Today we’re joined by the brilliant Livi Michael who explains how her upbringing influenced her first novel, the difficulties of combining motherhood with writing, and how overwhelming it was to get published for the first time.
Her new novel Accession, the final in her critically acclaimed War of the Roses trilogy, will be published on August 4th.
Over to you, Livi…!
Thank you for asking about my first novel – it’s lovely to write about it after so long!
Under a Thin Moon is based on the council estate on which I grew up. It became a ‘sink’ estate and no-go area, famous for unemployment, violence and drug abuse. The tower block in which I lived had initially won an award, in the sixties, when these architectural developments were seen as beacons of hope for the working classes. They were otherwise condemned to slum housing with no bathrooms etc. But as unemployment increased during the Thatcher years the tower block estates became places where people who could not be housed elsewhere were placed. This particular estate was rife with gangs, drug-users, people newly-released from prison. There was even a short documentary made about it by a director from World in Action, and featuring Yours Truly!
Eventually the estate was sold off and many people were evicted, some of them becoming homeless – a topic I returned to in my third novel, All the Dark Air. But in Under a Thin Moon I was primarily interested in the effects of such housing on mental health. Many people found it a depressing novel, but very occasionally I still receive communications about it from people still living on such estates and they seem to be comforted by it
My first novel took me six years to write, and it isn’t even very long! But during the course of writing it I had a child, went to university as a mature student, and worked at several jobs to support myself. I think life invariably intervenes with the writing process, especially domestic life. It’s very difficult to combine motherhood with writing. My son was once asked at school to draw a picture of his family, and there I was, at a table with my typewriter! This is probably all he remembers of me in his early years!
For years I tried to fit writing in around all my other activities, and longed for the day when this would not be true. I’m not sure that this ever happens, although I can say that gradually writing became my main work. But this comes with a whole range of related activities such as teaching, writing articles, communicating on social media etc. All I can say now is that life itself interrupts the writing process, but it also, of course, provides all the material!
I doubted myself all the time and still do – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. But I think that writing comes from somewhere other than the conscious mind with its worries and questions and doubts. In this other place writing becomes a compulsion that drives the writer on.
Trying not to sound like a heroin addict now! But really there is something addictive about the process. If there wasn’t I don’t think many books would get written.
Over the years I have learned to be less critical of my first drafts – which are always terrible. So I do now have a kind of faith that I can work through these to something better. I think the critical side of the brain stops a lot of people from writing – it’s always there, like a giant monitor, telling you that what you do isn’t worth it, it’s no good, and no one will want to read it. If you can possibly learn to switch it off or ignore it, it will be the best thing you ever do.
I sent my first novel off to four different agents who promptly sent it back. But at that time I was attending a writing group, and someone in it told me that the Scottish writer, James Kelman, had set up his own agent in Scotland, and this agent might be interested in work exploring the grim realities of life outside London! So I sent Thin Moon to her and she accepted it right away. And that same week it was accepted simultaneously by two major firms, Secker & Warburg and Jonathan Cape!
I have never experienced anything like this first acceptance. I remember shouting incoherently to my husband and son in the kitchen while I was still on the phone! It was overwhelming. I couldn’t think about anything else for about three months, and each time I tried to get to sleep my heart would start banging and I would wake up again. All I could think was, ‘It’s true, it’s really true!’ Because until that time I’d had no real evidence that my dream of being a published writer would ever materialise.
My agent was Cathie Thompson, and she did not remain in the business very long. But a couple of years ago she came to a reading I gave in Manchester and now we’re friends.
It’s a funny old world!
Now, of course at that time I imagined I’d arrived in the writing world – this was it. Whereas in fact what I had was two thousand pounds, before deductions, and a commission to write another novel.
I had such a lot to learn about the whole process of publication. Most writers in fact never generate anything other than a supplementary income from writing – the average is still around £5000 a year according to the surveys. Although in fact there was a period of around nine years when I did manage to live off writing-related income. Partly this was because I was writing books for children and young adults, and visiting schools etc., and partly because I had decided that I could live off less money than most people seemed to require (see above, about impoverished upbringing!). I loved being a full time writer and I do think my writing improved as a result. But I have learned over the years that I can’t depend on the publishing world, which has gone through various upheavals since I was first published in 1992. The change from small publishing houses to multi-international corporations, for instance, and the internet. So now I just feel lucky to have been published consistently for the past 24 years, through a period of epic change!
I write first thing in the morning, following the advice of Dorothea Brande in On Becoming a Writer – which is very old now but still one of the best books on the subject. Write before you do anything else, and before your critical brain is fully awake.
This might only be for an hour or so if I’m teaching that day. But on a non-teaching day I will put in six or seven hours. I am a firm believer in the regularity of the habit rather than the quantity of work produced. If you produce only a paragraph in the course of a day it is still better than producing nothing, and just thinking about your novel when you can.
Also I am lucky enough to have a study, which used to be my younger son’s bedroom when he was small (see picture). I am still attached, however, to writing by hand and will frequently write in bed, on first waking. I finished all the research for my historical trilogy, and the first draft of Succession, in bed, waking at around 4.00 and just writing in notebooks. I have a shelf wardrobe in my bedroom which is full, floor to ceiling of my notes for the Succession trilogy!
Apart from being published the first time, the moment when Succession was accepted was my greatest highlight. I had felt an absolute compulsion to write this novel and its sequels, though it meant leaving behind my work as a YA author and living off very little for nine years! I had no idea whether anyone would accept it, and in fact my agent at that time turned it down. So I had to begin the process of looking for another agent all over again. Then when I found one the book was accepted a few weeks later by Penguin Random House. This felt almost as good as having my first novel accepted, though my editor did want me to undertake some re-writing, and she said that she would not publish a trilogy. So I tried to fit all my material into two books and failed. In the end I wrote my trilogy, while investigating ways of publishing the third book myself. So I was delighted all over again when she accepted Accession.
My advice would be to be patient, with yourself as well as the publishing world, and don’t try to second-guess any trends – you can’t possibly write fast enough to produce the latest dystopia before dystopias are no longer in fashion! I have always found that writing what I really want to write has produced results. It has not made me rich or famous, but each time I have written about something I have loved, I have found someone else who has loved it enough to publish it.
Many thanks for featuring my words on your blog!
Livi Michael 2016