19 October 2015

Songs of Experience

Anna Davis with two Prime WritersAnna Davis with two Prime Writers
by Leonora Craig Cohen Author Interviews, From Our Students, Opinion

Founded by former student Antonia Honeywell, The Prime Writers is a diverse group of talented authors – all of whom published their debut novels after the age of 40. According to their manifesto, they ‘draw on a vast reservoir of life experience to inform our writing and help and support each other in our publishing adventures.’ But do more mature writers need this extra commitment, and what differentiates them from their younger counterparts anyway? We asked Antonia and fellow Prime Writer Jon Teckman, and ex-CBC student Janet Ellis for their thoughts.

1. What made you feel you were ready for your literary debut at the age you chose to have it? Or was it circumstances coming together at the right time?

Janet Ellis: Timing is everything. While I’ve never set myself time-limited goals, there was always an ostinato beat under everything I did which insisted:  ‘And write, Now write, Or write, Just write’. I’m trying to avoid being cute but- timing chose me. I had a real need to discover whether or not I ought to continue with the notion that I might be able to write, and to learn about the mechanics and The Curtis Brown course came along at just the right time (I read about it on Twitter). Despite my usual and really rather  creative avoidance tactics and my fears, a combination of the encouragement of my tutors and the support of my group, then  being offered representation on the strength of a chapter was impossible to ignore or set aside. It also gave me a deadline, which turns out to be essential.

Antonia Honeywell: I’m not sure one chooses when to have a literary debut. Some writers, I’m sure, find themselves at a time in their life when they’re ready to write, they write, and then they are published. But achieving publication is rarely as simple as that. It needs a wonderful novel, certainly, but it also means finding the right agent at a time when they’re ready for new clients; it means finding an editor who gets your novel and can persuade their publishing house to take it on; it takes a certain conjunction of the stars and a sprinkling of luck, too – things that are out of the writer’s control. For me, it all came together when I was forty two. But I’d been doing the parts I could control for over a decade prior to that.

Jon Teckman:  I think that like with a lot of other people, it wasn’t really a case of planning to make my debut so late in life – more that circumstances got in the way earlier on.  I was never one of those people with a burning desire to write or be a novelist (although, when I was about nine, I had asked my mum if a local bookmakers might publish my book when I’d written it!) – it was more of an idle wish that I hoped might one day come true. I actually started writing Ordinary Joe in 2007 when I was a youngster of just 44 years old – it was the publishing industry’s failure to recognise my genius for almost eight years that meant I didn’t actually get published until I was over 50.

   2. Are there any experiences without which you would have struggled to write your novel?

Janet Ellis: Other (better) writers have observed that everything is potential material. And while my memory for most things and people is woeful, I can remember long-gone feelings and conjure up previous experiences and relish being able to summon them when I write. I suspect everyone’s back catalogue gets rifled for their characters and situations, but I don’t think there are any episodes or experiences that outweigh others in terms of inspiration for me.

Antonia Honeywell: There were quite a few that made it harder! But when you turn them on their heads, maybe they helped. All your experiences, positive and negative, make the person that you are, and if writing is what you want to do, you’ll find a way to make your experience serve you.

Jon Teckman: Ordinary Joe is based loosely on a wide range of things that have happened to me over many years so it would definitely not have been possible to write it until I had a few years under my belt.  Many incidents in the book are based on things that happened to me when I worked on the fringes of the film industry in the late nineties and early noughties. Also, I think it helped being married with children so that I could better understand how the main character, Joe West’s actions are influenced by his desperation to keep his family from any harm – even though it is his own stupid actions that have created the risk in the first place.

   3. What do you think you would have done differently if you’d written it another stage in your life?

Janet Ellis:  Till recently, I’ve had a little bit of a problem in distinguishing between criticism and correction so I fear I may have been reluctant to hear, let alone accept, accept other’s opinions. It’s also taken me this long to really appreciate the craft of writing -as opposed to the inspiration and imagination. I feared that moving things around, changing characters and even plotlines might cause the disintegration of everything else I’d written. I think I’d have been more stubborn and rather arrogant.  All that came from fear and lack of trust in myself, of course. There’s something more porous about the process now, which is hugely enjoyable

Antonia Honeywell: I’ve written at all stages of my life. This is just the stage when God decided I’d be published. If I ever get the chance to discuss it with him, I’ll point out that if he’d let it happen earlier, I could have established my writing as an integral part of family life before the family came along, as central and inevitable as if I were going out to work. Happening when it did (my four children were all under six), it has always, and will always, be squeezed. But I expect he’ll have an answer for that.

Jon Teckman: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think I might have been even less patient as a younger writer and also even less confident in my ability as a writer.  As it was, both of these attributes were sorely tested but I think I demonstrated a determination that I wouldn’t have had as a younger man to carry on despite setbacks and a belief in the quality of the story I was trying to tell –  if not always the way I was telling it.

