From Bookseller to Author: When Did You Start Writing?
A screenplay and play from 1990. A novel adaptation of a Doctor Who story from 1983. More adaptations. This time episodes of Blake's 7 from 1981 – I was twelve years old. My first venture into wanting to be a published writer. I know this as I also I came across a pile of letters from publishers and writers that I sent it to. (I'm cringing at the thought even after all this time.) On the whole, the rejections were nice but they all firmly said no thanks. I still have a prized one from Robert Holmes, one of the great genre TV screenwriters of the 70s and 80s. He said that he could tell by my writing that I must be young and that I should concentrate on my own work and read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade to get an idea of what writing is all about.
Another box had notes for a fantasy novel series (in sixteen volumes!) that I'd planned to co-write with a friend. (The cringing has become shivering now!) Notepads contained long-abandoned ideas and stories. Might be worth having a good rummage through them.
I suppose this passion for writing is what led me to bookselling. I started out as a Christmas temp in Dillons and ended up staying for six years with the grand-sounding job title of Fiction Product Specialist. (I came across my lovely gold badge too!) I also ended up organising events. In 1998, I moved to the new Borders flagship store in Glasgow where I was employed as events co-ordinator, working with the events manager. (It almost seems unbelievable now that a bookstore could have had two fulltime staff organising events!) It was a fun three years during which we programmed about seventy events a month, from 'kids' story-time readings' to a packed programme of author events. And all the time, I was hiding my dark secret of wanting to be a published author.
Working in events was a wonderful learning experience – I was able to gain tremendous insights into the process of writing and the reality of a career as a writer from a wide and eclectic mix of authors. I also got the chance to meet some of my writing heroes including Chuck Palahniuk, Martin Amis, Neil Gaiman, Michael Ondaatje and Neal Stephenson. Edna O'Brien took me aside after hearing from her publisher's Scottish sales manager that I was a closet writer and she told me that I had to keep at it, that it sometimes took a while to get published.
Over the years, I tried to write as much as possible but it seemed to me that a fulltime job without set hours left me with little time to write. In retrospect, it was probably an excuse to avoid the hard work of writing. A few years ago, I decided that I had to give writing a serious go and I started working part-time in a local council arts department. For the first year, I played around with a couple of ideas and I spent a long time endlessly polishing a ten-thousand-word section of what was to become my first novel so that I could get it 'just right'. It was around that time that I developed an intense fascination for daytime TV repeats of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. Sometimes you'll do anything not to get words down on paper!
After that, it's a bit of a blur. CHROMA, the contemporary fiction imprint of Black & White Publishing, was interested in reading what I had already written. The next thing I knew, I had a contact and a delivery date! Then, all of a sudden, I was a published author – with events to do. I thought my years organising author events would completely prepare me for working from the other side. I was wrong.
Sunday, 19 February 2006 – my first-ever reading
It's at The Pineapple in Camden, London. It's taking place before the novel is even launched and I'm reading with a writer who was shortlisted for last year's Orange Prize. Joolz Denby is also an experienced performance poet. No pressure then.
I have to admit that I've never enjoyed public speaking. Gillian (my publisher's press officer) tells me that I should think of readings as work to promote the book – I am not the focus, the book is the focus. I almost manage to fool myself. Gillian also cleverly distracts me before the reading by arranging dinner with an ex-bookselling colleague. He's read the book and he likes it. We spend a couple of fun hours catching up and talking about the book.
I'm feeling calm as we walk to The Pineapple. I can do this. It's all about the book... It's all about the book...
The upstairs room at The Pineapple is nice – almost like a tearoom – but, as soon as we arrive, disaster! There's no microphone and I'm cursed with being 'softly spoken'. I try to stay calm. The room is small enough to be heard – I'm sure it is. A friend had suggested I try the old Irish 'three Jamesons technique' to give me courage – it sounded like a good idea but I'd decided I had to stay focused.
Joolz Denby arrives. She is so laid-back that I relax a bit. She talks to me about her Dylan Thomas tattoo. Then the audience starts to arrive. Some people I know are there but maybe a roomful of strangers would have been less scary. I don't remember much of what happened next. I'm introduced, I stand up, I read. Then Joolz, then a break, then a second reading. I actually enjoy it! And I get to sign my first book for a person I don't know!
Wednesday, 22 February – my launch party at The Corinthian Glasgow
I loved the reading in London so much that I'm actually keen to read again.
By chance, I'm standing at the entrance when people arrive. The plan had been for me to be in the bar mingling but this is the perfect place to be. No awkward moving between groups of friends and booksellers and I get to chat with almost everyone.
Next day – signing stock at stores in Glasgow
I looked after dozens of these in my event days and it felt odd being on the other side. A friend suggested I mention that I was once a bookseller, he thought it might break the ice. It worked. You know, it feels rather good seeing your book in a store with a 'Signed Copy' sticker on it being browsed by customers.
A few weeks after that, it was the Denny Library reading. Now I'm looking forward to next month when I'll be reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the biggest book festival in the world! Maybe then I'll be asked when I started writing.
Simon Biggam is the author of These Are Only Words.
Simon will be reading at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday 25 August at 7.30 p.m.