A scene from Starbucks in England

A friend told me this anecdote the other day, and it’s plausibly brilliant.

SCENE: a Starbucks somewhere in England, soon after the coffee chain started asking for people’s names when they order coffee. It’s fair to say this innovation has not sat well with the English. A line of people are waiting to order coffee.

CUSTOMER: A latte, please

SERVER: Certainly. Can I have your name, please?

SERVER holds market pen over cardboard cup. CUSTOMER squirms uncomfortably. There is tension in the queue, broken only by a voice from its rear.

UNKNOWN CUSTOMER: Don’t tell him, Pike.


A lovely day on the Estuary

Anyone who’s read my books will know I have a bad case of the Thames. It’s a very particular strain of the disease, too. You can keep your picturesque stretches alongside the Houses of Parliament, or your genteel meanderings around Kew and Chiswick. No, for me, the real river is wide and grey and ugly and starts at Tower Bridge. It winds up and down and east and west before opening out into the immense skies of the Estuary. Give me Canvey Island over Chelsea, Sheerness over Sheen, any day of the week.

So last week it was an enormous pleasure to board a ship and travel down from Tower Bridge and out into the North Sea and back, via Gravesend, Southend and Sheerness; to sail over the great naval mustering point at the Nore, to see the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery peaking above the waves, and, most of all, to witness the same sunset skies heading back into town as must have once enraptured Turner.

Here’s some pictures from the journey – the first of which I claim no credit for. But I did want to show you the beautiful vessel on which we sailed, and I didn’t get a decent picture myself.

Click on any of the pics to open a nice big gallery viewer.


Helen Lewis on Lena Dunham

Helen Lewis is a fantastic writer, and this piece on Lena Dunham is brilliant on the media and celebrity as public performance. This was the key paragraph for me:

As with Mad Men before it, Girls holds an importance for columnists and writers of trend pieces which far outstrips its reach. The third-series premiere in January was watched by 1.1 million viewers in America. (To put that in perspective, the Christmas special of the BBC’s cross-dressing Irish sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys was watched by 9.4 million. And when did you ever read a think-piece about Mrs Brown’s Boys?)

via New Statesman | Lena Dunham is not real.

When did you last read a think-piece on Mrs Brown’s Boys? And isn’t the absence of such things a telling error of the middle-class-captured-media?

Setting the stage for a new book

My fourth book has gone to my agent, and I’m starting to lay the foundations for the fifth. This one will be entirely different. The first four books form a series, telling the tale of constable Charles Horton and his strange encounters with crime and detection and all sorts of very odd stuff in early 19th century London and beyond.

(As an aside, the American academic Miriam Burnstein’s written really perceptive practical criticisms of the first three books, which explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to do. Honestly, it’s like she’s opened the top of my head, Locke & Key-style).

The next one isn’t like that. It’s going to be historical fiction, but without the weird stuff and without the crime. Well, it will have crime in it, but of a political kind. And no, I’m not saying anymore right now.

I’m knee-deep in research at the moment, but while I’m walking the dog and pondering the book I’m thinking about how to tell this story. What’s the point of view? What’s the voice? Is it a Babel of viewpoints, or is it a single voice? So far, all my books have had multiple viewpoints, and I’m leaning very much towards trying just one.

But even if that decision is made, what kind of viewpoint will it be? First-person or third-person? Reliable or unreliable? Contemporary or historical? Self-aware or deluded? Etc etc etc.

Two works of art are very much on my mind while I think about these things. The first is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which I finished very recently and which is quite remarkable. The level of skill shown by the author is mesmerising, not least because it’s the least showy book I’ve read in a very long time. ‘If it looks like writing, I cut it out,’ Elmore Leonard said, and there’s something of that in Atkinson’s writing too. But the apparent simplicity belies a narrative sophistication and control which I’ve been thinking about ever since.

The other work of art is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sort of. This morning, a friend of mine linked to Steven Soderbergh’s site. I’m an enormous fan of Soderbergh – I admire his skill and his talent, but I also admire his commitment to art and his absolute integrity. If you’ve never read his speech on the state of modern cinema – and why he stopped making films – you really should.  On his site, he talks about something he calls staging:

I’m assuming the phrase “staging” came out of the theatre world, but it’s equally at home (and useful) in the movie world, since the term (roughly defined) refers to how all the various elements of a given scene or piece are aligned, arranged, and coordinated. In movies the role of editing adds something unique: the opportunity to extend and/or expand a visual (or narrative) idea to the limits of one’s imagination—a crazy idea that works today is tomorrow’s normal.

