I’m not sure how long it took to write A Sensible Girl as it was written over a number of years and in several different countries. I’ve just spent many months editing it, and then hours reading and re-reading it in both ebook and paperback format, in the hope that in a few weeks, when it’s launched into the world, someone will read it. But does that make all those countless hours of thinking and writing, and then agonising over what I’ve written worth while? And, as I’ve considered many times before, can I stop writing?
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. As I small child I was happy to play by myself because, in my head, I was never alone, as my world was full of imaginary people going on great adventures. My imagination was such that one of the characters - called Fred - became so real, that, much to the irritation of my family, I insisted he went everywhere with me. On at least one occasion I became almost hysterical when Fred did not get into the car beside me and my father drove off leaving him behind.
At what point Fred packed his bags and went to live in the mind of another imaginative child I’m not sure. It was probably soon after I started school, as the robustness of the school playground is no place for imaginary friends. Not that I stopped living in a world of make believe. Once I learnt to read, I lost myself in other people’s imaginings and read everything I could get my hands on, whether it was deemed suitable for a child or not.
This was in an age when ‘bookish’ girls were not really encouraged. Perhaps in order to get me to take up more girlish pursuits, a well-meaning adult would occasionally give me a doll rather than a book as a present. I must confess that any such doll - particularly the pretty blond kind dressed in frilly pink clothes - was swiftly dispatched, either by decapitation or another gruesome method. I was the kind of child who preferred fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm to those of Hans Christian Anderson.
From an early age I also developed a passion for books, not merely as the source of stories, but also as objects. When I look up from my desk and see books lined up on the shelves in my study, I feel surrounded by friends, and, in a life which has contained an awful lot of travelling and moving house, books have always travelled with me. They are almost the first thing to be unpacked in a new home or even in a hotel room, although these days, I travel with fewer physical books as I usually take novels in ebook form.
But I digress from story writing. Even at primary school I had ambitions to find a wider readership for my stories than my teacher. I think I was about 7 or 8 when my older sister, who had decided to be both the editor-in-chief and illustrator of her own magazine, accepted some of my stories for publication. The magazine was sold to family and neighbours and the first edition came with a free gift of a lavender bag, painstakingly made by me as a price for ‘printing’ my stories.
Not long after this, my father was posted to the Middle East and I won a scholarship to boarding school, where my attempts at fiction writing became more ambitious. It was the early 1960s, the Cold War was at its height and spies - real and imagined - were everywhere. Not that you would have known that if you were a pupil at my school, where boarders had little contact with the world outside, and what contact we had, was strictly mediated by the nuns. However, once a week we were allowed to watch two television programmes after supper: Top of the Pops followed by The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
We quickly divided into two rival camps - fans of the Russian spy, Illya Kuryakin, played by British actor David McCallum, and fans of the American spy, Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn. Whether it was Illya’s mop of blond hair, reminiscent of early Beatles’ haircuts, or the fact that he was British, Illya was by far the more popular of the two. I was in the minority as a fan of the dark-haired Napoleon Solo.
Those weekly editions of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. coupled with seeing the first James Bond movie, Dr No, under the desert sky at night in an open air cinema, resulted in my spending a good part of my adolescence writing terrible spy novels starring tall, ruggedly handsome, dark-haired heroes. I inflicted these novels on a captive audience of fellow boarders. If any of you are out there reading this, please accept my abject apologies. I suspect reading my early novels was akin to the tortures I imposed on my heroes.
I began this blog in an attempt to explain why I write, but perhaps I should leave the explanation to others far better qualified than me. George Orwell took a rather dark view of the process but I cannot help but agree with his summation:
All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, rather like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
However, Gore Vidal - a man not known for usually being parsimonious with words - for once put it more simply:
A writer is someone who writes, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.