You can decide to become a doctor, or a plumber, but I’m not sure you can decide to become a novelist, or a writer of any sort. It decides to become you. Writing is more a compulsion than a choice. And whether one’s work ever sees the light of day is a separate matter, irrelevant to the issue of whether one writes in the first place.
I have written for certain since the age of seven; possibly for longer. I wrote constantly through my childhood and teenage years (poems, songs and plays) and have written consistently, if less often, through my adult life. I never decided to write: it was as natural a thing for me to do as breathing. It’s just that, for most of this time, I never thought of writing as a career, or in terms of publication.
I might have become a ‘proper’ writer in the 1980s. I finished a novel in 1976, which didn’t find a buyer, but was useful experience. Then, in the early ’80s, opportunity seemed to beckon. I left a successful and lucrative career in advertising towards the end of 1983. For the next six months, I collaborated with the sacked Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, to write his political testament. This was published as The Politics of Consent, and topped the non-fiction best-seller list for a week.
Immediately afterwards, I started another novel, which I liked a lot and had high hopes for. Then I was asked by an American film-maker, Jack Le Vien, to ghost his memoirs. If that book had been finished and published; if I had finished that second novel; if, if, if… But Jack suffered a severe stroke and could talk no more. The unfinished novel, put to one side for too long, failed to reignite. A business project, which was ultimately ruinous, consumed my time. Life had thought about turning me into a professional writer, but decided against it.
The financial ruin happened in 2000, and I was left broke and on the dole at the age of 51, a nearly glittering career behind me. Any sane person would have knuckled down, found a job, any job, and earned some money. I decided to take the counter-intuitive approach. I reasoned that things were so bad that failing to become a published writer couldn’t make them any worse. I reckoned that, having ultimately failed in a conventional business career, it was the perfect time to try the unconventional. I also thought that, if I didn’t do it then, I never would.
So I found occasional work as a business consultant, which provided enough income to live and left enough time to write. The first novel drew a blank, and fifty rejections from agents. The second, The Breaking of Eggs, drew thirty rejections until – with bewildering speed, in the space of a few weeks early in 2009 – it found an agent and big offers from publishers in Britain and America. Then I found myself on BBC2’s The Culture Show’s list of best new novelists. I had stopped being a writer and had become a novelist.
Now, my second novel, Trading Futures, has just been published. It features a grumpy man of about 60 (my specialist subject, it seems), called Matthew Oxenhay: a near alcoholic and failed contender for the top job at his City firm. It could be the story of any man’s mid-life crisis, but it also represents the mid-life crisis of the generation that grew up in the Sixties, as I did, on a wave of optimism. While the world we have since encountered may be no worse than the world other generations have experienced, the sense of a let-down is greater. The gap between expectation and reality has been immense, and into that gap falls Matthew Oxenhay.
Occasionally I ask myself what might have happened had life taken a different turn in the 1980s. Bizarre though it seems now, I do believe that Jack Le Vien’s stroke changed my life. It is a futile question, though. Trying to become a professional writer then might have yielded success, but it might not have done. Perhaps I was meant to write later; perhaps I write better later; perhaps I have more to say later. In most respects Matthew is not me, but when, in Tate Modern, he ruminates on free will and predestination, he is entirely me, and I don’t know the answer any more than he does.
There is another dimension to the question. To do anything in life, one has first to believe that, however difficult, it is possible. For the putative novelist, this means not just a belief that publication is possible, but that conceiving, planning and writing a coherent story of many thousand words is possible.
My confidence was at a low ebb in 2000, yet I did have that belief. And I had it largely because, in the late ’90s, I had written another full-length book. It was not a novel, but a weird almanac of 20th century history, personal recollections, satire and poetry. I can see now that this book was my preparation for writing novels and, in many ways, will always be the most important thing I have written.