How does he illustrate what he means? Through the brazen method of taking Raiders of the Lost Ark, removing all the audio track, replacing it with a really awful stock EDM thing, and changing it to black and white. The result is startling – you notice, for the first time, the staging. The arrangement of the actors, the lighting, the perspectives, the relationship between the frame and what comes into it from outside. It’s really fascinating. Take a look.

So now, I’m not thinking about voice and point-of-view. I’m thinking about staging. Because how a scene is ‘aligned, arranged, and coordinated’ is exactly the nut I’m trying to loosen. Trust Soderbergh to give me an interesting tool to go at it with.

Bloody Good Reads: The Undertaker’s Daughter

About halfway through Kate Mayfield’s beautiful memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter I asked myself: have I ever read a memoir before? I’ve read autobiographies, of course, and although there’s no ISO definition to delineate memoir from autobiography it would surely have to distinguish between the celebrity that makes us want to buy an autobiography from the voice that makes us want to read a memoir. Reading this lovely book, I came to the conclusion that I have read memoirs, only they’ve been fictional ones. To Kill a Mockingbird is a memoir. So is Catch 22. So are several of Dickens’s novels. It’s just that, to a greater or lesser extent, their stories are made-up ones.

And it helped, in many ways, to think of The Undertaker’s Daughter as a novel, because for this experience of a genuine memoir I was in the decidedly odd position of knowing the author. I met Kate on a trip to Hogarth’s House in Chiswick some years ago, and she is (I hope she won’t mind me saying) a very striking person to meet, particularly in that odd little residence by the side of the A4. She is always exquisitely turned out, she is always smiling, and she speaks with a soft Southern accent as warm as hot chocolate. And she has always been generous and kind to me. So take what I am about to say here as you will, but it is honestly meant.

Kate Mayfield grew up in a funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, and The Undertaker’s Daughter tells the tale of that growing up. It also, in its way, tells the tale of America’s civil rights movement, but those words are never used, because it is the experience of a white child becoming a white woman in a still-segregated community that is the tale here. Kate’s father, the undertaker, was a complicated man and also a fantastically hard-working and focussed one, and his alignment with one of the grandes dames of Kentucky is one of the narratives that drives the book along. The stories are full of hairdressing and gowns and big cars and card games and gossip, and like a very good period novel, The Undertaker’s Daughter drops us into 1960s Kentucky until we can smell the gardenias in the air and feel the hairspray on our faces.

But that isn’t what makes this book exceptional. What makes it exceptional are its secrets, which unfurl with terrible deliberation – Kate’s secrets, her father’s secrets, the secrets of any family but particularly a family such as this, one with access to the darkest moments in people’s lives, and one which lives in such an oddly heightened position in the community. This is where my experience of the book may differ from yours because, as I said, I know Kate. So some of the revelations in this book hit me in a different way to how they would hit a stranger. I found myself admiring Kate’s bravery and her insistence on being truthful.

And more than anything, I admired the writing, which is exquisite. The pacing of the book (those unfolding secrets, again), but also the poetry of the words. And in between each chapter, Kate has inserted a little story, collectively called In Memoriam, of a single death in Kentucky. Over the course of the book, the dead and the ones they left behind fill the pages, until Kentucky is paradoxically alive with these people and their stories. I still feel, weeks after finishing the book by the banks of the Loire, that I could step out of my front door and out onto the streets of Kentucky, and watch Frank Mayfield drive past in his Henney-Packard ambulance, old lady Miss Agnes sitting in the seat beside him dressed entirely in red, and everyone looking up as they go by.

The mysteries of the dead

This story cross-posted from Medium – you can read it there if you’d prefer.

Stories, history, evidence and fable fill the little patch of London earth called ‘Cross Bones’

There is a patch of bare ground in the London borough of Southwark, on the corner of Redcross Way and Union Street. It is behind a pair of gates which must have looked terribly ordinary when they were first erected, but are now hung with a motley collection of notes, drawings, flowers and hand-made objects.

The ground behind the gates looks like any one of thousands of unoccupied spaces in London, another lacuna in the planning process, a piece of dead space represented by a piece of ignored paper in a dusty council office somewhere or other.

But this dead space is here because it has been filled with something else; it’s been filled with a story.

