My first novel, WIRE ANGEL, was ready to go by autumn 2008 and it was then that I started the laborious process of finding an agent. I Read Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and did all the right things: made a shortlist, tailored submissions to meet agents’ varying requirements, and after a few encouraging rejections (there is such a thing) worked my way through everyone relevant in the W&A Yearbook, starting at A.
February 2009, half way through C, and Bingo, an agent saying she wanted to represent me. Meeting her in her Covent Garden office was quite the most ego-boosting experience. My novel, she said, was ‘a tour de force in a quiet way’. She planned to send it to her publishing contacts, ‘starting at the top – it’s good enough.’
My agent (I had to pinch myself when I said those words) made it clear that she couldn’t make any promises of success in getting my novel a publisher. Times, she said, were incredibly difficult, with ‘silly responses from publishers saying ‘ in these credit crunch days we want something cheering’.’ Indeed some of my encouraging rejections had referred to ‘the market being too difficult to warrant taking it on’. ‘The trouble is, when everyone is so gloomy…it is even harder than usual to persuade an editor to take a risk on a new writer, even one with your talent.’
WIRE ANGEL, let me explain, is on the gloomy side. It is about the shock waves of a suicide ricocheting through the people left behind, bumping them into different relationships with each other as they struggle towards their own ways of choosing life. My agent described it as ‘a very interesting, human and undoubtedly depressing story but rewarding the reader with a very strong sense of hope and redemption at the end.’ It is a story I felt compelled to write, but was only too aware of the limits of its marketability, suicide topping the ‘What Not To Write About’ lists I’d come across.
Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, featuring survivors of suicide, won the Booker in 2007. I mentioned this in my enquiry letters, suggesting this topic is not completely unmarketable. Death by suicide rates in the UK currently hover around 22 per 100,000 population (about 5,500 deaths), making it sound reasonably uncommon until you think, that’s every year. For every death there are many more bereaved and in 1996 a Samaritans survey found that nearly one in four (that’s 15 million people!) have experienced the suicide of someone to whom they were close. This is what I aim to show in WIRE ANGEL: the suicide bomb hurtling shrapnel in all directions and hitting even those a distance away; the repercussions multiplying far beyond the event of the death. People bereaved by suicide often express feelings of isolation and stigmatization, and those I have talked to say they would seek out well written fiction on this taboo subject.
My agent did her best, and more encouraging rejections ensued. To be honest they didn’t say anything silly about needing to be cheered up, but that WIRE ANGEL wasn’t quite strong enough to take a risk on (fair enough, the next novel will be better). But I do wonder about the implication that people only want a cheery read in economic hard times. Is your choice of reading influenced by the economic climate or how much you are feeling the pinch? I can find Cheery depressing – Happy if You Know It before you know it. I do understand that suicide isn’t everyone’s top choice of subject matter, but I know I’m not the only one who appreciates a dark read that perhaps touches on their own experience, particularly if it’s tackled with a lightness of touch and a sense of the absurd. Too small a niche? Maybe, but it’s still a niche worth reaching.
Apart from anything else, I spent four years writing the thing, and after two years of trying to sell it I would still like it to be read. Writing is about communication, otherwise what’s the point? At the very least I would like my friends to read it if they want to, and I’m hoping to reach a few more people too – as you’ve got this far into my blog, this means YOU. Life has a way of taking over, but I have now finally got around to posting the opening chapters on this website and will continue to post the rest of it in chunks. If you would like the whole manuscript I can email or send a hard copy if you’ll cover the expenses (though interested publishers will not be charged!). Details on the posted work.
Meanwhile I move at a snail’s pace through my next novel with a determinedly less depressing subject. Like I say, life takes over, but hopefully there’ll be more to report soon.