Martine Bailey Blogs about Persistence and the Road to Publication.
My Arvon week was nearly twenty years ago, back in 1995, a completely different epoch in the world of publishing, when Google was unknown, and eReaders and iPads were unlikely sounding futuristic gadgets. I had scraped together the course fee for ‘Writing Fiction’ at Totleigh Barton and booked precious annual leave from a hectic full-time job. The dozen or so of us who gathered were all rather nervous, but effervescent with the notion of becoming published authors.
Clutching pens and notepads, we introduced ourselves. The fellow next to me modestly announced he was a singer songwriter. Afterwards, I met him on the landing and felt a strange sense of déjà vu as we chatted. Finally, it struck me that this gentle Scotsman was a household name, a 1960s pop star, whom I’d recognised from Top of the Pops.
The Pop Star’s meditation and guitar practice on the lawn each morning was just one part of the little Utopia we formed, lost in the Devon countryside on a magical week far from mundanity and menial work. We were privileged to have three terrific writers involved: Louise Doughty, bearing copies of Crazy Paving, was super-bright and enthusiastic; Charles Palliser (a Gothic hero of mine since reading The Quincunx), provided gravitas. Our visiting speaker was the wonderful Rose Tremain, firmly on the ascendant of her rich career.
My one-to-one tutorial with Louise Doughty was encouraging and her advice, that mystery stories are plotted backwards, along with a flipchart diagram, is something I use to this day. On our last night, I remember shaking with nerves before my final reading, and then the dizzy relief that it was over. Then our resident Pop Star filled the warm summer air with an impromptu concert of all his hits, as we danced and drank and flirted.
After the course we sent each other postcards, but with email in its infancy and facebook not yet invented, it was difficult to stay in touch. I had a few agents but they failed to sell my novels and real life began to extinguish the glow. I moved house, fell ill, and stopped writing completely.
But as yet more significant birthdays passed, I made another big push to satisfy the need to write. I was newly married and wrote a couple of non-fiction books about weddings and travel, under the pseudonym Laura Bloom. I had my first frantic taste of the media, writing features and surviving a live interview on BBC Breakfast. Then one day, standing in the kitchen of the National Trust’s Erddig Hall, I picked up a handwritten recipe and a spark ignited and lit up my mind. I would write an historical novel about a clever young cook that evoked a world of lost recipes, an account of a journey to foreign lands spiced with plot twists and murder. Obsessed, I learned Georgian cookery with TV food historian Ivan Day, and used my annual holidays to trace the Grand Tour across Europe armed with an 18th century Guide Book. I focussed on channelling back to my Northern voice and developing an irrepressible working class narrator, bursting with culinary terms and Georgian colloquialisms.
Some four years later, emailing An Appetite for Violets to my first choice of agent, I knew it was the best thing I had ever written. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of words were cut, re-written, and polished, until at last I did it. I was offered a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton and sold rights in the US amongst other territories, where it was picked as one of the best crime debuts of 2015 by the American Library Association. On the eve of my book launch in London, Fay Weldon wrote that I had created a new genre, the ‘Culinary Gothic’, the sort of apt but unlikely praise I could never have dreamed up myself.
Now my second novel, The Penny Heart, about a vengeful escaped convict who becomes the cook to an artistic young wife, has just been published. I’m no longer naive and starry-eyed, but I couldn’t be happier that I made that final push to fulfil my life’s purpose. I’m also proud to be part of http://theprimewriters.com/ who all persisted and published their first book over the age of forty. Like most people who feel the call to write, it’s been a hard slog – but thanks to that week in Devon, I’ve carried a faint but illuminating glow through almost two long decades, from course to publication.