People change. Usually these changes co-ordinate with time-worn phases of our lives. Careers shift, come to an end; children stop waking you up in the night, go to school, university; marriages collapse, health takes a blow. But sometimes you’re muddling along nicely and reach your forties and fifties alive, well and reasonably content. And then your partner, the woman who has been fitting her writing passion round children, her man and her job, lands an agent, lands a contract.
How do the long-term partners of debut writers feel about this? I’ve been in contact with the Prime Writers, some of whom have kindly encouraged their partners to give me their point of view. One of the things I really wanted to know was whether the dynamic in the house had changed at all. Alex, husband of Shelley Harris (Vigilante), says that it hasn’t, although she can be a bit inflexible when she has to work. Tim, Claire Fuller’s husband (Our Endless Numbered Days), tells me he enjoys ‘pottering around with jobs and chores, so there’s never been a jot of annoyance on my part.’ My own husband of twenty-six years, Steve, says that he’s noticed, ‘an understandable amount of self-obsession and a general lack of perspective.’ I’d get huffy about that if I didn’t have to concede that he may have a point.
David, Alison Layland’s husband (Someone Else’s Conflict), says not much has changed. Alison went freelance 20 years ago and he has always been the homemaker and her writing dovetails with her existing translation career, but ‘novel research has dictated our choice of holiday destination for the last few years!’
For most of the men I’ve spoken to (this was not meant to be gender-biased, these are just the ones who volunteered!), it is confidence and self-esteem that has seen the most seismic change. But increased confidence leads to increased interests, curiosity and willingness to put ourselves forward, step up in front of audience, travel further. Tom, husband of Louise Lee (The Last Honeytrap) tells me that ‘she’s always been a little sketchy – always looking for the next project.’ And he doesn’t think any book deal will change that.
Making the most of oppoRtunities
I’ve been a wife and mother and a school secretary. I’ve never had a career as such, but I’ve written for years in the hope that I might achieve one doing what I love. I’ve brought up two children, kept house and cooked. This could have gone on indefinitely, with me dabbling in short story competitions, every so often buoyed up and justified by a win or a short listing, sending manuscripts to agents and recovering from rejections just like I used to recover from being dumped, moving on to the next attempt swiftly to ease the pain. And then Victoria Hobbs at AM Heath opened the door to me, found me a publisher and my life changed. Suddenly Steve wasn’t the only one with deadlines and stress.
There is no certainty in publishing and it’s a question of quickly learning to ride out the highs and lows. But it’s hard on husbands; there is no doubt about that. As Alex puts it: ‘Shelley’s always worried too much and she still does, and even about the same things.’ And James, Antonia Honeywell’s husband (The Ship), voices something all of us feel when he tells us, ‘Antonia seems to flourish during the book talks and interviews she attends. But the randomness of the publishing industry does upset her from time to time.’ David notes that the stress of preparing for talks can be an issue, ‘but on the plus side it’s given me a chance to exercise my long-hidden amateur acting skills by volunteering to read extracts.’
While the men I’ve spoken to are all enormously proud, this process doesn’t come without friction. I don’t always behave beautifully. If I have a deadline and Steve is busy with work (he’s a freelance set designer) then everything goes to pot. Dust gathers, the garden returns to nature, milk runs out. Not only this, I now have a whole new online friendship circle that has nothing to do with him.
Aidan, Fionnuala Kearney’s husband (You, Me and Other People) put it best: ‘I once asked how she would feel if I went to another country to meet some friends I’d met online. There was no answer.’ He was being funny but he had a point.
However, to us – the writers beavering away in our sheds and spare rooms – those friends are our support network. God knows how the ordinary writer coped pre-internet. I particularly liked what Phil, Sarah Vaughan’s husband (The Art of Baking Blind), said: ‘The friends she’s made through the Prime Writers have really helped put perspective on the dark days and share happiness on the good days. They’ve been a real source on encouragement.’ He isn’t the only one to mention the Prime Writers. Tim points out that they have replaced work colleagues in Claire’s life. For me, it’s the same. I missed the school office banter very much, but joining this Facebook group has in many ways made up for that. We are such a diverse bunch that conversations are always interesting.
