Monday, 14 January 2013

From a place in the sun to the evening calm by Dennis Hamley

Part 3 of a typical writer's history.

I suppose the occasion which defined my writing career was the day of the Smarties Award ceremony in 1991.  I was amazed to have a telephone call to say that The War and Freddy was  shortlisted.  It was such a little book.  I liked it in a mild sort of way but as soon as I heard the news it grew in stature until it became a 
wartime epic, though only in my mind.


         The War and Freddy, in its latest guise 
reissued by Catnip in 2007
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So the day came and I presented myself in a rather exotic, plant-lined room at the top of the Barbican Centre.  An exciting atmosphere, full of other authors.  Jacqueline Wilson was there with the very first Tracy Beaker story.  No, that didn't win either.  Neither did Robert Westall.  Actually, I forget who did win our section.  Susan Hill was the judge.  Her tone of voice as she started talking about Freddy told me that it wasn't going to be my day and I fear I just switched off.  But the overall winner was Martin Waddell's Farmer Duck.  A picture book for younger children - but it was so obviously the best in show that one could only be happy.  So I trailed off, tail between my legs - and straight on a train to Newcastle to do a stint at the Northern Book Festival, leaving behind my first - and last - taste of greatness.

Soon after this I took a big decision.  I wasn't happy any more with the job I had loved.  The game was changing and I hated it.  And I wanted just one crack at being a full-time author.   So in April 1992 I shuffled off my contact with the formal education system and became my own master again.

I was lucky.  I had a job to go to straight away: author-consultant to the the new reading scheme, the Longman Book Project.  This was amazing because I suddenly found myself actually accepting and rejecting manuscripts.  I don't know if real editors feel as rotten as I did every time I decided against a book.  I suppose it was because I knew the effort which had gone into making it.  Anyway, it backfired on me.  There was a year 6 history slot and the poet Mick Gowar and I spent a long time putting together a joint proposal with two specimen stories.  We submitted it to the chief editor proudly and confidently.  'Can't do it,' she said.  'The slot's filled.'  'What by?' I asked indignantly.  'It's your own fault, ' she replied.  'You shouldn't have recommended that other book last week.'   

Even so, I was sorry when the job came to an end because it had been great.  But I'd started the new-look Lending Our Minds Out writing courses for primary school kids and that kept me busy.  Andre Deutsch Children's Books was morphing into Scholastic (Pam Royds, a few authors, Jan and I among them, and the nice girl in reception, all for £2m.  Cheap?  You could pay that for a Slovenian goalkeeper).

I was, however, finding it hard to start writing again.   I was saved at a Scholastic party to mark someone's leaving.  As I stood with a glass of red wine watching the world go by in the semi-darkness a disembodied voice beside me said, 'Have you ever thought of writing for Point Crime?'

Well, no, I hadn't.   I turned and saw Julia Moffatt, Point editor.   'What's that?' I asked.  'Ruth Rendell and Inspector Morse for teenagers,' she answered.

Brilliant, I thought.  I'll have some of that.  And so I did, and began a very important part of my writing life.  I started off with Death Penalty, serial murders in a professional football club, then Deadly
Music, in which a serial killer dogs the footsteps of a County Youth Orchestra (don't worry, none of the kids were killed, although two had narrow escapes).   I'd early broached the idea of a medieval mystery but Julia wasn't sure whether it would work with the readers.  But then one day, she said I could, on one condition.  I had to write about a serial killer at loose in the world of horse-racing ('a teenage Dick Francis' she said cheerfully.)  There was one stipulation: it must be called Dead Ringer.

'But I know nothing about horse-racing,' I replied.  'That hasn't stopped you before,' she said, rather cruelly I thought.  So I said I would, bought The Racegoers Encyclopedia on the way to the station and set about it.  And when it was published, a reviewer complimented me on my profound knowledge of the sport, which was rather pleasing.

'Now can I write my medieval mystery?' I asked. 'Not just one.  I want a series,' was the reply.  So Joslin de Lay was born.
                             
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The original Scholastic cover for the first of the Joslin de Lay series, with the stained glass window motif used for all of them.  Compare them with Anastasia's new covers for the Kindle version!

But I had been writing other things.  Ghost stories for Hippo.  Short stories for other publishers, for Dennis Pepper's Young Oxford collections for OUP and Tony Bradman's football collections for Transworld.  Much work for educational publishers and the beginning of a long association with Franklin Watts.  And also ambitious novels for Pam Royds,  Spirit of the Place was the first; Out of the Mouths of Babes was the second.  It was published in 1997, after Tony Blair and New Labour were elected.  It's a sort of 'state of the nation' novel tracing three people born on the same day in 1974, upper, middle and working class, whose lives intertwine in disastrous ways.   It has an amazingly gloomy end and a reviewer said, 'It's not hard to see where the author's sympathies lie.'  Was spotting it so easy?  I didn't mean it to be.  Shall I ebook it?  The jury's out.  But it's up there with the six books (counting six Joslins as one) I'm most proud of.  


