Writing and money. It’s a tough one. I don’t like to think about it too much, and I don’t like to think about it all when I’m writing. During a recent discussion about digital piracy, someone told me they think it’s problematic for writers, artists and musicians to be paid at all for their work. It’s strange that the graft we put in should be considered different from that of any other profession, but it’s not totally surprising. Writers often seem to be working outside of the system, and commercial thoughts can compromise the artistic stuff.
I’ll be honest: as much as I don’t want to think about ‘markets’ and all that, I want my work to reach an audience. I want people to like it, and hopefully (someday, when I’m good) be moved by it. And of course, if writers aren’t remunerated, we’ll be back to a situation of social injustice, where only the independently wealthy have the freedom to write. Think of the diverse array of brilliant fictional voices that would silence. It’s an appalling thought.
I’m in a fortunate position. My publisher, Simon and Schuster, took a chance on my first two novels. As a debut writer, you’re unlikely to make a profit for your publisher, but for some reason – tradition, integrity, speculation, or just an enjoyment of fiction – publishers do gamble on first time ‘literary’ novelists. There’s a wing of S&S that also publishes the books of my namesake, Hulk Hogan (despite our similar physiques, we’re not related), and this Hogan tag-team throws the strange contradictions of the book trade into sharp relief: they are profit-making businesses, and yet they buy literary novels about Midland mining towns by writers who are completely unknown.
I wrote my first novel, of course, without the aid of an advance, although my family were very supportive. You don’t need to hear the same old stories about amusingly degrading jobs. Suffice it to say that when Blackmoor won the Desmond Elliott Prize, one newspaper went with the headline: ‘Former Placard Holder Wins 10K Book Prize’. It’s worth mentioning that by the hour, I was on a lower wage when I was working as a teacher than when I held up the board advertising comedy nights in Leicester Square. But by the time I started writing novel number two, The Hunger Trace, I had term-time hourly support work at a university. It’s a great job, but it still left half of my year unpaid. My slow working practice had exhausted my advance. I was looking over my shoulder again.
The Desmond Elliott Prize gave me the time to do the research I needed to make my novel work. Research, for me, underpins a novel. I often start with an idea which fascinates me, but which I know nothing about. Then begins the anxious process of trying to know enough to convince a reader, and even an expert. I wanted to write about a falconer, but how could I create a scene? Where is she standing? What is she wearing? What are the dimensions of a weathering lawn? What is her glove made from?
My notebooks are full of such details. I look back and see drawings, with measurements, of pea-shingle. You’ll be pleased to know those measurements are omitted from the final draft. Beyond these banal and necessary details, there is a deeper level of research. If you sit in the library for long enough, you gain insights into your characters, and into the themes of your story.
When you write about birds, you worry about the clichés of symbolism. Ooo, birds are about freedom! They fly, don’t they? Wicked. Except that’s not wicked. It’s rubbish. Only by sitting for hours with the manuals and textbooks and nature writing, and by studying the hawks at the sanctuaries and displays and on videos, could I find something more interesting. That precious time was funded by the Desmond Elliott Prize.
Louisa, my falconer, is a woman who has a self-destructive tendency towards relationships with people who don’t care about her as much as she cares about them. Studying the attachments and dynamics of a falconer helped me to understand her, in that regard.
A hunger trace, by the way, is a fault line in the feathers of a bird. The line marks a time when the hawk was not fed, when it was undernourished. The line stays in the feathers even when the bird is fed again. I was writing about characters whose personalities had been moulded by unrequited desire, so I was obviously quite pleased to stumble across the definition in the hawking manual. There will be critics who still find that sort of symbolism too overt, but it certainly allowed me to shape my characters better.
The Desmond Elliott Prize helped me to research, and it helped me to get to my desk. I reckon it helped me to write a better book. The great thing about the prize was that it gave me freedom not only from the bank manager, but also the freedom to write what I wanted. At an important and precarious time in my writing life, the prize supported me without conditions, or criteria. It allowed me to concentrate on my craft. That’s a pretty special gift, and one for which I’ll always be grateful.