 5. What advice do you have for anyone older and seeking to follow in your footsteps?

Janet Ellis : The only advice I can give is what I would have told myself- it’s chiefly about flipping getting on with it, but also about something I realised as I worked on perhaps the third or fourth draft of my book: you can’t write for everyone. Not everyone will like your book, you don’t like every book that’s ever been written- and you can probably find fault with even books you love. So write for yourself, make yourself laugh, even scare or surprise yourself as you go. And reward yourself OFTEN.

Antonia Honeywell: I’d say this: your partner, friends and family will take their cue from you. Don’t wait for their permission; you won’t get it. And this: don’t use the people who are babysitting/managing in your absence/ picking up your children from school as your writing support network. If they’re helping you to carve out writing time, thank them by loving your writing. Let them see how glad you are to have the time; let them own a piece of what you’re trying to do. Save the angst, the gut-wrenching misery, the struggles with the words on the page for your writing friends.

Jon Teckman: There isn’t anyone older than me is there?  I know it is absolutely THE oldest cliché in the writers’ book of platitudes but it would have to be to never give up . But don’t be stubborn either – always be open to learning from others and listen whenever anyone offers you advice – even if it follows on from the sentence “I’m not going to represent you but . . .” Going on good quality writing courses was also invaluable to me, as there is nothing like being around fellow writers with whom you can share your work and receive constructive feedback for improving your style and craft.

 6. In what ways do you feel CBC is a supportive environment for writers in their forties and beyond?

Janet Ellis: In my other careers, I’ve always enjoyed being part of a team. Which is also shorthand for saying: it wasn’t going to be all my fault if things went wrong. Writing is the opposite of teamwork, not only is it all your responsibility (and thus all your fault) but it’s audacious to stand centre stage and say: Listen to me! The lovely thing is that, far from being a collection of narcissistic show-offs, my CBC coursemates were fantastic.  The group was a mix of ages and professions and a good male/female ratio, too. We all approached each other’s work with a unilateral generosity, ready to really help and guide each other. It’s to the credit of our tutors, Anna Davis and Erin Kelly, that no one felt left out or misunderstood along the way. In a CBC group, whoever you are, however old, however otherwise successful or frustrated  or confident or nervous you are , you’re all united in a common love of books and writing  and share a common goal: to be read.

Antonia Honeywell: I think CBC is a supportive environment for all aspiring writers, regardless of age. For me, just turning forty, it gave my writing time a status in the family that couldn’t be compromised. ‘Mummy’s writing’ can be interrupted with requests for stories, cuddles, warm milk…you name it. But ‘Mummy’s in London on her writing course’ can’t. And for those precious Thursday evening hours, I wasn’t a mother or a wife or a cook or household manager or teacher or daughter or nurse or personal assistant. I was a writer, pure and simple.

Jon Teckman: The CBC novel writing course was a life-changing experience for me and I am quite sure that I would not have achieved my dream of being published if I hadn’t attended the course.  Of the 15 people on the course, there were probably five or six older writers but I don’t think we either behaved or were treated differently in any way from the younger writers. Everyone was very supportive of each other, and we still are two years after our course finished.

7. What has been your experience of Prime Writers?

Antonia Honeywell: In the months before The Ship was published, I was feeling very isolated. My life seemed very far removed from those of the debut novelists I was following on Twitter, who all seemed to be on long book tours, drinking cocktails late at night or going on extended fully-funded writing retreats. I tweeted, asking whether anyone else out there was publishing their debut novel over the age of 40, and then I went and put the children to bed. Over the next couple of days, I heard from many, many writers, all of whom were over 40 when their debut was published. I organized a lunch in London. Thirty five writers came to that, and it was a great success. That lunch became a closed Facebook group, and we’ve since set up a website and featured in the Guardian and the Telegraph among others. Forty is, of course, an arbitrary cut off – but it is incredibly sustaining to be part of a group where the life you led before publication is valued and celebrated alongside your published novel. And nothing stops post-publication – neither your life outside writing, nor the roller-coaster ride that is a writing career. It’s good to put all that down for a moment and hold out a hand to someone who understands. The industry is beginning to notice us, which is exciting, but we remain primarily a support to each other, and a beacon to all aspiring writers, whatever their age.

Jon Teckman: The Prime Writers has been a fantastically supportive group for me.  As I achieved my publishing contract for Ordinary Joe through an open submission competition from Borough Press, I still don’t have an agent so I have often found myself asking fellow writers who’ve been through the same processes or challenges on the path to publication for their thoughts and advice.  Everybody’s publication story is different but there are some common experiences and it is great to have the support network in place when things don’t go quite as one was hoping – as well as being able to celebrate other writers’ successes.

Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February 2015, Jon Teckman’s Ordinary Joe was published by The Borough Press in July 2015, and Janet Ellis’s A Little Learning; Or, The Butcher’s Hook will be published by Two Roads in Spring 2016.

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