This is the last remaining piece of the old burial ground which at some point in the past three hundred years became known as Cross Bones. London is pockmarked with these little dead spaces – they are dead both literally and figuratively.

But Cross Bones is different, because here, people say, was a burial ground for prostitutes, the old Winchester Geese as they were once known. These messages on the gates are for those unnamed women, and a great many of them are from modern women wishing to pay homage to the awful existences of so many who went before them.

When I started writing my third novel, its title was Cross Bones, and the story began here at this oddly resonant little space. It opened with a young woman watching the burial of an infant, while she herself was watched by another, older, woman, who then led her away.

It was a conscious reimagining of the opening chapter of Great Expectations, but with female rather than male characters. It was to set up the rest of the book, which would be about the awful crimes visited upon women by Regency men – by mad-doctors, by magistrates and most of all by wealthy men pursuing lives of selfish pleasures.

But history’s stories don’t stay in one place. They slip around in your hands like a fish pulled from a stream. When I started doing my research, the picture changed. So much so that I became less comfortable with Cross Bones’ position at the heart of the novel. The title became Savage Magic and though the themes remained the same, the places changed in order and priority.

Was Cross Bones actually a burial ground for ‘single women’, in the old euphemism? Was there any evidence for this?

I learned that there is quite an industry that has built up around the story of Cross Bones; its evocative past has conjured poems, stories, walks, talks, campaigns and books. But what is all this built upon?

Very little, it turns out. But sometimes, very little is all you need.

Documentary research

Part of Cross Bones was excavated in 1992 as part of the London Underground Jubilee Line extension – the excavation is documented in a Museum of London Archaeology Service monograph, and there’s also data on the Museum of London’s own website.

As is the way of these things, the archaeologists were only able to dig where the existing buildings and the planned redevelopments allowed them to dig. The Jubilee Line needed a new electricity sub-station, and it was going to sit within part of Cross Bones. The area excavated was 35.7m by 19.1m, and the archaeologists dug down to 3.1m – which, as it turns out, is not very far at all.

Only the bodies in this area were disturbed. The rest are still there.

Before they began digging, the archaeologists did their desk research and checked the documented history of Cross Bones. There isn’t much of this. It was known from these sources that the site was an ‘additional burial ground’ for the church of St Saviours (which is now Southwark Cathedral). This ground was never consecrated.

When Southwark Priory was dissolved in October 1539, the ancient parishes of St Mary Magdalen and St Margaret were merged to form a new parish: St Saviour’s Southwark. The new parish was between London Bridge and Lambeth Marsh, and was surrounded by the parishes of St Olave’s to the east, Christchurch to the west and St Thomas’s and St George’s to the south.

St Saviour’s Parish contained seven burial grounds in the 19th century, only three of which were operated by the parish authorities. These were: the churchyard of St Saviour’s; the St Saviour’s Almshouse burial ground in Park Street; and Cross Bones.

The non-parish burial grounds were Deadman’s Place on Park Street, probably once a plague ground; the Baptist burial ground in Bandy Leg Walk, now part of Southwark Bridge Road; and two Quaker burial grounds, one on Ewer Street and one on O’Meara Street.

The Museum of London archaeologists noted in their monograph that Cross Bones had a ‘long-established tradition’ as a burial ground for ‘single women’ – the euphemism for prostitutes – who worked the stews of Bankside. John Stow, in his Survey of London of 1598, says as much, as does a book, The Annals of St Mary Overy, from 1833, which talks of ‘an unconsecrated burial ground known as the Cross Bones at the corner of Redcross Street, formerly called the Single Woman’s burial ground, which is said to have been used for this purpose’.

The trouble is, there’s no other real evidence for this. These are the only sources the archaeologists mention. The story may just be a result of the burial ground remaining unconsecrated, which is bound to get imaginative hearts pumping. But, say the Museum archaeologists, this may just have been a legal matter. The land was held on a lease from the Bishop of Winchester, and it was customary only to consecrate freehold land.

What is pretty clear is that by the early 19th century Cross Bones was the parish poor ground – the place where the church buried anyone not rich enough to pay for their own funeral. A plain coffin was provided without ceremony, and people would “sell their beds from under them sooner than have any parish funerals”, according to the secretary of one burial society. Bodysnatchers plagued these parish poor grounds such that iron railings had to be put up and even the coffins themselves made stronger. The resurrection men made pretty free with the dead of the Borough.

