Over the course of the years in which I’ve been a full-time professional writer, I’ve often been asked what you need to be a writer of mystery novels. Setting aside such necessities as an income ten times as much as most of us get, plentiful supplies of booze of various kinds, publishers who recognize your genius and tell the world about it, a husband (in my case) who takes care of all domestic matters, especially the ironing, leaving me free to get on with my work, yes, what do you need?
Easier to say what you don’t need.
You do not need a university degree in English literature, for a start, though it always surprises me how many people believe that you do.
You do not need to do years of research on the Troubles in Ireland or Russia during the Revolution before you can even get started on your book. I am amazed at the number of times people have told me that they are writers too, but when I show interest, or ask who their publisher is, say scornfully – as if someone like me doesn’t do any research – ‘Oh, I’m still doing the research’. Actually, I don’t mind the scorn so much; it’s the wryly superior smile that accompanies it that I loathe. Especially when somehow, I know in my bones that this is a book that isn’t going to be featuring on the shelves of WH Smith or Waterstones any time soon. Research, after all, is an enjoyable displacement activity
Nor do you need to have been reared by man-eating tigers, or marooned on a desert island for ten years (sure, you could get a book out of the experience, but would that necessarily make you a writer?) or captured by pirates and flung into the harem of some eastern potentate, as was the heroine of my first novel, A Distant Shore, based on the true story of Aimée duBucq de Rivéry, first cousin of Joséphine Bonaparte.
So what do you need?
First of all, you must have a certain amount of talent. And by talent I don’t mean tortured genius living in a garret and eating cold baked beans out of a tin – though given the advances authors are being paid these days, it may come to that. I mean a love of words and the ability to put them together in a compelling and interesting way.
You must have a zest for story-telling, and the knack of recognizing stories in the most unpromising places and the most unlikely material.
You must have an enquiring mind. You must always want to explore, push boundaries, ask yourself What if … or What happened next?
You must have stickability. Perseverance in the face of negative responses is one of the most important must-haves of them all. Many a gifted writer has given up in the face of constant rejection, whereas quite often, more mediocre writers who plug away, refusing to admit defeat, eventually succeed in getting published.
Above all, you must cultivate ruthlessness. Ruthless about domesticity – sheets don’t need ironing, there’s always a takeaway nearby or something in the freezer, kids can learn to sew on their own buttons (though as far as I can tell, the button is now almost redundant), husbands can learn to operate the dishwasher/washing machine/microwave.
Ruthlessness with friends: if they show up at my house wanting coffee at eleven in the morning, they’re not going to get it from me. Or, as one (former) friend did, if they ring up asking if you can pick up their child from school or their dog from the vet, because they’re running late, ask, as I have done, whether they would ring the friend who was a teacher or the one who worked in the library. Of course not, she said. They’re working. I rested my case. She hasn’t spoken to me since.
Ruthlessness with people who ask you to cast an eye over the book they’ve written, the story they want to enter for a competition. I’d love to be the kind of writer about whom they said, when I’ve gone to my Maker, oh, she was so encouraging to young and upcoming writers, and to a very large extent I try to be exactly that. But I firmly believe that all writers should be their own sternest critic. But I’m not a copy-editor, nor do I wish to be. I have my own work to get on with.
Do we believe that mantra proffered by Grahame Green, namely that all writers must have a chip of ice at the heart? And if we feel that we do, how do we interpret it? To me, it means that as writers, we must – in the words of another great writer: W B Yeats – cast a cold eye on life, on death. In other words, we must examine every experience, good or bad, that falls to our lot. Or to the lot of anyone else. I don’t mean that standing at a deathbed scene, we should be whipping out our note pads (another must: a notebook carried about our person at all times) and taking notes. Of course not. Not necessarily … But we must be leeches on the body politic, the body social, the body electric, the body domestic.
Someone asked me yesterday if I was still writing. Instead of a direct answer, I asked him if he was still breathing. Because that’s the point: writing is as necessary to most of us as breathing is. Cut off our feet at the ankle if you must, slice off our thumbs, but stop us writing, and you kill us.
Writing is in the blood. It’s the itch that we shall be scratching until we drop dead at the keyboard.