Back in 1970, I had a setting for the novel – a decaying community in north London. And I had the idea for its structure, based on the changing seasons over a year. Characters started to form, inevitably inspired in one or two cases by people I had met, and the outline of the story began to fill with details. The name for the street, Ophelia Street, came very early – and a first sentence “Ophelia Street is.”
I was working but my first jobs did not take 100% of my attention. I found myself writing sentences, phrases, paragraphs on scraps of paper while at work. The novel formed itself into a very orderly shape of four parts, each containing four chapters. I finished the first draft towards the end of 1970, by which time I had returned home from Oxford to London.
Then the dispiriting effort of trying to find a publisher occupied much of my time and thinking. I must have sent the novel to 30 different publishers. Most sent it back in pristine condition, un read. A couple raised my hopes and one called me in for a meeting. I was shown a reader’s report that was almost embarrassingly effusive but in the end there was no offer. I wrote a second novel, started a third. I loved the writing, hated the rejection but consoled myself that other, better writers had experienced worse – William Golding, for example.
“Fail again, fail better” might have been Beckett’s advice but I decided to get on with my life. The alternative would have been to become increasingly bitter as I pursued a life in novels. So, instead, a career unfolded as a different kind of writer. I enjoyed writing for business and being part of a creative team with designers. I wrote non-fiction books that were published and I helped others to write through organisations I co-founded like 26 and Dark Angels.
I left Interbrand in 2003 with two objectives: to earn enough as a writer for business to survive and to get back to writing fiction. As it turned out, the first objective went so well that I had little time to achieve the second. Creative writing projects through 26 and Dark Angels satisfied me well enough.
Yet still I had the memory of that first novel. As a first step I had it retyped so that I would have an electronic copy to work on (the first version in 1970 had been bashed out by me on my typewriter with a carbon copy). I now read the novel through, 30 or more years after I had first written it. It seemed to hold up surprisingly well, but I could see why it had not been published at the time – and I could see how I could make it better.
There is a lesson here about persistence, a quality we all need, perhaps writers in particular. The passing of time is naturally a part of that process. That thought – about the passing of time – unlocked a new version of Leaves in more recent times – and I’ll finish the story in next week’s blog.