Finding the Man on the Middle Floor
Writing one’s first novel later in life can be daunting. But life enriches that ultimate novel with perspective and the chance to observe one’s foibles as well as the people round you
Article by Elizabeth Moore
I’ve been about to write a book since I was 16. I was an English prodigy at school, an annoying mix of over confidence and no confidence at all who cried a lot and had few friends. My favourite way to spend English lessons was to correct the teacher’s Chaucer pronunciation. Buoyed up by my apparent genius, I decided there and then to write the definitive novel of the 20th Century. I inscribed Oscar Wilde quotes on my bedroom walls with a calligraphy pen, and was convinced that I was the only one I knew who was indeed looking at the stars.
A miserable childhood surrounded by a family of narcissists and fantasists left me floundering and instead of taking up a place to read English at Cambridge, I got married. I’ve always been keen on direct action, and replaced a father who was 30 years older than my mother and in the wine and restaurant trade, with a husband I fell madly in love with and who was 20 years older than me also in the wine trade and I had three beautiful and clever daughters in two and half years, beating my mother’s constantly repeated lament that having three daughters under five had nearly killed her and proving that loving your children is the most wonderful thing in the world, something I had not learned growing up.
By the time I was 23 I had three children and was living in a Victorian house overlooking Wandsworth Common. The book was firmly on the back shelf although I thought about it, talked about it and regarded myself as a writer in waiting. I spent many dinner parties in my 20s surrounded by people in their 50s and the question was always, and still is, ‘When is your book coming out?’ I usually said, next month or next year, so it is well overdue. Instead I spent the next three decades gathering material for books I wasn’t writing by living at breakneck speed and carefully observing a long procession of friends and acquaintances, children and adults and trying to work out what made them tick. No one in my immediate nuclear family had been, by any stretch of the imagination, normal, so I had to guess my way through emotional encounters, or read about them, or watch my own children develop into high achieving, functional adults to get a blueprint for what loving, fair parenting could produce and by default I worked out what damage it could cause too.
There were moments I was almost there, when I nearly started to write. When my daughters started school for example, but I went to work in a three star Michelin restaurant instead, and learned what it was to be judged solely on whether you could cook as well as the person next to you, or bone a pig’s trotter, or make a pistachio soufflé or plate up perfectly. It was a lesson I needed to learn, and I always believed that however busy life became, it would always whisper to you if you listened carefully, and tell you the next step to follow and the next challenge to face. Listening to that whisper has never let me down. It turned out that I learned new and different things about life in that restaurant in Chelsea, talked to people I would never have met in my everyday life and set new limits and got rid of old habits.
I have spent the years since then undoing the damage of my childhood and early adulthood and that has made my writing, which was my first love, a product of my life experiences, rather than a profession. I am glad I didn’t write a book in my 20s. I had no perspective, and I was like an unset jelly. In fact, if you had come across me at 20, on the brink of everything from marriage to financial success and loss in love, you would have seen a tall brown haired girl, a beautiful one I suppose, who had a wolfhound on a chain, and wore polo clothes even though she didn’t play the game. That has been my life, the legacy of the childhood I lived through; dressing the part but not knowing the rules. I was lucky, I had a huge propensity for optimism, for grabbing experiences, and for loving. I have been paid back tenfold, and again that is something worth writing about.
My books, the ones I am writing now, have travelled with me through my life even though they are not physically in a book shop yet. I have stored away terrible days, births, abandonments and joys to put in their pages. I have learned perspective, and who is actually important in this world. I have been loved, and hated and I have changed many lives for the good and one or two for the bad, but from all of it I have taken lessons. This is how I came to write my novel, and while I would love to already have a stack of books in front of me with my name on the spine, there is still time, and what I write now will hopefully reflect all the wisdom you suddenly acquire after you have raised a family, realised that someone’s bank balance is no indication of who they are, loved and been loved in return, and forgiven others and been forgiven.
I find myself, the girl most unlikely to achieve happiness, happy. I have a successful business, a beautiful family, a second husband who is handsome and usually kind, a wonderful blessing of a son to add to my daughters, two Labradors and a beautiful home. I am lucky, the kind of luck that Henry Ford recognised when he said ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I have been around the block, and I have genuine love and gratitude towards all the people alive and dead who have shaped my life. That, it seems to me is a good basis for writing. Being 20 and having something to say is also a great jumping off point but the two are not mutually exclusive, surely.
I think mature first time novelists are to be celebrated in this age of the veneration of youth. We can offer wisdom, and we can take care of ourselves, our books, our characters. I thought long and hard before I chose a publisher, the wonderful Red Door, and it was a people based decision. The same went for my PR company, my agent, my editor. I have been led to all of them and in choosing which publisher to go with I have thought about Nick, the central character in my book. He is autistic and he needed someone to look after him, and his integrity. I sat with wonderful publishers who missed the point of him completely, and who couldn’t morally understand how I could write the character of a young man with Asperger’s who commits murder. I will leave you, dear reader, to get to know him, and to draw your own conclusions, but I treasure him and didn’t want anyone thinking of him like that, so that informed my choices.
I think it’s fair to say that the publishing industry moves slowly. Books are a slow business, and it is in many ways an indulgence to sit at a blank page and think you have something interesting to say, but in the sea of Amazon titles and formulaic thrillers with a suspenseful ending, perhaps it’s nice to hear from people who have lived and hurt and suffered, and lived their lives with passion, grabbing opportunities and constantly looking for the new. I love a ridiculous number of songs, paintings, people, restaurants, beaches, ice creams, foods and I adore life with a giddy, over optimistic approach that belies my beginnings.
Perspective is everything and when you come to the calmer waters of middle age, and you have been divorced and remarried and unpicked the Gordian knot of your relationship with your mother as far as you can, what you put down on paper has some depth and meaning. I could write a novel about my relationship with any one of my four children. I have learnt that girls are different to boys and that everyone comes with their own characters imprinted and ready to go. You might be able to bend them, but you can’t change that inherent personality unless you break it, and perhaps not even then.
So, that is surely what books are for. To express our humanity and our weaknesses and to celebrate our strengths. It has been a long journey and I am glad that I woke up one day and knew that it was time to write, in the same way that I am glad I did all the work on myself and gave all the love to my family when it was needed. It was and is the joy of my life. There is a pattern to everything and all I managed to find when I began the journey with Nick was one day a week to do the Faber Write a Novel course, then, when the agents who came to the reading at the end thought I could write, I found the confidence to finish a book. A novel really is the long form, it is a challenging experience to write a book, to expose yourself on a page, but it is absolutely wonderful and solitary and worth it.
My first book comes out in the spring. It has nothing to do with my family, or my upbringing, although there is a lot of me in it. It is about disconnection, the plague of our age. Physical disconnection, sexual disconnection, mental disconnection, parental disconnection and societal disconnection. It’s a thriller, and it’s a morality tale, but what it is most of all for me personally is the fulfilling of a lifelong dream. Above all, I have always wanted to be an author and I feel so lucky to have got to this point and to have a new career opening up in front of me. What a privilege. It’s been worth the wait.