In 2003, without the slightest idea what I was doing, I launched into writing my first novel. I’ve often told the story of how I began – I was on a train to a business meeting in Leeds, and the opening of a story came to me. I began to type, and wrote the first 1200 words before my laptop battery gave out. I had a novel in my bag, and I counted the words on a page and did a rough calculation. It was around 120,000 words long. “If I write 1200 words a day,” I reasoned, “I’ll have a book in 100 days.” It was a clunky, simplistic methodology, but oddly enough, has worked for me through this book and six subsequent novels. I still, superstitiously, write 1200 words a day, every day, seven days a week until I have finished a first draft.
The novel I began was This Year’s Black – the story of a woman who gives up her successful career and full life in South Africa and tries to make a go of it in London. We meet her as she goes for a job interview for a temp job, way below her skill level, and we see her struggle to make it in London, a city which is relentlessly heartless to the poor and unemployed.
They always say your first novel is autobiographical, and yes, there were similarities between my life and Ronel’s, but fewer than you might imagine. However while I was writing This Year’s Black, a lot of things changed for me. I left my job, confident that I would find another one quickly. This was very much not to be, and the next six months of my life were some of the most stressful I have ever experienced. Life definitely began to imitate art, and I learned first-hand how hard it is to live hand-to-mouth in a city like this. I (briefly) claimed jobseekers’ allowance (which Ronel is too proud to do), and took any temp job I could get my hands on. I always remember the low point, standing in the toilets of a freezing cold warehouse where I was working in DVD returns, looking at my reflection, dressed in a high-visibility vest, wondering how the hell I had ended up there.
While I was writing the book, I was working wherever and whenever I could and was a single parent to a ten-year-old. The only time I had to write was late at night, after work, dinner, homework, housework and bedtime. On more than one occasion, I fell asleep, hands on the keyboard and my head resting on my hands. I developed back-ache from my nasty wicker and chrome kitchen chair. At weekends, Matt got used to me yelling to him as he watched TV in the living room “Give me a name for a man.”
“How old?” he’d say.
“Nick,” he’d yell, and go back to watching Power Rangers. Matt has, I think, named a very high proportion of the characters in many of my books in this way.
But through it all, I kept writing. I painstakingly backed up on floppy disks (it was a long time ago), which meant when we were burgled and my laptop was stolen, I didn’t lose a word. I wrote in Internet cafes for a while, until a dear friend gave me another computer to use. I learned, to my surprise (although probably not to anyone else’s), that I am remarkably stubborn. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, late one night, cold and exhausted, desperate to go to bed but still a few hundred words short of my target.
“Who will care if you just give this up?” I thought to myself. “No one. No one even knows you’re doing this.”
“No one but you,” said the tiny voice of stubbornness deep in my heart. My life was in such a mess, in terms of work and money. Other than my brilliant son, this book was all I had. So I propped open my eyes with matchsticks, and I kept going.
I finished it. I eventually got another job, one I absolutely loved, which brought me into the world of books and publishing for the first time. And through a series of fluke events, This Year’s Black found a publisher in South Africa very quickly. “Well, that was easy,” I thought. "I’ll just quickly find a UK agent and publisher and I’ll have cracked this author thing!”
It took me three more books and nine years of slog to achieve those seemingly simple aims – and it was a brand-new book that got me my UK publishing deal. This Year’s Black, after selling reasonably well in South Africa, gaining good reviews and being long-listed for The SA Sunday Times Literary Awards, went out of print and disappeared.
Recently, I decided to take another look at it, and like all writers do, I cringed at what I had written a decade or so before. “I have to fix this,” I thought. I (mortifyingly) didn’t have an electronic copy of the book anymore, so I had to send a print copy away to be scanned in order to get my hands on a Word file. A lot of things have got in the way, but I have finally, finally finished re-editing the book, and will be re-releasing it as an e-book on 25 June 2015.
So much needed to be changed – some odd choices in tense and person, flowery writing, a lot of tell-instead-of-show – and an awful, awful lot of gratuitous sex and swearing had to go. I vacillated about changing the time-frame, as the text is so clearly set in the pre-smart-phone/ broadband 2000s, but decided to leave it as it was. The dates are crucial because of certain political events that took place. Of course, there are still other things I could change, and more editing I could do, but that’s always the case.
But there is something about this book I will always love. It’s the only thing I have ever written completely for myself, with no expectations, no real hope of publication, no understanding of audiences, marketing, publicity or sales. There’s a raw honesty to the writing, and it’s full of memories of the time when I was writing it, living a very different life from the one I have now. It’s a book about a journey, about doors closing and opening, about how damned painful it can be to grow. I grew with This Year’s Black, and I hope it will bring happiness to a new generation of readers.
(I’ve just noticed this blog post is just on 1200 words long. How well-trained am I?)
This Year’s Black will be re-released as an e-book by Oakhampton Press on 25 June 2015