And mostly, like Rob, Cari Rosen’s husband (The Secret Diary of a New Mum (aged 43 1/4)), the men are supportive of this. ‘In terms of a healthy relationship it is essential to have different friendships and networks and it’s fantastic to see what joy Cari’s writing networks bring her.’ He’s right, of course: they can bring us joy and, if it works, it’s a joy that we can share.
Steve is delighted that I’ve blossomed and become more enthusiastic about going out. He also thinks my dress sense has improved. (A backhanded compliment if ever I saw one.) When people ask what I do, I try not to hesitate. Writer, author, novelist. It’s a confidence thing that will build with time. Phil says, ‘I know Sarah’s wary of calling herself a novelist yet.’ And I completely get that. Claire, according to Tim, ‘was so nervous when she first started being interviewed that she’d feel sick and dry of mouth.’ But that’s changed and now she embraces public speaking.
I tell Steve about the Prime Writers, what they’re doing, what funny things they say and, most of all, how I’m not alone. There are a whole lot of us going through the same thing, working our socks off for very little gain. Which segues me gently into that other important point.
counting the cost
The money. Ah. I’ve blogged before on how much it cost me to get published and I’ve just done my accounts, so I know what I’ve spent generally around my book. Buying books, the launch, travel etc. It’s not money I’ll be seeing again soon, and if Steve wasn’t working we’d be in trouble. People say don’t write for the money, but I don’t see what is wrong with wanting to be paid like any other artist, a musician for instance, or a portrait painter. Why is writing such a high art that we’re not meant to care whether or not appreciation turns into a living wage? Ask Charles Dickens. Ask Anthony Trollope. Ask Beatrix Potter.
Money is a sensitive question, but my interviewees were remarkably open. ‘If she didn’t do it now she never would,’ Tim tells me. ‘So even though we deliberated for some time about whether Claire should leave her job I think both of us knew from the outset that she’d do it.’ And he is echoed by Tom: ‘There was never any other option. It’s been a lifelong dream for Louise to get published, and we are luckily in a position where it’s not too much of an issue, but for sure the extra wage would absolutely be appreciated.’ And from James: ‘Fortunately my job has brought financial security for the family (and Antonia has been instrumental to my career success with sound advice whenever needed) and so writing has never been a career to pay the rent, but rather the pursuit of the very real talent that Antonia has.’
We are very lucky when this is the case, as it is for a handful of us. But it isn’t the reality for many new writers. And we are giving up our job at a much later and more precarious stage. There are mortgages, school fees, weddings, ageing parents, grown up children needing help to get a foot on the property ladder, and for those who either don’t want to, or can’t work alongside the writing, it can be a struggle. If we are lucky, it’s a struggle made possible by the support and encouragement of our partners. Alex says, ‘Shelley has taken on more non-writing work, because my income is less predictable than it was but I’d love her to write full time.’ And Rob is understandably proud of Cari: ‘Not sure how she does it, to be honest, but I’m impressed with her work, writing, life, friends and motherhood balancing skills.’ And so am I!
I wrote and worked until I found an agent, at which point my job came to a natural end. I can’t bear the thought of going back to saying, ‘Yes of course I can. No I’m not busy at all. I’ll do it right now,’ when I’ve stepped away from that. (You know I love you really, Finton House School!) I’d love to find part-time work connected with writing, but for now I’m hanging on by skin of my teeth, feeling guilty because Steve is carrying almost the entire burden but determined to break through and eventually start contributing properly again. Guilt is ever-present.
I’ll leave the last word to Tom, because I think, I hope, he speaks for all of the respondents:
‘We love our writers and will do anything and everything we can to help them achieve the very best they can – within reason of course!’
How to Make a Friend by Fleur Smithwick is out in paperback on October 8th 2015