by Sophie Duffy
This has been a long time coming. For a decade, I’ve been trying. Really trying. I’ve written four novels, lots of short stories and even a (bad) poem and despite all the hundreds of thousands and words I’ve written, all I’ve wanted is to be able to call myself a writer. And believe it.
It started in 2001. I was 33 with a three-year-old, a five-year old and a six-year-old. I knew I was going to have to do something more cerebral than the swings and slides and Teletubbies or my brain would disintegrate. I decided to try an evening class and for some reason I chose fiction writing.
Every Monday night I would escape and spend two hours with an odd mix of people at the local secondary school. The confirmed bachelor, the biker, the retired teachers, and several women like me, bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation but keen to carve out a little something for themselves. We had structured lessons on the basics like viewpoint, setting, character development, narrative drive, plot, and were given tasks to do at home during the week. We’d read our efforts out to each other and offer critiques. Usually nice, sometimes not.
I had no idea what I wanted to write: was I a poet (no, definitely not), a short story writer (maybe), a screen writer (I wish)? Over the year I realised I was going to be in for the long haul – I wanted to write novels. And I wanted them to be published. My tutor, the novelist Jan Henley, encouraged me. She believed I had it in me, whatever ‘it’ means. I began to believe it too. I wrote my first novel that year. I knew there was a better novel inside me but I learnt a lot from the process of writing this first one. But I had no idea of the long road ahead. No idea of the years filled with frustration, knock-backs, almost-break-throughs, heart-searching, and waiting.
2002. I somehow managed to get on the MA at Lancaster University. I did this part-time over the next two years (by distance learning, as we were living on the south coast). The course was a challenge as I was still very much finding my voice. I could get crushed by criticism and there was a lot of it. I suppose I found it over the course, writing my second novel (yes, better than the first but still not there). I was never going to be literary or commercial but somewhere in between (and I don’t mean to sound like a Lib Dem, please no). My writing was focusing on family life and relationships – mother-daughter, siblings, step-parents, family dynamics. I was using popular culture as reference points and national events as backdrop. Seaside towns were recurring places, loss a recurring theme.
I was pushed by my tutor, poet and Bridport short story winner, Graham Mort, a tough yet deep-down kind mentor. He made me be bolder. I still remember that when I am feeling woolly.
And money was an issue. I was teaching early years – badly paid – and my husband worked for a charity. It was a struggle and I resorted to selling Avon door-to-door to help pay the fees, though I was fortunate to get a hardship grant which took off the edge. But I felt the two years gave me breathing space – I could justify the time spent writing (rather than doing a proper job) as I was getting a qualification. So when I graduated I reached another checkpoint in the road. I started writing my third novel. I wrote the opening chapter of The Generation Game sitting in the playroom in Worthing and soon after, in the summer of 2005, we moved to Devon, back to my home town of Teignmouth.
I entered the first 10,000 words to the novel section of the Yeovil Literary Prize 2006. I won.
This was it. My breakthrough moment plus a cheque for £500. A few days later I was approached by an agent and, being overwhelmed and excited, I signed a contract without ever meeting him. He was full of enthusiasm and I finished the novel over the following six months. It was a joy to write, especially knowing there was a chance it would sell.
But it wasn’t to be. Over the next two years, there was a lot of waiting, while he tried the big boys, and then the indies. One publisher was interested. I did a rewrite only for them to say no. Meanwhile I started my fourth novel, This Holey Life and entered it into the Harry Bowling Prize 2008. I was long-listed, then shortlisted, and at the award ceremony pleased (and a bit gutted) to be runner-up.
But my agent didn’t seem particularly keen on it. So what now? Spend 18 months writing another novel for possibly the same outcome? I knew I’d go mad. Genuinely. By this time, I felt like my life wasn’t my own. I wasn’t in control. Something bad was wrong. Finally, I was diagnosed with depression.
My own father sadly took his own life when I was 10. I was now nearly the age he was when he died, and I kept thinking what if I go the same way? Writing is not a good job to do if you’re feeling like this. I’ve never seen it as a therapy tool. You’re not in control of anything except the text (and sometimes not even that). Why was I persisting in treading this path? I’m still not sure.
Last summer, after months of anti-depressants and feeling better, after parting with my agent, I entered the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award run by Luke’s family in conjunction with Legend Press. Luke’s novel White Summer was Legend’s very first novel to be published in 2005. Five months after publication Luke tragically died, taking his own life, like my father. His mother and sister set up the bursary in his memory, to give struggling writers a break. In December I found out I was short-listed and invited to the award ceremony in London in January. After a nerve-wracking wait, I was stunned to be announced the winner. I received a generous cheque and, better still, a contract with Legend Press. The Generation Game will be published on July 30th.
I am a writer. And I believe it. (I think).
Sophie Duffy is a novelist and short story writer and lives in Teignmouth on the south coast of Devon with her husband and three children. She's interested in what family is, and can be, and in how the past shapes our here and now. Memory, childhood, loss and love are recurrent themes in her work. She has had short stories published in various anthologies and journals including Dark Tales, Momaya Press and The View from Here. Her debut novel ‘The Generation Game’ will be published by Legend Press on July 30th 2011. She is a member of Exeter Writers.
Photo credit top: Luis Argerich