Cross Bones was a parish poor ground in a very poor parish. The population of St Saviours parish at the start of the 19th century was just under 16,000. In the liberty of the Clink (one of the three sub-divisions of the Parish) most of the properties were held on only lifelong leases, an enormous disincentive to development and maintenance which led to the place becoming a slum. Once again, leaseholds dictated the people’s stories. It cost a penny a night to stay in a lodging house, and there might be 20 people to a room. The old wooden houses on Ewer Street were livid with vermin. Water was taken directly out of the river, and infants were fed ‘pap’ – a mixture of flour or breadcrumbs mixed with this water. Infection, unsurprisingly, was rife and wide-ranging.

The skeletons

These, then, were the poor people buried in Cross Bones. In 1992, the archaeologists took 148 skeletons buried over 10-30 years in the mid-19th century out of the Cross Bones ground. The awful truth, to modern eyes, is this – fifty of these skeletons are perinatal. They are the bodies of stillborn babies or babies who died a few weeks after their birth. Another 17 of them are of children who died aged under a year. In total, a hundred skeletons, or two-thirds of the total, were of children aged 11 or under.

These numbers are high, even for London; almost twice as high as a similar dig at St Bride’s on the other side of the Thames. As I did my research, I noted another fact; that there were more adult women than adult men buried in Cross Bones. Almost twice as many, in fact. Might this be a statistical proof of an awful fact? Might it demonstrate that prostitutes buried their poor dead children in Cross Bones, before they themselves were laid to rest in the same soil?

But one needs to be careful around stories like that, and thankfully archaeologists are a good deal more careful than novelists. It may just be that proportions like these are properly reflective of a very poor area like Borough and Bankside. Or, more likely, it may just be the nature of the excavation and where the archaeologists were able to dig.

This is not a control group, remember. There may be more adult females than adult men overall – but the absolute numbers are 27 females to 12 men. It might just have been an accidental result of the part of the burial ground where the archaeologists chose to dig.

As for the overall high percentage of young bodies in Cross Bones – there is a grim explanation. London burial grounds were either large pits kept open until they were full, or a series of stacks kept open in the same way. Either way, children and babies tended to be squeezed in at the top, as the most efficient use of space. When I heard this, I couldn’t not think about stuffing socks down into an overfull suitcase.

And because the archaeologists did not dig all the way down to the bottom of these stacks in Cross Bones, the proportion of children was greater. The further down they might have dug, the higher the proportion of adults there might have been.

More than half of the dead children had some form of infection. In the adult bodies there were cases of syphilis, ear and sinus infections, many teeth had decay, and there was a good deal of trauma to bones and joints. There was evidence of rickets in adults and children, indicating a lack of sunlight. Many of the children had iron deficiencies. When the archaeologists examined the vertebrate bones of the adult males and females in Cross Bones, they discovered signs that almost all of them were engaged in heavy work from a very young age: heavy enough and young enough for the signs to have survived a century and a half of burial.

Only three of the bodies had clothing on them that had survived the years. One adult had a pair of boots, the remains of some trousers and a shirt.

Two children had the remands of a shroud; one of them had on a pair of knitted booties.

The end

By the 1830s, Cross Bones was full, according to the vestry committee. The committee said deeper graves should be buried and older bodies put into them; there was even a proposal to raise the burial ground. It was a pattern repeated across Southwark and the whole of London. As the problem of overcrowding got worse, bodies stored in the ‘dead house’ or ‘bone house’ might be left for days rather than just overnight; there is even a story of a woman being left there who was not actually dead.

Cross Bones finally closed in 1853, when a handful of acres were taken in the Brookwood Cemetery founded by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. From that point, pauper burials were transmitted by the Burial Board of St Saviour’s to the Necropolis station at Waterloo, to be taken by train to Brookwood. Two mourners were allowed to attend the burial of each pauper body, to accompany the body from Waterloo and to return. In third-class carriages, of course. The fee charged by the Burial Board was 14 shillings (including the return train tickets) for any deceased aged over 10 years. The cost for under-10s was 10 shillings. You can still see the remnants of the old Necropolis station if you stand under the arches behind the C.P. Hart bath and shower showroom in Waterloo. If you bought your shower from there, imagine those trains full of the dead pulling away only metres above where you first saw it.

Cross Bones was sold as a building site for development in 1883, but this sale was declared null and void under the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884. Under this Act, construction was only permitted on graveyards if it was an extension to a place of worship. Cross Bones has occupied a strange empty bureaucratic limbo ever since – at least, until the Jubilee Line came along.

