When I was a little girl I didn’t dream of being a writer; my aspirations were to become a famous actress. My parents would sigh and point out – politely enough - my talents lay elsewhere (ie, I was rubbish). Apparently, though, I could spin a decent yarn (it wasn’t me, the pet giraffe did it, no school report this term were all firm favourites). My father had given up a successful publishing career to write a novel: perhaps I would take after him?…
I didn’t care. When I grew up I took to the boards anyway, damned if anyone was going to tell me what to do - but actually I grew sick of the insecurity and auditions pretty fast (you try being ‘witty with a Pringle crisp’ when you really just want to play Juliet at the RSC). As I began my career in TV production, a desire to write fiction flourished - thwarted by not knowing exactly what I had to say. I saw no point of writing for writing’s sake – I needed a burning tale to tell; to have lived a little more life, perhaps. I took to scribbling down everything I’d seen or heard – but despite desperate attempts to force an idea into fruition, my muse was out to lunch. I started writing articles for the broadsheets, I wrote a few short stories and a screenplay…but a book? I even had a bash on my honeymoon (well, it rained a lot in Portugal that Spring. Don’t tell my husband though, please), starting a thriller about a TV producer’s secrets - and then, eventually, I had a baby instead of a book.
Much as I loved motherhood, I was used to being a career girl, to jetting round the world (well, sometimes as far as Bradford), filming documentaries for TV. I still needed a creative outlet (and a night off from the baby), so I signed up to a Creative Writing course at Goldsmiths University. What did I want to achieve from the class, the teacher asked? Just to be able to finish a piece of fiction, I said. Oh - and to discover whether it was actually worth my while trying to write. But still I had no theme.
One dozy afternoon before the course began, blissfully gazing at my beloved sleeping son, I began to wonder how far someone unable to conceive might go to get hold of a baby of their own. It was a subject dear to my heart. Despite the shellshock that is your first-born, unlike post-natally depressed Jess in my novel motherhood was a much longed-for achievement that only brought me joy. OK, not the actual birth bit, or the sleepless nights either - but having a child of my own was beyond amazing. My husband and I had been advised IVF might be our only hope of conceiving. Falling pregnant naturally on the eve of our treatment had been an unexpected answer to our prayers.
On the writing course, I wrote a short story or three. I pondered important novelistic themes. Still I couldn’t settle on a story. Then one day, my guilty afternoon pleasure, ‘Richard and Judy’ announced their ‘Get Your Novel Published’ competition. Brilliantly simple: just enter the first chapter of your great work. Except I had started neither.
The next day, my husband and I, such hip young things, set off for our first ‘grown-up’ outing with babe in tow – an excursion to the Tate Modern. In the gallery I was indeed happy to learn that having a five-month-old baby didn’t preclude enjoying an exhibition. When he started to moan, his bored father had the perfect excuse to whisk him out so I could finish looking at the paintings. This is nice, I thought, eventually reaching the exit where I expected them to be waiting. But I’d forgotten my husband’s propensity to wander off.
I looked for him with increasing irritation. Realising he had my mobile phone and purse with him only made me more frustrated. I didn’t actually think he’d disappeared forever, but I didn’t like the troubled look the warder sneaked me when I said I’d lost my husband and he had my baby with him. Eventually I borrowed a phone and tracked them down - reunited in the most almighty row all the way home.
It was the kick-start that I needed. Publishing contract in mind, I was galvanised into writing the beginning of LULLABY for the competition. It did, in fact - at the risk of sounding trite - almost write itself. A voracious reader myself, much as I relish the classics, I love a plot-driven nail-biter too, and I married these two ideas newly pertinent to me: the fear of losing your child unexpectedly - the hideous tug of emotion I’d felt when my own son was missing for those forty minutes - with the desperation someone who could never have a baby might feel.
Somehow Richard and Judy managed to overlook my great work (the fact I’d entered alongside another 49,000 prospective novelists soothed my ego a little). But on reading it aloud to my evening class, the feedback was so positive I decided to continue. Directing TV programmes no longer seemed very viable with a baby whom I wanted to be with every day; but here was something that I could - in theory - do from home (though that’s definitely easier said than done. I spend a lot of time in local cafes with an old laptop and a cold coffee that I eke out). I realised how much I loved writing fiction, creating an imaginary world that I could escape into in my head when bills and baby-fat got me down. I wrote when the baby slept; I wrote when my husband was there to entertain him. And then I wrote like a woman possessed when I discovered I was pregnant again (I’ve always loved a deadline!) It was tight, but I finished the first draft just before baby two popped out.
It lived on the shelf for months (the book that is, not the baby) whilst I dealt with yet more sleepless nights, the joy of mastitis, the shock of two etc. The following year I dusted LULLABY off and found my marvellous agent Teresa Chris. She amazed me by selling it within seven weeks to five different countries - including the UK, where Harper Collins’ brand-new imprint Avon gave me a two-book deal.
Another book? You know what they say about the dreaded second novel… I looked out that first attempt I’d started on my rainy honeymoon. Its themes still excited me and were even quite timely: the exploitation of the emotionally vulnerable on television and the responsibility the media must take for them, plus a look at friendship when it turns sour – hence the title BAD FRIENDS. It’s definitely harder to write with two small children rather than one, but at least I know that when the 1000th episode of Teletubbies this month gets a little much, there’s a world of fictitious characters waiting somewhere off-stage to be mined.