In short, I have always written. As soon as I knew how to use a pen to form letters, I was making up stories, all no doubt long since lost to house moves and clear outs and time – but there it began. I was (still am) also terribly competitive, so when a schoolmate said she liked writing stories too, I made it my goal to write stories that were better than hers. I have no idea if they actually were – again, there’s no way to check – but that spark stayed with me. I never stopped wanting to get better. I never stopped writing.
There were, at one time, notebooks upon notebooks full of my childish scrawls, and as I moved into adolescence, the notebooks turned into floppy disks (for those of you under 25, a floppy disk was a primitive way of storing data before all computers had hard drives big enough to house whole libraries) full of angsty poetry and short stories. I was single-minded in my goal: I would write, no matter what. I studied English at A-level and at university. I wrote short stories and poetry and diaries and published them on early blogging sites like Blurty and LiveJournal (the LiveJournal still exists. Track it down if you can). It was just a matter of finding a way to make a living out of this goal.
The only thing I could think of was journalism. It made sense. It was a paying job where I could write all day long – the only thing I enjoyed or believed myself to be any good at – and I hadn’t made any real effort to get my creative work published. I was simply too scared of rejection, and I needed an alternative. So I applied the same single-mindedness to becoming a reporter. Shortly after graduating from university, I trained at the Press Association centre in Newcastle (now sadly closed), where I achieved my preliminary qualifications, including the ability to write 140 words a minute in shorthand, which I still use now. At first, I had lofty ambitions of working at The Guardian or similar, but I was disabused of those pretty early on: only a lucky few make it to those hallowed echelons, at least in a staff capacity, and then it’s most certainly about who you know, more than what you know.
Instead, I took a job at a local paper in east London, which was wonderful for about six months, and then progressively more awful for eighteen months after the global financial crisis took hold, and cutback after cutback pared us down to the bone. From there, when it became clear there was no major improvement on the horizon, I moved to the delightful world of business-to-business journalism (yes, at least one publication I worked for did feature on Have I Got News For You. I won’t say which), which, while rather more niche, at least afforded me the opportunity to travel, and, in many ways, to hone my creative skills. It’s a rare talent, I feel, to be able to make tungsten seem sexy. I also got to visit Kazakhstan, Australia and countries all over Europe.
Throughout that period – about eight years in all – I was still writing creatively and still self-publishing my work on various blogs. I had the odd punt at getting my poetry published, but I never tried especially hard. Then, in 2014, something changed. I was struck with an image that wouldn’t leave me alone. It stayed in my brain, haunting me, until finally, I decided it was time: I was going to write my novel, and that image would be its foundation. I’d started and abandoned countless novels in the past, but this was going to be different. I was going to finish it, come what may, and damn it, I was going to get it published.
It took me about two years to get there, but 90,000 words later, that image became a novel and the novel became Abernathy, a literary murder mystery set in rural northern Wisconsin. When Unbound showed an interest, I was thrilled, but sadly, crowdfunding doesn’t work for everyone – I think I just don’t have the right personality for it – and in the end, I had to call it a day. The silver lining, though, was that through my various travails at open mic nights, desperate to get people to notice my work, I met my lovely publishers at Stairwell Books, and now Abernathy will be published in November this year.
I also met the supremely talented Shona Kinsella through Unbound, and I’m so proud to be part of this anthology and part of this wonderful, diverse group of authors, working to get something beautiful out there to benefit a fantastic cause in the World Literacy Foundation. My own story, A Test for Lester Aldrich, follows a slightly crumpled, slightly broken middle-aged man as he thinks back on all the things that have brought him back home. It’s funny and sad and I like it – and I think you will, too.
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