I’m talking about inspiration. Who or what inspired you to write your first novel? What was the moment when you knew you could do it and would do it? When you suddenly gained the confidence to tackle something so mammoth? When your life and family and job, even if one or more of those areas was in disharmony, still pointed the way that ‘this was the hour’ to make that decision and actually begin?
I’d wanted to write ‘a book’ since I was nine. By ‘book’ I meant fiction, such as the kind of adventures my idol, Enid Blyton, wrote about. I began by writing a serial and was the only pupil to have it pinned up on the class notice-board. I remember even to this day the thrill of seeing my story on display, and a group of children clustered round, avidly reading it. Then demanding to know when they would be able to read the next episode. Oh, the stress, even for a nine-year-old!
Adult life rolled along, and my writing consisted of dozens of short stories and articles and letters, together with some editing of a couple of charity magazines. But I was no nearer to my dream of writing a novel. And if I thought about it, I was beset with fear that I wasn’t clever enough.
But the dream kept nudging me. So I decided to go on a writing course. The only possibility in Tunbridge Wells at the time (ten years ago) was one morning a week at a script-writing course put on by the Adult Education Centre. I was disappointed it was script writing. ‘You’ll learn just as much, if not more, about novel writing on that one,’ said Richard, my published friend. So I took his advice. We started with a class of about 15 with Malcolm Davidson, our tutor. He had a wonderful wry sense of humour so I wasn’t surprised he had been on the US team writing the great American sit-com, The Golden Girls. He was an excellent teacher but even so, our class dwindled rapidly to a half a dozen.
At the end of the year I had a one-to-one with him and told him my secret dream of writing a novel. He asked me if I had An Idea. I told him I had two pictures of a ship called the Orsova hanging in my sitting room, which my grandparents had bought when they sailed to Australia in 1913, thinking they were going to emigrate. I told him I didn’t know many details of their journey or their seven-year time spent in Melbourne, but had enough of my own ideas to completely fictionalise it. Then I said I wanted to intersperse it with a present-day heroine who follows in her grandparents’ footsteps.
‘That’s a parallel timeline,’ he said.
‘Do you think I’m being too ambitious for a first novel?’ I asked.
‘No,’ was his answer. ‘If you get stuck on one story you can turn to the other. And I can see you’re excited by the idea, so that’s the one to go with. You can do it.’
So I did.