But the history of Cross Bones – the popular history – won’t go away. The archaeologists did not dig more than a small proportion of the area; by some estimates, only 1% (which suggests there may be almost 15,000 bodies down there, an extraordinary prospect). And it’s clear that the bulk of these burials took place during and after the population explosion of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But that last detail of the dead – that pair of knitted booties on the skeleton of an infant – shows the power of such images to us. The archaeologists make their careful analysis, file their neutral reports, and cull the narratives they can from sketchy reports. All we are left with is this: no real documentary evidence for Cross Bones having been a ‘single women’s’ burial ground exists, and no archaeological evidence either. What we see is only evidence of hard, even appalling lives.

What was there before this early Victorian burial ground the archaeologists inspected? The documents don’t tell us. The archaeology we have been allowed to conduct doesn’t tell us. All we are left with is fragments, and our own dangerous imaginations.

I will admit to feeling some personal discomfort with the retelling of the Cross Bones story – with its capture by modern storytellers and polemicists. But they are only filling a void, and an evocative and possibly tragic one at that. All we can say is that ordinary people – labourers as much as prostitutes – lived lives of unimaginable cruelty. We honour them, in our own strange way, by telling stories about them, even if these stories might turn out to only be well-intentioned lies.

Bloody Good Reads: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Sometimes, you swallow a book down whole, like a cold beer on a hot beach. It’s sharp and immediate and it goes straight to your brain, freezing it and stimulating it at the same time.

Other times, the book swallows you. You open it at the first page and then, some days or weeks later, you find yourself climbing back out of it again, wondering how you got on with other things – eating, working, sleeping, existing – while this book held your head in its mouth and wouldn’t let go.

The Country of Ice Cream Star is one of those latter books. It’s big (such books tend to be big, which is why I like big books) and it’s brave and it’s fearless and it’s extraordinary. It’s set in a future of unspecified distance, where an unspecified outbreak of a half-named disease has wiped out all of white America, leaving only blacks and Hispanics – and killing even them when they approach the age of 20. The whites that are left are called ‘roos’ and are seemingly invaders who are impervious to the disease.

So far, so dystopian. We’ve seen this movie before. But yet, we haven’t. Because this story is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who calls herself Ice Cream Star. She’s a Sengle. We don’t know why her group are called Sengles, or why she’s called Ice Cream Star. She isn’t going to tell us that. She is going to tell us what happens to her, though, and she’s going to use her own language to do it, a new kind of pidgin English which is part street slang and part something else, something fashioned by children who are having to govern themselves in the face of inbuilt and imminent obsolescence. They have no cultural markers, no books to read or songs to quote. They have only their own stories and their own voices.

And Ice Cream Star’s voice is so unique, so powerful, so poetic that the dystopian vision becomes secondary to her own incendiary genius. The journey she takes is long (600 pages long) and extraordinary and at times we flounder in the face of this strange dialect. At other times it takes us over, until Ice Cream Star’s voice is clear in our heads. As a feat of creative control and stamina, it’s nothing less than breathtaking. Holden Caulfield has a powerful voice, and his own hip vernacular, but Holden Caulfield is no Ice Cream Star. If you don’t finish the book more than a little in love with her, there’s something missing from your humanity.

I only know Sandra Newman, the woman who wrote this amazing book, via Twitter. But by God, she was touched by something miraculous when she wrote The Country of Ice Cream Star. It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve read since, I think, Infinite Jest, and that’s not a bad comparison in some ways. Both books can infuriate. Both books could knock down a horse if thrown at its head. And both books contain gigantic worlds and unforgettable poetry.

If you want a big book to swallow you up, and if you want to meet an extraordinary young woman whom you won’t ever forget, read The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gratty for reading; these words is bone.


Savage Magic – cover reveal

Simon and Schuster have just revealed the cover for Savage Magic – and I am absolutely thrilled with it. Out on August 28th.


The Madhouse Open to the Sky

With just over a month to go until the publication of my third novel, Savage Magic, here’s a taster: a film shot by my brother Phil Shepherd with me reading from the book over the top of it.

In this segment, Aaron Graham, the senior magistrate of Bow Street (who appeared in my first two books as well) is pondering his life as a resident of Great Queen Street, on the fringes of Covent Garden, as he wanders towards a certain pub to meet a certain pimp to discuss the activities of a certain group of reprobates known only as the Sybarites….

