A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I’m here to sing the praises of having a day job. I signed my first book deal in 2006, and for much of the time that has passed since, writing was my sole means of earning a living. Seven years of lying on a sofa with a laptop was mostly great (apart from the chronic neck pain) but after a while it got stale.
Astonishing financial instability isn’t the only reason to question the virtue of writing full time. The fact is, it’s easy to turn into a bit of a monster. As an author, your professional encounters with other humans are distorted. Either everyone is lovely to you (staff at your own publishing house) or you are hideously humiliated (so many, many authors have been asked not to sign copies of their own books in a shop “in case we have to send them back”). Writing full time, even if you have a busy family life, as I do, offers few opportunities to interact with other people normally, or not on a professional basis, at least. That, in the end, was what I came to miss.
About a year ago, I persuaded my local independent bookshop to give me a job two days a week. We sell new, second-hand, antiquarian and specialist books from a converted barn deep within the Welsh borders, and we have a range of art exhibitions throughout the year. I love the social side of my job, and will admit to spending quite a lot of my earnings upstairs in the history section of the shop – there’s no question that it’s helped with the research for my current WIP, which is set between London and in Cornwall in 1816.
One of our major events at the bookshop is an annual map exhibition. We have rare maps of our local area and people come from miles around to see and to buy them, some travelling impressive distances. This year, the exhibition opens on April 30th, and planning is well underway. A few days ago, bookshop owners Sarah and Sheridan Swinson called me over. First, Sarah told me that a book-dealing friend of theirs had found a diary written in 1812 by an English prisoner-of-war held by the French. Research gold had just fallen into my lap – I haven’t read the diaries yet, but once I’ve finished this round of edits I will, and there will surely be some nugget of information that helps to pin up that crucial veneer of truth. Then, “Look at this,” Sheridan said. “You might find it interesting.” He unfolded an old, yellowed map of London. A map published in 1816. (I’m sorry that the photo is upside-down – I’m not known for my technical abilities…)
Thanks to my day job, I now know exactly how much it would cost my characters to travel from Berkeley Square to Whitechapel. I’ve read a lot of history in the course of writing this book, but somehow seeing a map held and used by a real person in 1816 made me see for the first time how small London was then, how many green spaces there still were.
But not everyone’s day job is going to feed with such jammy perfection into their writing. In actual fact, it doesn’t need to. Authors are essentially people watchers. We are all nothing more than so many David Attenboroughs, narrating the human story. To do that consistently well, it helps to be among people beyond the sphere of one’s own family and friends – all sorts of people. Otherwise we run the risk of writing a novel about writing a novel (I’m naming no names, Ian McEwan. Oops).
Not everyone’s going to agree with me, I know. Writing full time might work for you at the moment, or it might be a dream that you cherish, or maybe you love Atonement and I’m a philistine for thinking Ian needed to get out more when he wrote it, but having another job alongside the business of telling stories is what works for me.
If you’re interested in rare maps and fancy a visit to the Welsh Borders near the end of the month or into May, please come down to the shop. We have good coffee and home-made cake, and books, too, of course – more than 50,000 of them at the last count. All that’s left now is to wish you all good luck and a fair wind on your own writing adventure, whichever path you take…