photo by Elizabeth Roberts
I first went on an Arvon course in 2001. It was a selected course for people writing novels. I hadn’t actually written a novel, unless you count three chapters of a terrible campus tale featuring the unscrupulous Seamus O’Shameless, Head of Psychology. But I really admired the books of Jim Crace, who was to be the course tutor, so I wrote two chapters of a new novel, leaving Seamus out, and sent them in. It was a massive boost to be accepted on the course, along with, I think, fifteen others.
Totleigh Barton was (still is, presumably), a pretty house set in lovely scenery. I remember having to hike up a hill to get a phone signal. Maybe it’s the same still. I really took to the way of life at Arvon. I loved the contrast of having my own room to work quietly in, and the communal coming together of cooking, eating and workshops. I decided that when I got home I was going to set up and live in a commune. Oddly, this didn’t happen.
Jim Crace was an inspiring tutor, far more light-hearted and amusing than his often-serious fiction would lead one to suspect. The group sessions were fantastic, and I adored the writerly camaraderie of the whole thing. It was wonderful to sit working in my room, then get stuck, fancy a bit of chocolate and some company, and wander into the kitchen. There I would be sure to find someone else. I would offer them a bit of Galaxy and say, ‘I just cannot get my character out of the room and into the next scene.’ Ah, my fellow Arvon-er would say, ‘I know just what you mean. Have you thought about sending her to the shop for some milk?’ And lo, my mighty plot difficulty would be resolved.
It was an astonishing week. It made me feel quite differently about myself, and my writing. After all the discussions, and talk of story and plotting, and particularly my one-to-one tutorial with Jim Crace, I shrugged on a kind of coat of self-confidence about writing that has never quite slipped off. Jim (‘Call me Jimbo!’) looked up from my two pitiful chapters (neither of which survived the final cut), and said, ‘Well. If I was a publisher, and this turned up on my desk, I’d think, I’ve got one!’ ‘Really?’ I stammered. ‘Yes. You’ve written a comic novel, did you know that?’ I hadn’t. ‘It’s funny, and moving too.’
I drove home that afternoon, along a road that meandered past Stonehenge. I don’t think I was meant to go that way, but I was connected to the universe so it didn’t matter: all paths led to home (eventually). The sun was low over the ancient stones, and I felt mystical and/or like I was on drugs. ‘I’m going to write this book,’ I told myself. ‘It’s going to be published.’ And a mere thirteen years later, it was.
It was a good course for being published. Kat Pomfret, a very young writer, had her book Paradise Jazz published not long after the course, and Carol Lefevre has also been published. Most notably, Diane Setterfield was on the course, and a few years later she published the bestseller The Thirteenth Tale, which was made into a TV drama last year. I noted all my fellow attendees’ successes over the years, and, as Gore Vidal once said, I died a little every time.
The novel I started at that Arvon course went through many, many, many different versions. I see on my computer that there’s an ‘Arvon version,’ a ‘version 2’, a ‘laptop version’ from when I changed computers, one called ‘Teen version’ when I briefly turned the whole thing into a YA story, a version in which it’s called ‘Two-Thirds Happy,’ and another which is entitled ‘And Then We’d Be Happy.’
I hadn’t yet learned the only writers’ trick that I really need: don’t leave the book alone for too long. Every time I stopped writing for six months, or a year, because of work, or children, or life, I couldn’t remember a thing about it when I got back to it, and effectively had to start again.
In 2005, when I was eight months pregnant with my second child, I went on another Arvon week. This one was an untutored retreat at The Hurst. As I waddled out of the car, towards my fellow Arvon-ers, one of them said, ‘Ah, here come two more,’ referring to me and my unborn baby. I instantly felt at home. Everyone was so warm and lovely and funny. I was given a nice room, next to a bathroom, because of needing to get up for the loo so often in the night. The Centre Director, on hearing that my plan was to try and finish a final draft before the baby came, said she would give me a Mars Bar if I managed it. I see I am coming across as one of those women who do anything for chocolate. It wasn’t just that. I was extremely motivated to finish the thing properly, as I knew I soon would not have time. I wrote up a storm, probably writing more per hour than I have done before or since, and finished the book on the last day, earning my Mars Bar. (I made a life-long friend at that retreat, Jo Bloom, whose own first novel, Ridley Road, has just been published. We recently attended each other’s book launches.)
After the retreat, I see on my computer that I worked on a 2007 version, one in 2008, one called ‘The Solidest Thing We Knew,’ a 2011 version, and another called ‘Sing It Back To Me.’ That version found an agent in 2012, she found me a publisher at Ebury Press in 2013, and the book was finally published in 2014 as When We Were Sisters (good title! The publisher chose it). The book has just come out in paperback, and as it was a two-book deal I have just finished writing the second one, a decade or so quicker than the first. I wrote here why it was so much quicker.
Could I have written the book without the boosts of the two Arvons? I don’t think so. The first inspired me and set me going, the second helped me get to the end. Or at least, to the beginning of the end. I would like to go back to Arvon one day, maybe to run a course myself, that I would have found very useful: Stop Buggering About And Write More Quickly. I will bring spare Galaxy bars and that campus novel. I think I might be able to do something with it now.
Beth Miller, 20th January 2015
When We Were Sisters is published by Ebury Press – here on Amazon
The Good Neighbour will be out some time this year
Explore our 2015 course programme here