Thursday, February 18, 2010

Portrait of the Author as a Young Man, Part I

Lots of writers claim they know they wanted to be writers in utero. Not me. I wanted to be a nun.

Blame it on early exposure to The Sound of Music. I mean, who wouldn't want to foil Nazis while singing "Climb Every Mountain" at the top of one's lungs? When it was pointed out that being a nun wasn't gender-neutral, I flirted with monk-hood. But really, when I dissect these early career cravings, it's clear that what I fell in love with were the costumes. And, as any good American can tell you, you have Hallowe'en in which to dress up to your heart's content, without having to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

As a youth, I liked writing well enough. I just never thought of it as a career path. I borrowed shamelessly from Nancy Drew and got published as a fourth-grader in the school magazine. Later, I enjoyed writing a saga about a family in my school who were Anglo-Indian. But English classes become more the study of literature than the composition of story. And the study of literature is really the study of "critical theories," rather than a pure enjoyment of story itself. I got a first class degree by learning how to deconstruct Milton and evaluating Marxist critiques of Dickens.

I flirted with going into diplomacy, my father's profession. I even had an interview (set up by him) at Britain's spy agency. But there was no way I was going to pass the math component of the civil service exam. So I opted for two more years of postgraduate work, and then interviewed for a job teaching English in Japan.

While all this was going on, probably as an escape valve from having to think about careers and their consequences, I entered a short story competition. You had to write two stories. My first was an imagining of the poet Matthew Arnold giving up poetry for love while on a trip to Switzerland. (I was way too immersed in 19th century literature!) The second story--"Scab"-- was very short and had to do with an autistic child, whose welfare was causing his coal-miner father to work during a strike. I didn't win, but the judge's comments were encouraging. I forgot all about them, and left for Japan.

A couple of months after arriving in Japan, my parents forwarded a letter from an agent at Curtis Brown in London. Somehow--had she been one of the judges?--she'd seen my stories and was wondering if I had anything else?

Of course, I didn't. I was too busy sampling sake and crooning karaoke. I wrote her back a short note, hinting at my dissipation, and that was that. (Man, was I a twit!)

But a seed had been sown. If an agent was interested, perhaps I could write a decent sentence or two. I was 23 and the world was my (fried) oyster. In the odd moment between carousings (oh yeah, and teaching) I started to write stories. Then a woman entered my life. She would make me an offer I couldn't refuse.

But that story will have to wait for Part II...


  1. Now, if we really are to hear about the artist as a young man, I reckon we need a contributors' page! I remember this incident with a drunken Scotsman.......

  2. Keiron, old mate, thanks for reading. I've developed amnesia in my old age as to any prior embarrassing incidents. (Plus, to the tune of "It's My Party": It's my blog and I'll bowdlerize it if I want to...It could happen to you if you don't bowdlerize too.)


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