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Then came Joslin, who kept me busy for four years, with gaps to slip in a short story or two and some work for Watts - and the great joy of visiting schools and libraries: a visit a week and sometimes more at its height.  I really worked as hard - and harder - than I ever had before.

And then, suddenly, in 2002, it stopped.   I thought I had noticed a slight cooling off in welcome when I went to the Scholastic offices.  Things were never quite the same after David Fickling left.  When I sent a new proposal in I had a rather curt reply saying it wasn't right for the list.  Unheard of.  And then they put the Joslins out of print.  The False Father must be close to the record for the shortest print life in history.  I had to conclude that my mainstay had gone.  

I started a novel for David Fickling.  I knew it wasn't good and he very properly rejected it.  I finished off the scraps of work for Watts.  I acquired, for the first time, an agent.  I was asked by OUP  to do the lovely job of commissioning and then editing stories for two Young Oxford collections, Trains and Mystery Stories.  And then, suddenly,  for the first time for nearly thirty years, nothing.  

In panic I looked back over old discarded work - and found the figure of Ellen in a failed World War 1 short story.  I thought about her - and suddenly she seemed right.  I'd always wanted to find a story from the First World War which could, without aping Birdsong or Regeneration, have some significance and weight.   So I started reading, researching in the Imperial War Museum and then writing - and a year later, Ellen's People was complete.  It's certainly in my personal top six.   Ellen, fifteen in 1914  and off to work as a servant in the great house nearby: nineteen in  1918, a nurse (legitimately although women weren't normally allowed near the front until they were twenty-six) in a military hospital behind the lines - and falling in love with a wounded German soldier.

In 2003, just before Christmas, I'd received the bleak telephone call from David Fickling.  A year later, almost exactly to the day, I had another call.  This time it was Jenny, my agent.  Ellen's People had been bought by Walker.  The Rolls Royce of children's publishers.  Marvellous. I was back on track.

I had left Ellen at a crucial stage in her life.  A sequel was necessary.  So I wrote Divided Loyalties and was deep in it when Ellen was published in 2006.   Now I was in the Second World War.  I'd written a lot about it before: I am a child of it.  So it is a much more complex novel, written from several viewpoints, and I intended it as my own final statement.  Finish this, I thought, and I'll shut up about it.  Well, I finished it and it was published in 2008, well reviewed and, like Ellen, ended up on a shortlist.

Sadly though, Fate took me literally about final statements.  I started a new novel to complete the trilogy, Walker put the other two out of print and, though they never said so out loud, declined to publish the third, so, discouraged, I put it to one side.  I did two little books for Evans, but now they've gone belly up  I've virtually nothing left in print and gloomy thoughts came thick and fast.


And then came Authors Electric, bringing with it freedom, opportunity and a new spring to my step.  I had a good innings in the old publishing world: time will tell whether I have one in the new.

Looking back though, I've had a great time.  And I've worked with some great editors - Pam Royds, of course, and also Anne Finnis, Julia Moffatt, Kirsty Skidmore, all at Scholastic, and Liz Cross, both at Scholastic and OUP, David Fickling, Ron Heapy at OUP, Sarah Snashall and John Miles at Franklin Watts, Caroline Royds, (keeping it in the family!) at Walker, Dennis Pepper with his Young Oxford collections and once, hilariously, by my own daughter Mary at Reed.  

And I'd like to thank all these great people who helped me make it all happen.

10 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

Dennis, Fascinating three part story of a writers life. It should serve as a reminder to us all that life is long and the path never straight or smooth. And it is Ups and downs and grim reality more often than shiny baubles. That's it's a BUSINESS as well as a 'lifestyle choice'. Being a writer is a job and who you are as a person is far more important. Writing is part of a bigger life picture and 'successes' come and go. It's good to view it from a different perspective once in a while and that's what your post does. No moaning or whining about how things take a turn for the worst or how you don't get what you deserve, just an appraisal of a life in publishing. Great stuff. It also gave me an insight into the world of children's publishing (about which I know nothing) but it's quite similar in many ways to the screenwriting world I do know. (And have retired from!)

