I like that confidence. It’s a great thing to believe that you’re only going to get better. Most children up to the age of ten possess it, because, frankly, that is what experience has taught them. Once they couldn’t tie their shoelaces, now they can. Once they couldn’t ride a bike, now they can. Once – long ago in kindergarten – they cried, babyishly. Now they look forward to going off to school and meeting their friends.
When I was about ten, therefore, I saw no reason at all why I shouldn’t be a fantastic writer or poet – perhaps even as good as Shakespeare! And so I wrote lots of stories based on whatever I happened to enjoy reading at the time. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I imitated away to the best of my ability. (This too is healthy – for children, anyway.) I wrote a whole bookful of ‘Tales of Narnia’, to augment the Seven Chronicles C.S. Lewis had already written. I did it only because I wanted to read more Narnia stories, and Lewis couldn’t oblige, being dead. I became vaguely aware that my own stories didn’t provide the same kind of pleasure as Lewis’s. For one thing, I knew what was going to happen – I was making the characters do things, I was in charge. But if it was a different kind of magic, it was magic nonetheless. I was hooked on making stories as well as reading them.
Next after ‘Tales of Narnia’ came another volume of short stories I called ‘Mixed Magic’. The best of them – the one that’s still possible to read with some enjoyment and without wincing – was about Peter Piper who picked the peck of pickled pepper, and was light-hearted and humorous: I was writing within my limits. Still I yearned for high adventure and poetry, so the worst of these stories is called ‘Asgard’s Revenge’: Asgard was a white-maned sea horse, with a tendency to go on like this:
“My father is dead!” cried Asgard, wildly. “Your lord is dead – dead – dead! And he was killed by the accursed Lightnings! Now will we crush the Lightnings and all their race! Do you hear, O my people? We will take the light from their eyes, the joy from their hearts! Revenge!” He stopped, overcome.
And well he might. I’m blushing even now. But – a couple of pages on, Asgard is given a horn to blow which will call up such a storm ‘as will touch heaven’s shimmering, glittering, star-interlaced web, and wash down the Pole Star.’ Overwritten, overwrought, derivative, maybe, but – for thirteen years old, which I was at the time - I don’t think I need to feel too ashamed.
After 'Mixed Magic', under the influence this time of Mary Renault, I went on to try my hand at historical fiction. I was at Ross on Wye Grammar School by now, and our Religious Studies lessons were much more along the lines of ‘archeology of the Bible Lands’. I read a bit in the textbook about Egypt of the Pharoahs, and wrote a full length book about Joseph and his brothers, told in the first person by Judah. I did my thirteen year old best to research the thing, with the result that for about a decade afterwards I could recite the names of the Pharoahs and their dynasties in order (I can’t anymore). It runs to 158 handwritten pages and has a beginning, a middle and an end. From this point on, I knew I had the stamina to complete a book.
Then I was blown away by Alan Garner’s 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and 'The Moon of Gomrath'. Off I went to read the Mabinogion, to get in touch with my Welsh roots (I had a Welsh grandmother) and, inevitably, to write a fantasy with a Celtic theme, about a young man pursued through wet woods by minions of the triple moon goddess, and encountering golden-faced indifferent elves dancing on old straight tracks. And that one was followed by the first book I ever wrote which was all me, original, not really influenced by anyone much (except perhaps a touch of Walter de la Mare): a fantasy about a girl who walks into a picture of a Rousseau jungle and teams up with a monkey and a yellow bird and sets off on a quest.
I sent that one off to an agent, but it came back. And the next one was set in a modern (well, then modern) school, and involved bullying, psychological and physical, and a haunting, and wasn’t at all bad in places except that I had no idea where I was heading with the plot. And the next one –
Well, the next one was 'Troll Fell'. It took me a very long time to write, as I’ve told elsewhere, but in the end it was published, and is the first part of my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’, republished this month in one volume. Set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, it’s a historical fantasy which incorporates all sorts of folklore and fairytales. It weaves together the elements I’ve been trying all my life to write about. It’s romantic, dramatic: in places funny and in places tragic. I owe so much to all the wonderful writers who’ve influenced me: yet this is mine, not theirs.
Through practice, through admiration and imitation, through writing and writing and writing, I finally found something of my own to say, and knew who I was: and it turns out that I am still pretty much the exact same person who wrote ‘Asgard’s Revenge’ all those years ago – but it doesn’t embarrass me any more. That story was really bad, I know.
But I do it better now.