being a young child whenever I saw Cagney or Bogart in those 1930s films, or Brando in tight britches on a Technicolor Bounty. When I was 14 I had a poster of James Dean in a cowboy hat selotaped to my bedroom wall. Donny Osmond was a fat little boy – I couldn’t see the attraction in such adolescent soppiness.
Male film stars fired my imagination. I wanted to write about glamorous men behaving well then badly then with dignified, tragic nobility. Flawed but ultimately heroic, strong, tender, intelligent and pragmatic, I knew how my lead men should behave – like Cagney faking hysterical cowardice on his walk to the electric chair so as not to be a role-model to impressionable boys; or Brando standing up to Captain Blythe’s bullying. I was driven to write because I wanted to create such men for myself.
A few weeks ago, my brother told me that when we were children I lived in a world of my own. I think he meant that I didn’t notice the things he noticed – in that sense we all live in our own worlds. But it’s true I was a child that was preoccupied with stories, both from my own imagination and those I found in books borrowed every week from Stockton library. The only books that lived permanently in our house were cookery books, a very old copy of Enquire Within Upon Everything and the first in what should have been a series of children’s encyclopaedias – covering letters A-H – if my father hadn’t been outraged at the collection’s exorbitant price. Every month, I looked forward to the arrival of The Reader’s Digest and read it avidly. I pestered my mother to buy me Enid Blyton’s books from Woolco – St Claire’s and Mallory Towers, but these were the only books I ever remember my mother buying. Why buy when you can borrow?
My mother and I went to the library often, she downstairs in the adult’s section, me upstairs, anxiously, hopefully scanning the shelves, much as I do in libraries today. When I was nine or ten, my first trip into town alone was to the library. When I was eleven I joined as an adult and the first novel I borrowed was Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I had no guidance except that of my own interests – war and catastrophe, basically. I had loved War of the Worlds and so looked for other science fiction based around the world’s end, discovering The Day of the Triffids and Brave New World. I read widely in narrow, sometimes eccentric genres, from time to time making diversions that led me to discover such diverse writers such as George Orwell, Doris Lessing and Kurt Vonnegut. I went through a phase of reading only male, American writers, struggling with Roth and Vidal, only to drop that pretension and take refuge with Stan Barstow and A J Cronin.
Inspired by reading, I wrote throughout my childhood and through my early teens, stopping for a little while when work, boyfriends and nightclubs took up too much of my time and imagination. I’d hated school and left at 16, and until my daughter was born when I was 24, my son a year later, I worked as a clerk for The Yorkshire Bank. I began to write again when my children were four and five, in secret after they had gone to bed. As writing does, it began to take over my life; I began to write late into the night, until three or four in the morning; I began to feel guilty if I didn’t write; I became obsessed and driven, and it took many years of despair and disappointments, years of being terribly afraid of never becoming what I longed to be – a published novelist. But I persevered. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more and chucked whole novels in the bin – I remember well the bitter feelings I had as I threw my work away, how I thought I would stop writing, so there! But I couldn’t stop; there was that drive, that ambition, which I found impossible to ignore.
If you want to write, write. Write a great deal, every day if you can. Be warned that writing will eat into every part of your life and if you are in any way ambitious to be published it will become all that you think about 90% of the time. Writing is difficult and becoming published very much harder, and others might think you are odd because you write – although that part of it at least has never mattered to me. I have always felt out of step, ever since James Cagney.
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