When my novel Uncertain Light was published, I started a blog which my friends were kind enough to occasionally read. It followed me on my travels, and by some means I never quite understood, in a couple of years it acquired over 1,000 readers. Then, like a once-loved old building, it fell into disuse. (‘Fell into’, like, it just happened. As my students in Zambia used to say if they arrived late to school, ‘The bus left me.’)
Surveying the remains a couple of years later I realised that what I’d actually been doing was wondering out loud how I came to write fiction in the first place. The answer, in essence, is Real Lives — other people’s lives, which inspired my own, lighting a way, asking to be shared.
I can pinpoint the moment when this realisation came to me. It was several months before any of us had heard the words Corona or Zoom. I was having the pleasure of a day’s session working with my friend Becky, who years earlier had designed my website — I now hardly ever get to see her because she lives hundreds of miles away and is a mother of three. As we sat at my computer looking at what needed updating, there staring at me were twenty old blog posts. What to do with them? Ditch them? But there was so much life in them, my own and other people’s. Comments from readers flashed up on the screen. Definitely couldn’t ditch those.
‘You could save the whole series,’ Becky said. ‘Make them into an e-book.’
Great idea! Becky knows how to do everything, she could do the techno stuff. I said, ‘I’ll just go through them first. I might want to rearrange bits.’
Ten days, I said, and I’ll send them to you.
Seven months later I was beginning to see the shape of a new book emerging.
Then Covid took over our lives. Amidst the anxiety, adjustments, deprivation and disasters, I was one of the privileged — enough to live on, in good health, blessed with a loving partner. My biggest concerns were about the effects on others, and my only real adjustment, not being able to see my daughters and grandchildren. But that also created unaccustomed time for my own creative projects, and unwisely I started three simultaneously. All were stimulated by real lives.
The first was a children’s on-line magazine — I hoped it would give my grandchildren and others a chance to connect while stuck at home, and (naively) I imagined it soon being run by children themselves. Trying to get it going was immensely time-consuming, and though I was inspired by what the children came up with, I’m not sure any of them were.
Obviously I should never have started anything else at the same time but the next one just happened. I had asked my mother when she was in her seventies to write some of her childhood memories. I had thought one day I would write it up for my grandchildren, but I hadn’t got further. Now, with pandemic reactions dominating life, I remembered that she had given a short description of her experience as a child during the 1918 flu. I put it up on Facebook, and was amazed at the interest it evoked. I followed it with a short piece about her early life, and got a similar response. Here were my friends, all dealing with the adjustments of lockdown, several living alone, some with real anxieties, all welcoming a little distraction, and it seemed that this hit the spot.
So I started sharing vignettes about her childhood, 100 years ago. In between each instalment I was exploring the history of the places she moved through, finding old photos to illustrate them. I felt connected to 19th century novelists whose books were published in journals chapter by chapter. There’s a charm in a serial story, getting involved in the characters but having to wait to find out what happens next. At first I kept the instalments short, thinking that suited the attention span of people dealing with difficult changes. Readers said, ‘Why are they so short?’ So they got longer. Older friends heard about it and wanted not to be left out, so I started sending out each instalment to a growing email list. For really elderly friends, they went to grown children or carers to print out for them (large font.) Soon several hundred people had told me they were following it and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. I asked a few to tell me why it worked for them. One wrote, ‘The appeal is in knowing it’s a real story, the mix of hardship and bravery, and parallels for our time. The way you have structured it is so appealing, the parcelling out in a serial. A lot of people are struggling to read at the moment. Right story, right time, right structure!’
So I kept going.
And all the time there was my emerging e-book, full of other real lives, waiting. Bizarrely, I got it into my head that I needed to finish it immediately, so that people could read it while stuck at home. I pressed ahead, each day juggling three projects. For a while I didn’t explain to Robert what was keeping me at my computer so long each day — like a child reading with a torch under the bedclothes, I didn’t want anyone suggesting it was lights-out time. Becky was home-schooling, working, doing hours for me on the children’s magazine, yet magically she also turned my text into an e-book. Never before had I had the heady experience of sending a book into the world without the slow-grind of trying to get it noticed by agents and publishers. It emerged just as everyone was coming out of lockdown, their minds on booking their getaway holiday. Anyway, I was discovering that most of my friends don’t do e-books. I sympathise. I don’t either. They’re wonderful for crossing continents and getting to friends in places where postal delivery is dicey, and a few of my environmentally-advanced friends now only read e-books. But on the whole I and the people who usually like my books are a throw-back lot, and we like to hold a book in our hands. Perhaps I needed to rethink ….
The Second Lockdown happened. I took this unexpected gift of more time and got stuck into revising. This time we all understood we were in for the long haul and I was not in a hurry, so it got the don’t-part-with-it-till-I’m-totally-satisfied treatment. By December it was with the publisher, one that makes life easy for people like me who have a story to tell which mainstream publishers aren’t likely to think a commercial proposition. So it’s coming out in June, new-minted, illustrated, paperback and e-book: Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life.
Meanwhile I’m celebrating by re-starting my blog, which, unsurprisingly, will be all about Real Lives. People whose lives have inspired mine, and whose spirit I want to capture, so that it is not lost. “Writing,” said a 14th century Persian scholar, “is the offspring of thought, the lamp of remembrance, the tongue of those who are far off, the life of those whose age has been blotted out.”
For information on my new book: https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/autobiography/journeys-without-a-map/
My thanks to Nichole Beauchamp for her comment on my mother’s story, Becky Joynt for the e-book, Greg Lanning for editorial support on the final edition. The quotation is from Muhammad ibn Mahmud al Amuli. The photos are some of the real lives that feature in my new book: (1) My mother with her parents, 1905 (2) Somali girls studying; source: ‘Teachers & Writers Magazine’ (3) Tajik NGO workers: photo by Eric Gourlan, OSCE (4) My grandchildren.