Following the sad death of children’s agent Rosemary Canter last week, there were many heartfelt tributes. That in itself didn’t surprise me, as she was a larger-than-life figure who tried to do the very best for her clients. What interested me was the many writers who had never been represented by Rosemary, but who had received encouragement and guidance from her nonetheless. And that got me to thinking about all of the people who have touched my own work over the years, and the many who will contribute in the future.
The journey of a writer is a long one (Lord, is it ever long) and I hope I’ll get an acknowledgements page someday soon to thank people by name. But I think we get so focused on the now, on the manuscript in our hands, that it’s easy to forget those who helped us five, ten or twenty years ago. There’s almost always an English teacher in the mix, for instance. Or the friend we told stories with as a child, but who later grew out of the habit (even though we didn’t). I swear for a couple of years when I was younger, my brother was the funniest boy alive – but he looks all embarrassed when I mention the zany characters he used to invent and impersonate.
Some people can affect a work without even reading it. Like the lady who ran the coffee bar at work, who would often ask me how the writing was going when I was staring out at the car park, chewing my biro. Or the customers who came in at the same times every day, giving me an opportunity to study their behaviour and character. With writing being such a solitary affliction, there’s a certain attraction to working somewhere communal, even if the background chatter and background music can be a distraction on the days when the words aren’t flowing. I’m writing this on a train, and it’s nice to muse on how my work might be affected by the man who just got on, dripping with sweat, or the woman whose sole conversation every day is to grumble about the punctuality of the service. Although I don’t think they’re going to be promoted to main character status anytime soon…
And then there are the writers, agents, editors and friends who influence a book directly, by commenting on the words on the page. If you keep faith with a book for long enough, then tens or even hundreds of people might see it in that time. I’m flabbergasted by the achievement of Janet Foxley, who won the Times Chicken House Competition with her book Muncle Trogg after ten years and ten drafts. I’ve been writing my current novel for six months and was beginning to think that was a long time! But throughout the process, a book must remain yours to have a chance of being published. Other people’s ideas on a book are just that – ideas. A writer must always filter these through their own sensibility, the same way we interpret all of the events of our lives.
Have I helped other writers too, even in a small way? I hope so – it’s nice to be able to give something back, to develop or spark an idea in someone else. Sometimes, they will run with that idea and do a much better job of writing it than I ever could. More than that, I hope in the future to entertain and inspire as many children as will allow me onto their bookshelf. That seems a pretty good legacy to aim for.