If Gore Vidal was right, how come my friends are still alive?

‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.’ Thanks for that, Gore Vidal. He died last year  – whether due to the success of his friends, I don’t know – so it’s probably safe to say that his pithy observation is simply not true. I’ve got a book deal. So how come my friends aren’t lying in massacred heaps all over the place?

For the most part, my friends are people who have seen me struggling with this ambition for decades. They’ve watched me fighting to create the time to write in the first place. They’ve held my hand when the rejections have become too much, and held the baby when I’ve needed to write something down mid-conversation. Most importantly, they’ve taken me seriously. My friends have not required that I have a published novel in order to think of me as a writer. And this has helped me to think of myself as one, and therefore to behave like one.  I’ve tried to do the same for them. Why would a piece of me die when a friend I’ve been exchanging writing with for years gets published, any more than when a baby is born to friends after ten years of miscarriages, or a friend’s teenage daughter gets a place at Oxford? Why would I die when one friend gets a massive promotion, or another finally takes the step she’s dreamed of for years and leaves the corporate rat-race to teach music?

When my friend succeeds, I own a tiny piece of that success. I took a phone call in the dark watches of the night; I gave a mock interview. Maybe I cooked a meal, or offered sanctuary; perhaps I just said, ‘Go for it.’. But I was there. In the same way, there are lots and lots of people who own a bit of my book deal. They read a chapter, or more. They encouraged me. They may simply have said, ‘How’s the writing going?’ Even my mother-in-law owns a piece of The Ship – although probably not have the bit where the British Museum is gassed. It would upset her.

I strongly suspect, though, that Gore Vidal wasn’t talking about his friends. I expect he was talking about success that comes to strangers. The success that comes to people who have advantages that would make all the difference to you– independent wealth, say, or expensive education, or valuable contacts; a supportive spouse, a lack of small children (or the presence of small children, depending on your situation), a job they love, a job they hate. But those jealousy-inducing narratives are written by the person who hears of the success. Not by the person who has succeeded, or their friends. And the blame for any resulting death should be laid in the right place.

If I bragged, or crowed, or refused to talk about anything other than my book deal, or took it for granted that more success will follow – now that would kill my friends. But why would I? My friends know what it took, how they helped, just as I know the rocks they’ve had to hew and shape to put the foundations under their castles in the air. I won’t brag or make gilded assumptions. But neither will I pretend that success isn’t important, or that it came out of the blue, or that I haven’t been working on this for a decade. That would be just as bad, because it would fuel the popular impression that writing success comes from having a few lattes in a café with your laptop open. That a book deal falls from a blue sky into a deserving lap. That it’s easy.

Write. Write hard. Get help, write harder, don’t give up. And if, when you get your deal, a stranger hears of your success and decides that it was easy for you, I say let ‘em die. Die, or find out the truth. After all, a half-written story is a bad reason for suicide.

The Man Booker Prize *faints with excitement* *gets up again*

I thought I’d be more excited today. Having read every single book on the Man Booker longlist, I thought I’d be hanging on in there for today’s announcement. The day the shortlist was announced, I was checking Twitter every thirty seconds in case I missed it.  But today – no. I don’t really care. And this is very, very sad. I like books. There have been times when reading was the reason I bothered to keep going. Even now, when my life has  settled in a deeply contented place, the prospect of a little time to read makes my heart beat faster. My husband thinks I encouraged him to do an Art course on Tuesday nights because I’m a lovely person who wants to support the development of his undoubted talent. My children think I like to lie on their beds while they fall asleep because I love being close to them and can’t bear to say goodnight. My entire family think I’m very, very clean because I spend so long in the bathroom. But these considerate actions are nothing more than the corollary benefits of my reading addiction.

So why the lack of excitement about the Man Booker announcement? It’s partly because books I loved from the long list didn’t make it. Stand up, Eve Harris. Stand up, Colum McCann. And while we’re here, stand up Donal Ryan, Alison Macleod, Tash Aw and Charlottle Mendelson too. OK, I didn’t get Richard House, but many, many readers did. ‘Killed the Kills in three days,’ was just one of the tweets I received on the subject. All the praise being bandied about for the shortlisted writers could equally have been applied to you and your novels. And there are tens of novels at least (probably hundreds, but I can’t read that fast) that would have stood equally well on the long list but didn’t get that far. I, for one, don’t feel that the short list represented the best of the long list.

And the opening of the prize to America – well, that’s made me sad too. Is America about to open the Pulitzer to British writers? Why is a move that’s purportedly broadening the field good for a formerly British prize, but not for an American one? I’m a British writer who’s dreamed of winning the Booker ever since I became aware of it. Of course I’d still love to win it – but it’s removed now, put on a high shelf like sweets removed from a presumptuous child. British literature has a character of its own. Where, now, is the internationally renowned prize that celebrates it?

