“So when did you start writing seriously?” someone asked the other day. Drawing a veil over the ‘novel’ I began when I was around fourteen, dealing with the invasion of the UK by Germany during WW2 (move over Robert Harris), I suppose it was when a friend and I began what we called The Comic, but could probably be better described as Fan Fiction. I do not propose to speak a word about what went on in The Comic, but we then progressed to writing a novel based entirely on multiple choice. As I recall, we were on a rowing boat on Regent’s Park lake when we began mapping it out thus:
1. It is set in a) 20th century b) ancient Rome c) Medieval Tymes. (We chose c).
2. The hero is called a) Dickon b) Robin c) PanPot. (None of those, though Robin did end up as a subsidiary character.)
You can probably imagine the rest. We loved writing it, even though it was shite. Never ones for much research at that time, we decided one character needed a wheelchair and duly ‘invented’ it. The anti-hero was a necromancer, so it was pretty easy for him to do (his name was Gui, in case you’re wondering).
Then I went to India for 6 weeks, my first time travelling alone. A couple of years later, I saw that Bill Bryson, whose writing I love, was the judge for the Time Out Travel Writer of the Year competition. “What the hell?” I thought and entered with a piece about a 24-hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali. Dear Reader, I won. The prize was a round-the-world air ticket and a posh camera that I dropped in the Okavango Delta whilst escaping from a hippo.
Still,, I never seriously considered writing as an option, although I did a lot of freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, mainly about travel, sometimes not. Not even when my then-flatmate (name-drop alert) Michael Grandage wrote me a letter – yes, we did write letters then – to say: “I’ve just seen three people on the tube reading your article. I wanted to shout ‘I know her!’ It’s brilliant. Be a writer. Why would anyone want to be a poxy actor anyway?” Michael, as we know, gave up being a poxy actor and pretty much took over the world as a director.
Still I didn’t consider it as an option. I loved being a poxy actor, I still do, though have diversified quite dramatically into all sorts of other things.
And then I wrote a novel. One that I think is good enough to be out there (and which is currently being read in its entirety by two agents), and that is not based on a multiple-choice scenario. And I met other writers, all incredibly generous with their time and advice. One is Stella Duffy (name-drop alert 2) and she introduced me to the Word Factory one Saturday night at the end of January, where she was reading one of her short stories.
Now, I’ve never really got short stories. I mean, I like them and all, but offer me a novel instead and I will take it. But the Word Factory showed me what short stories could be. This is what the website says:
“In the beginning was the Word Factory – a series of intimate short story salons bringing brilliant writers and readers together for wine, conversation and great work.”
And when it says “brilliant writers” it isn’t kidding. Since January I’ve heard Val McDermid, Toby Litt, Alex Preston, Evie Wyld, Vanessa Gebbie and more read their fantastic stories. And if that weren’t enough (for £12 including a glass of wine), you can also go to the free Short Story Club for an hour before the salon. Each month, clubbers are sent a story which we then discuss, fairly politely. I’ve been introduced to George Saunders and Flannery O’Connor thanks to the Short Story Club, and can’t believe I’d not read them before. And as if THAT weren’t enough, there are Masterclasses to sign up to on the Saturday afternoon.
I love the Word Factory. It is welcoming, friendly and relaxed and that’s thanks to the organisers – Cathy Galvin, Paul McVeigh and team – and I always come out of a salon inspired to write more, write better. Every writer needs a Word Factory in their life. And the wine is excellent.