Aversion Therapy with the Authors’ Club

The Authors’ Club were kind enough to invite me to give a talk at their monthly lunch about my books and my writing. I took the somewhat self-indulgent and meta route of talking about talking about writing. If you read the below, you’ll see what I mean.

Hello, and thank you Sunny and everyone here for inviting me to speak to you.

But I won’t pretend this is going to be easy. In fact, this is a session of aversion therapy for me. Because I am going to speak – DEEP BREATH – about me and my – SWALLOW – writing!

Groucho Marx, as everyone knows, said he’d never join a club that would have him as a member, and thus inevitably ended up posthumously donating his name to a club.

Today is the opposite of that for me. Because here I am, at the Authors’ Club. A club of authors.

Talking about myself.

Talking about being an author.

My teenage self has just roused himself from the floor, where he was listening to heavy metal and dreaming about Kate Locke and her amazingly tight jeans, and given his future self a round of applause.

But why should this be aversion therapy?

Anyone who’s ever seen me talk about ‘being an author’ will know that I have had a profound aversion to it ever since my first book was published in 2011. Not to talking about myself – oh no, I can gladly bang on about that for hours. But when it comes to talking about writing, I’ve encountered an insurmountably English diffidence.

So, you’re all here to help me with this desperate affliction. I want to talk about being an author.

Why do I want this?

Firstly this: not wanting to talk about being an author has the unwelcome, and entirely unsought, side-effect of making said author sound like an arrogant scoundrel. I learned this, actually, at another Authors’ Club event. You kindly shortlisted my first book, The English Monster, for the Debut Novel award, more of which in a moment. Part of my duties (as I then saw them) was to read from the book and answer questions alongside the other shortlisted authors. One of these questions was along the lines of ‘was it hard, writing this book?’

Yes, of course it was hard. It’s a hundred and ten thousand words! I’ve never written anything as long as that before! It took bloody ages! And then the pacing was wrong, and the tone was inconsistent, and a lot of the imagery was naive or didn’t work, and most of the characters were entirely unsympathetic, and I did it all on my own, and I had a job at the time as well, and I can’t believe I pulled it off, and here you all are saying this book is quite good, actually, and I can’t BELIEVE IT!

The trouble is, I did not say any of these things. No, indeed. Because it was drummed into me at school: Don’t show off. Don’t display enthusiasm. Adopt, at all times, an air of worldly insouciance. Discussing one’s own achievements is deeply uncool, not to say horribly gauche. DO NOT DO IT.

So that was playing round in my head. The other thing that was playing round was this: my wife was then working as a headteacher in a Peckham primary school. She went into work every day at seven, and got home at eight. During those thirteen hours, Peckham threw everything Peckham could throw at her, and believe me, Peckham’s got a lot of stuff to throw.

In that light, how could I possibly describe what I did as hard? Even if it perhaps was.

So I answered the question like this: “No, it wasn’t hard. I wrote in the evenings. I treated it as a kind of hobby. Some men build model ships. I wrote a novel.’

Tumbleweed echoed around the room. My wife put her head in her hand. Somewhere across London a child could be heard to laugh derisively.

Why? Because I sounded like a colossally arrogant scoundrel, that’s why.

I learned something that day: both listening to my own woeful underperformance, and to the words of my fellow authors on the shortlist, all of whom spoke amusingly and movingly and above all interestingly about their work. I learned that when people ask you a question such as is it hard being a writer they’re not expecting modesty, be it fake or be it genuine. They’re expecting insight. They’re expecting interest. They’re expecting amusement.

They’re expecting you to talk about yourself, with self-confidence, in an interesting way.

But this raises an interesting issue, and it brings me to my second reason for wanting to talk about being an author. I noticed two very distinct things on the day I was published. The first was the wave of self-doubt that broke over my head. It was like an acute version of Imposter Syndrome, that feeling many of us have that we are going to be found out, that we don’t really know what we’re doing, that one day someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say I’m sorry, but there’s been a terrible mistake. So, even though an agent has taken you on, even though a publisher has paid you cash money for the privilege of turning your manuscript into an actual proper published book, even though it’s received some decent reviews – you still find reasons for why it must be a rubbish book, and you must be a rubbish writer. And being English, I tended to smother that anxiety in diffident self-deprecation. And thus ended up looking conceited.

The other thing that happens when you’re first published is that you notice other writers in a new way. For the first time, these strange creatures are objects of immediate interest. And my word, they don’t half talk about themselves a lot.

