Adversity is a great place for inspiration. It lends a sort of desperation, a need to create and make something good when the world seems against us. It’s not a great place to permanently live, but without experiencing it for at least a good period of time we don’t grow, survive, or scream to be heard. During adversity, we write hungry. I mean this in a spiritual way, not literally, though it can help to be physically hungry too. I often reward writing a thousand words with a latte and eight Jammie Dodgers.
When I say write hungry, I mean without a book deal. Without a literary agent. Without any sort of payment on the table. Without an audience. Without expectation. Writing that way means you can be the most honest you’ll probably ever be. True only to yourself and not to a deadline or editor. I’ve done it four times; my first four novels were written this way.
Though Maria in the Moon is my third release, it was the first book I wrote. And it was born of one of the worst times of my life, written under a shadow of uncertainty and great stress. At 36, I'd been made redundant, and my career was floundering. My writing was going nowhere. My stepdad was fighting cancer, a battle he would lose months after.
And then my family endured the worst floods in British history, those that hit Hull and other cities in June 2007. The rain water invaded homes, relentless, no prejudice for age, race or class, saturating all houses in its path. We lost our belongings and our car in a matter of hours. What we couldn’t carry upstairs got devoured by the sewage-ridden deluge. The next day the house reeked. We didn’t let the kids see. We rented a place in the region, a place I hated because of why we were there.
Worse still, three weeks later my seven-year-old daughter Katy was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. I’d just got a new job in travel and I immediately gave it up again to care for her. She deserved me at her side after all we’d been through as a family. As she adapted, and while she was at school, I began writing. I’d written a column for my local newspaper for the last six years but had known for some time that I was ready to write something bigger. I just didn’t know what.
Now it came to me. At a rickety metal desk that my husband had fashioned for me when ours drowned in the floods, and with workmen banging away on the streets, rebuilding our town, I typed and typed and typed. At that point, I wasn’t thinking of publication, only of getting the words out. Only of how writing helped me process all that was going on. I had in my head a woman called Catherine-Maria, who had also been flooded. I realised that, for her, the water was flushing out not only the physical, but the emotional. Her memories. Her past. A buried trauma.
Recently I’d given up my voluntary role at the Samaritans – I felt I couldn’t take on the weight of so many tragic stories while I was living my own – and so in the novel I created a fictional place, Flood Crisis, and used my own experience of the phone calls I’d taken to make it as real as possible. Catherine volunteers here and meets Christopher, a man who is integral in helping her remember.
By the time I'd finished Maria in the Moon we had returned to our now beautifully rebuilt home. Everything seemed to shine. The new polished floors, the perfect walls, the marble fireplace, the crisp, white kitchen. But I knew what pain it had taken to get to this point. I didn't know then that it would take even more work for my novel to find her place in the world.
I put it aside for a while and came back to it a few months later. It was painful to read. Brought back the dark place I’d been in when creating it. But I got goosebumps; felt sure I’d written something special. I worked some more on it, edited harshly, and then dared to send it out in 2008. Rejection after rejection after rejection came in waves, like the flood. I cried. Then I didn’t. Then I started another book. That was rejected by everyone too. But my hunger grew. A lovely agent took a chance on me in 2012, but couldn’t sell either novels. Then she retired. I wrote two more.
In 2015 Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books bought How to be Brave. I'll never forget the moment. The hour. The day.
So, although Maria in the Moon is my third with Orenda Books, it feels very much like a first. Feels very fated, especially since its release has been around the 10-year anniversary of the floods. I think if I'd known back then how long it would take, I might have faltered. People often ask me how I carried on each time every one of my books got rejected. How I didn't give up after the second book, the third, the fourth. Would I have written a fifth with no deal? I didn't give up because I knew if I did there would be zero chance of publication, while if I carried on there was still some chance.
And because I was hungry.
Now no matter what happens, no matter how many more books I write, or how much success I do or don’t have, I’ll never forget that hunger. That rickety desk that squeaked every time I typed, the frustration at each rejection, the loneliness while being at home, the constant hammering and drilling as my world got rebuilt. Because I created something I’ll never quite create again. Something that reminds me of what I went though, and whispers to me that I survived.
And PS, yes, I would have written a fifth novel without a book deal. And a sixth. And probably a seventh...