More significantly though - you know that I think Spirit of the Place a) a great novel and b) not to be dismissed as a YA novel and so I am CHAMPING at the bit to read 'OUT OF THE MOUTHS' you MUST ebook it. PRIORITY. I have to say I'm also interested in Ellen's trilogy. We should talk when you are back from NZ about the POD opportunities that now abound. Because your work really should be back in print. I don't know the ins and outs of getting rights back but you should make it priority to get all your rights and be FREE and INDEPENDENT to then republish in whatever format (unless you're still making money out of them elsewhere of course!!!) You have a long history and a huge oeuvre and I think the opportunities exist now to at least have the work available for the interested many or few!

julia jones said...

I saved the False Father for my post Christmas reading and thoroughly enjoyed it. PLEASE don't tell me you got all those beautiful descriptions out of a gazeteer ...

(Agree with Cally about print)

CallyPhillips said...

Dennis - just discovered there are 30 of your works available in Aberdeenshire Library Services (including ellen and sequel) And that I could get hold of a paperback copy of Out of the Mouths secondhand for under £3. Now that's great but it doesn't do you much good does it? So GET PUBLISHING and then YOU can take charge of your own destiny once more. I'd rather pay YOU to read your books than someone else. But the work is OUT THERE mate. for those who choose to look!!!

Chris Longmuir said...

Fascinating post and I want to read Ellen. Please, please, put it into an ebook!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Dennis, what a brilliant inspirational post: frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. I think what shines through it is the way a real writer just writes because he or she HAS to. No matter what is going on with publishers/editors/the state of the industry, you JUST WRITE because these characters won't be denied their voices. And no matter what else is going on, THAT'S where the sheer pleasure lies! It is in so many ways (except financial) its own reward. Mind you, it's also a wonderful illustration of the pleasures and shortcomings of traditional publishing. I often think a writing career is like a giant game of snakes and ladders. Wow, here's a nice little leg up - oh, wait a minute, didn't spot that snake coming and here I am at the bottom of the board again. But when you love what you do, you don't ever give up on the writing, do you? I now want to go away and read ALL your work. I have to find another few hours in the day, I think.

Bill Kirton said...

Your industriousness exhausted me as I read. Great memoir, though. An excellent snapshot of the bewildering changes that have taken place over the years and a reassuring insight into what's happening now and confirmation that good writing is still necessary. And yes please, Ellen in ebook.

Kathleen Jones said...

A lovely post Dennis - it illustrates marvellously the ups and downs of a writers' life and all the disappointments and rejections we have to somehow get over. I suppose in the end we're just addicts! Yes, you must e-book Out of the Mouths, it sounds very timely, and of course the Ellen trilogy. Seems like you've got a lot of work to do when you come back from NZ!

Reb MacRath said...

Terrific introduction to both you and your work. My reading list for 2013 has just taken a wonderful turn.

Dennis Hamley said...

Well, thanks one and all for your great and encouraging comments. Cally, the Aberdeenshire library service sounds a fine and enlightened institution. If anyone tries to close it they'll have me to answer to. Yes, we will talk about PoD. I'm involved with a rival publishing venture, but it's looking more at limited editions for a collectors' market so I don't envisage a conflict of interest, though I must discuss it with colleagues. I've done PoD before with Solidus Press, wbich has now folded, though it provided me with a good experience. I have all rights back for everything I've published which I'd ever consider ebooking. Weirdly though, I've just had two proposals for republishing commercially the little books which have just disappeared with the demise of Evans.

Julia, thanks for buying TFF. I hope you like it. Any chance of an Amazon review? Joslins 4,5 and 6 seem to be disappearing without trace. I really must start doing something to publicise them a bit. I should learn from the great examples which surround me on AE.

Bill, Chris, Kathleen and Reb, thanks for seeing so exactly where I'm coming from. And bon voyage to NZ, Kathleen. I'll wave through the window as our planes pass in the night.

Dennis Hamley said...

Well, thanks one and all for your great and encouraging comments. Cally, the Aberdeenshire library service sounds a fine and enlightened institution. If anyone tries to close it they'll have me to answer to. Yes, we will talk about PoD. I'm involved with a rival publishing venture, but it's looking more at limited editions for a collectors' market so I don't envisage a conflict of interest, though I must discuss it with colleagues. I've done PoD before with Solidus Press, wbich has now folded, though it provided me with a good experience. I have all rights back for everything I've published which I'd ever consider ebooking. Weirdly though, I've just had two proposals for republishing commercially the little books which have just disappeared with the demise of Evans.

Julia, thanks for buying TFF. I hope you like it. Any chance of an Amazon review? Joslins 4,5 and 6 seem to be disappearing without trace. I really must start doing something to publicise them a bit. I should learn from the great examples which surround me on AE.

Bill, Chris, Kathleen and Reb, thanks for seeing so exactly where I'm coming from. And bon voyage to NZ, Kathleen. I'll wave through the window as our planes pass in the night.