They talk about their writing process. They retweet praise from their books. There are a great number of them who call themselves ‘writers’ who seem to have published no actual ‘writing’ at all. They discuss their inadequacies at great length. They do Q&As and blog tours and Reddit AMAs and place endless About Me articles on their websites and are always asking me to Like their Facebook pages or to follow them on Twitter.

In short, they generally behave like people craving attention and affirmation. Not all of them do all of these things. But most of them do some of them.

And by ‘them’ I of course mean ‘me’.

Why is this, I thought. What’s wrong with these people? Why are they making such a meal of something as natural as writing?

Because, you see, up until then writing had been natural for me. I had done it as a kind of hobby. I worked full-time, and I had no expectations of being published. Which isn’t to say I didn’t desperately want to be published. But I didn’t expect to be.

And then, my first book came out. Then, I was in the game. Because now, a lot was riding on the second book. And suddenly, I didn’t know if I could do it anymore.

It was, in other words, a crisis of self-confidence.

So I looked at all these writers blah-blah-blahing about themselves, and I felt my own crisis of confidence, and then I read something by Neil Gaiman. Now, Neil Gaiman is someone who talks about himself a lot online, and I have had my bitter moments when I’ve wanted him to shut up, because he is of course quite brilliant and utterly successful and married to a rock star and generally very, very cool. So it’s easy to pastiche him sometimes, to characterise his somewhat glib assertions about the creative process as being… well, somewhat glib.

At least, that’s how I tended to characterise him.

But then he said this, in a commencement speech at some American college or another:

Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.

He said a bunch of other things in that speech (including admitting that he, like me, had suffered from imposter syndrome, or what his wife Amanda called the Fraud Police). But that really stuck with me.

Pretend you’re a writer. Pretend you’re a good writer. And perhaps that will increase your chances of being one.

This is insane, right? But what if this was why all these people were so fiercely calling themselves writers? Were they seeking to convince themselves? Were they acting out a role?

I think they were. I’ve even found an academic paper on this.


It’s called ‘Confidence and Competence in Writing: The Role of Self-Efficacy, Outcome Expectancy, and Apprehension’. It was authored by Frank Pajares and Margaret T Johnson and published by the National Council of Teachers of English in October 1994 – so at a time when ‘social media’ meant sharing your newspaper.

Now, this study is interesting in all sorts of ways, and is also full of some pretty dry academic prose (which is code for ‘stuff I didn’t fully understand’).

But the results of the test seem clear, and there are two parts to it:

1 – There is a clear correlation between a person’s self-confidence in general, their specific confidence in their writing, and the quality of their written work. As a side note to this, it’s one’s general confidence in writing that has the strongest correlation with writing outcomes; specific confidence in individual writing tasks (yes, I can use a comma correctly) does not have the same correlation.

2 – That as people practise certain writing skills, their writing improves – but their confidence in their writing does not improve in the same way.

In other words, if you’re confident in what you do, you’re likely to be better at doing it.

But the flip side is, you won’t get more confident by doing it.

I find this disturbing, because of this: I have moved from being a very self-confident writer in short form arenas such as journalism and reviewing, to being a very unconfident writer in novels. I have a very bad dose of imposter syndrome when it comes to what I do.

But even that is not quite right. Because, when it comes down to it, I have written three novels which have been published (well, nearly). I can, clearly, write.

So perhaps I should just say the words “I can, clearly, write” to myself. Over and over and over again.

That seems to explain a lot of how writers behave online. Their retweeting of positive reviews. Their blog posts about their writing process. Their hurt reaction to criticism. Their self-description as ‘writers’ in Twitter profiles and website headlines, as if to write the words ‘I am a writer’ in as many places as possible somehow makes that more true, even if they’ve never had a book published or even a review or a magazine article. This behaviour which I have, in recent years and in my customarily judgemental way, found occasionally risible, occasionally even contemptible, is neither of those things. It’s actually perfectly sensible. Here, for me, is the killer line from that study:

Students who lack confidence in skills they possess are not likely to engage in tasks where those skills are required.

To extrapolate from that in a most unacademic way: I’m never going to write the novel I’m capable of writing if I don’t convince myself I’m capable of writing it.

And the first step to doing that is pretending I’m capable of it.

So: here I am, standing before you today.

I am a writer.

And some of the things I have written have been…. have been…. have been…. pretty good.


Thank you.