Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A Life In Writing, by Philip Caveney

A recent email query gave me pause for thought. A reader in America wondered if I had any plans to write a sequel to The Sins Of Rachel Ellis. I was, to put it mildly, gob-smacked.

You see, Rachel Ellis was my very first novel, published back in the heady days of 1977, when I was a drummer in a rock band and had a more than passing resemblance to Rasputin, the Mad Monk. I liked drumming very much, but I had a burning desire for something else, something that had been ignited in me at the age of thirteen when I first read Ray Bradbury’s wonderful fantasy novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

 I wanted to be an author.

Getting that first book published was my reward for something like ten years of hard work.

I began, like most writers at the time, by sending my manuscripts off to publishers with a polite letter asking if they’d care to consider my words of genius for publication. The pages would come back to me, almost by return of post, with a brusque ‘thank you’ note and nothing more. In those days of course, there was no electronic submission. You sent the whole typescript, including a hefty cheque for when (it was never ‘if’) the publisher decided to return it. The pages had so much Tipp-Ex plastered to them, they had the approximate weight and feel of the tablets of Moses and the postage was equivalent to the national debt of a small country.

At some point, I read a line in a magazine that suggested that if you were an aspiring writer, the best thing to do was to put your work into the hands of a literary agent.

I was living in North Wales at the time, where such exotic creatures were somewhat thin on the ground. Eventually it dawned on me that since all the publishers and agents were in London that was where I needed to be. And when the rock band I played with were offered the opportunity to go to the Capital for two weeks to provide the music for a youth theatre production of Godspell, I seized the opportunity with eager hands, promising myself that I wouldn’t go home until I’d found an agent who was prepared to handle my work.

It was tough going. I, and the bass player with my band, memorably lived for two weeks in his Hillman Imp. We used to park around the back of the Barnardo’s children’s home in Redbridge and the kids there would bring us out some sandwiches. (Now that’s poverty!) The two weeks soon went and the rest of the band dutifully headed home, but I stubbornly stayed on, finding myself a flat, a job and a circle of friends. I was not going to give up on this.

My stay in London was eventually extended to around five years. For most of that time, I worked for a marine electronics firm as a clerk. There wasn’t much to do, but I did have an office, there WAS a typewriter and an endless supply of typing paper. What more could any aspiring writer ask?

Meanwhile, I kept writing. At every opportunity.

Finally, my perseverance paid off. A friend who worked for Thames Television furnished me with the address of an agent by the name of Janet Freer. I went to her offices in Tottenham Court Road, walked in, dumped my typescript on her receptionist’s desk and when asked what I thought I was doing, panicked and legged it out of there like an utter maniac. Luckily, I’d remembered to tuck my phone number under the elastic band that held the pages together.

Against all the odds, she phoned me back, telling me that my work was unpublishable (the bad news) but that it had ‘promise (the good news). I was to bring her the next thing I wrote. A year later, I did as she asked and she deemed this ‘an improvement’ but told me, as gently as possible that it still wasn’t quite there. She asked if I would be prepared to pick up the bat one more time…

I wrote an eerie ghost story set in North Wales called The Sins Of Rachel Gurney and a year later, it was ready to hand to Janet. She sold it two day’s later to St Martin’s Press in New York. I shall never forget her distinctive Canadian voice on the phone saying, ‘Hey kid, I got you a deal!’

It’s hard to convey how exciting that was. Thirty-five years later, I can still recall punching the air in delirious excitement. I had cracked it! I was now officially a published author. The world was at my feet. The title of the book got changed at the 11th hour, because an actress called Rachel Gurney had a show on Broadway and the publishers were worried she might litigate, but that didn’t matter, I had actually gone and done it. The thing I had longed for, dreamed about, gone half crazy to try and achieve had actually come to pass.

Well, I was twenty-six years old and very naïve.

The years roll by. Manual typewriters give way to electric typewriters, which in turn are superseded by Amstrad word processors, which somehow mutate into Apple Macintoshes and finally, my current darling, a state-of-the-art iMac. I can submit a manuscript at the touch of a button and shares in Tipp-Ex must be looking pretty dodgy these days.

Thirty published books later, (more if I count the three romance novels written under a female pseudonym), I look around and tell myself that while the hardware may have changed, so much of the writer’s life hasn’t. I still meet young wannabes, prepared to throw themselves repeatedly at the brick walls of the indifferent publishing industry. The majority of publishers and agents can still be found in our country’s capital city and so much of publishing is dominated by people who are famous for some other reason and who have no qualms in engaging the services of a ghost writer to tell their story for them, whilst omitting to give them any of the credit.

And once again, I look at that email. Thirty five years down the line, am I considering a sequel to The Sins Of Rachel Ellis?

Well, you know what?

I would never entirely rule it out.


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks Philip - I enjoyed reading that!

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

1977! Blimey, that's some reader request for a sequel! Love the description of the Tipp-Exed tablets of Moses and North Wales and literary agents.

sensibilia said...

Great story. Plus ca change.

I think I was in the audience of that 1970's "Godspell". Was it at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm?

Alicia Conway said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, I too have always wanted a sequel to this book, and came upon this blog searching for just that. Hopefully, you will give this a second thought. Cheers!