Hurrah for anything – anything – that helps a writer’s career along. Hurrah for Catton and Ozeki and Lahiri and Toíbín and Bulawayo. But I hope Crace wins. I do. His bittersweet novel of a passing era didn’t make a huge impression on me at the time. It was the first of the thirteen long listed novels that I read. The world was going to read my reviews and listen to them. My opinions were going to be Informed and Important. I was reading novels that hadn’t even been published yet. I was all fired up, on the inside of something I loved for the very first time. I had new worlds and bold worlds and fireworks being laid out before me, and the enclosure of the common land in an unidentified part of a long-gone England was tame in comparison. But of the six short listed titles, it’s Crace’s intense, lyrical obituary for time passed that has stayed with me. Oh, bigger, brighter, richer dawns the new world. But its brightness renders everything black and white. We lose our dappled shades, our gentle twilights. A great novel resonates far beyond its subject matter. I didn’t get Harvest as a tale of agriculture. But as the story of what’s happened to the Man Booker, it’s flawless. I hope the judges have the guts to vote for their own story. Crace for the Man Booker! It’s my last hope.

Seven Reasons to Come and hear Maggie Gee speak in Little Missenden on 12th October

  1. She has an OBE for Services to Literature, and is the first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature.
  2. She has worked and worked and worked and worked to get to where she is today. And the story is interesting, and she tells it well.
  3. She wrote The White Family. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. It should have won. (See also The Siege by Helen Dunmore, who spoke at the festival last year.)
  4. She understands the excruciatingly fine balance between ability, hard work and luck in establishing and maintaining a writing career, and writes about it with honesty.
  5. Her novels are full of energy, characters who live and breathe, descriptions that mean something and a generosity that pervades the worlds she explores.
  6. She is very, very kind to people who burst into tears when they try to explain to their fellow students on a writing course just what her writing meant to them. (Obviously this is a purely hypothetical supposition. I mean, I’m sure she would be very kind to someone etc. etc. I mean. Really. Who’d burst into tears at a writing course?)
  7. If you want to write, she’ll encourage you. If you already write, she’ll inspire you. And if you haven’t read her yet, you’re in for a wonderful discovery. (If you’ve already read Maggie Gee, then I expect you’ve booked your ticket. If not, then visit http://www.little-missenden.org).

In praise of slow runners

Yesterday was an extremely busy day for me. In the morning, I limped the Royal Parks Half Marathon. In the afternoon, I sang Handel in the beautiful parish church of Great Missenden. And in the evening, I went to Taekwondo with my two eldest (8 and 6). I didn’t get any writing done.

I was running the Royal Parks Half Marathon for The Wegener’s Trust (www.wegeners.org.uk).  All the training I should have done for the race gave way to editing my novel post-book deal. I finished in 2 hours and 54 minutes.  This put me 14,453th out of 14,813 runners. It’s not exactly boasting material.

But I saw some things I’d never have seen from the front:

I saw two men running for Guy’s and St. Thomas’, with photographs of a baby hooked up to an incubator pinned to their shirts.  Printed under the photographs were the words, ‘For Isaac,’ with a date of birth and a date of death separated by a few days. I couldn’t see the path for tears, and one of the men nodded at me and said, ‘We’ve done a lot of that.’ For a brief moment, I was allowed to share their terrible grief, and it was a privilege.

I saw the casualties. If you’re running fast, you can’t see the people you leave behind. At the back of the pack, you see the love and care poured out by the St John’s Ambulance volunteers and the marshals, and the running companions who won’t leave their friends until they can finish the race together. The frontrunners show humanity’s potential, but the back shows humanity itself.

I saw grit. Real running takes grit, but it brings glory. To finish a half marathon in an hour and a half is an achievement anyone understands. But to finish a half marathon at all when you are blind, or have a limp, or a debilitating medical condition, takes bushels and bushels of grit. At the back, you see grit in spades.

And I saw my son. There’s more space at the back, and the smaller numbers meant that when my husband and eldest son cheered from somewhere between mile 6 and mile 7, my son (aged 8) was able to run alongside me to the charity cheering point at mile 7 and then wait there for my husband to catch up.  Holding his hand while he told me I could do it is my most precious memory of the race.

I have a friend who runs – properly. She’s always wanted to do the London Marathon, but she doesn’t want to do it unless she can be sure she’ll finish in less than four hours. I don’t run properly. Even though I trained hard for the London in 2011, it still took me over six hours to finish. But I did it.  And unless my friend embraces the possibility that one might take more than four hours and still have an experience worth having, she’ll leave a great dream of her life unachieved.

What dreams do we leave unexplored through our arbitrary definitions of success? I’ve been lucky enough to achieve two of my dreams – a happy marriage and a publication contract. But neither is cut and dried. A happy marriage takes work. A publication contract is only the beginning of a whole new story. Let’s engage with failure. Let’s talk, not only about the people at the front, but about the depth, energy and determination of the people at the back.