Angela Smith asks a group of 15 authors about their day jobs – before they became an author. Today it’s Katie Fforde, Lucy Cavendish and Gemma Burgess…
KATIE FFORDE (Recipe for Love out now)
My job before becoming an author was working in a cafe. I applied for the job because it said ‘kitchen assistant required, no cooking’ and I thought, I can do that! It turned out the boss and I had been at the same jazz dance class so I got the job. It was incredibly hard work but I loved the women I worked with and it was great being part of the world again after writing on my own at home, unsuccessfully.
My co-workers, the customers, the owners, everyone who came into the cafe became material. And I also saw how much there was in my hometown now I saw it at 8.30 in the morning. It all went into my first novel, Living Dangerously. Even my keep-fit class was there.
Writing about what I really knew instead of making things up really gave my writing a boost. No novel is easy to write but being sure of at least part of it really helped. My top tip to young writers is to have a lot of jobs – it all makes great material and you can write about those jobs with real authority.
LUCY CAVENDISH (A Storm in a Teacup out now)
My job before I became an author was to work in a bookshop. I wasn’t sure what to do after I left university and Waterstones bookshop – an independent book chain – were advertising vacancies near where I lived. I went along for the interview, showed I was interested in books and talked faux-knowledgeably about biographies. Consequently, I landed a job in the biography department.
It was an amazing job. It wasn’t particularly well-paid but it was fascinating. All the men I worked with were gay. They used to put Doris Day records on the soundtrack and Whip Crack Away would come pounding out through the sound system. I learned a lot working there though. I took great pride in stocking the most eclectic range of books possible. I also learned about stock piling, book promotion and how to work with the reps from all the publishing houses – all these things have stood me in good stead for my career as a novelist. Before I worked in a bookshop I had no idea that publishers paid for their books to be in the top 10 and that they also paid for wherever the book was going to be situated in the shop. I thought the bookstore choose the front stand books, not the publishers. I also saw how some books became word-of-mouth hits.Someone would come in and ask for a certain book and then, suddenly, they’d be a rash of customers all asking for the same one. Those quick fire unexpected hits do happen. It just happens very rarely.
The other and most exciting thing about working in a bookstore was that I got to meet so many authors. Tatyana Tolstaya came and read to us and we all drank vodka and ate blinis. I got to talk to people as diverse as Paul Theroux to Colm Toibin to Hanif Kureishi. They were all inspiring and, I am sure, helped me on my way just by telling us all the tales of their lives and what inspired them.
GEMMA BURGESS (A Girl Like You out now)
I was an advertising copywriter in London. When people asked what that meant, I had two ways of explaining it. If I was in a bad mood with my career, I called itS elling People Shit They Don’t Need. If I was in a good mood with it, I called it Fun With Words.
Copywriting is a creative sprint: it’s short and sharp and fun and tough. It helps you think quick and write fast. And it helps you develop a confident writing voice. Half the copywriters I know sound like anaemic mice or monosyllabic oafs in real life, but in writing, they’re killingly debonair and hilarious. While we’re on the subject: do not enter into an email flirtation with a copywriter. Before you know it, you’ll be on a date with them and realize that they have zero genuine charm. I speak from experience. Man, that was a long dinner.
Once I had about six years of experience, I started freelancing. That means ad agencies employed me on a week-by-week basis to create ad campaigns for their clients. Most of my jobs were extended, so I’d stay for three or six or nine months. Freelancing meant I didn’t have to manage anyone, I didn’t have to deal with office politics, and I didn’t have to worry about promotions – three things that just get in the way of having Fun With Words, if you ask me.
But then I started to crave something more. I wanted to create something sharp and warm and funny that entertained people, but that didn’t ask them to buy something at the end of it. And that was when I started writing books.
I wrote The Dating Detox and A Girl Like You by getting up at 5am and writing before work, then on the bus to work (I took the bus rather than the tube, even though it took longer, just so I could write easily – most of my freelance jobs were in the West End or South Bank), then at lunchtime in cafes, then on the bus home. Then I’d write till about 9pm, then I’d lie in bed and think about my plot as I was drifting off to sleep (an effective, but annoying habit, as if genius struck, I had to then scribble things down on the pad I always forgot to leave next to the bed, or wake up Fox and tell him, so that one of us would remember. Poor Fox. My writing has really screwed with his sleep over the years). I wrote in black cabs on the way to meet friends, I wrote on planes, I wrote on Christmas Day. I wrote when I was sick, I wrote when I was hungover. If I was out with friends and thought of a good line and didn’t have a pen, I’d text it to myself, or take out my tiny Samsung NC10 laptop and tap it out. Basically, I wrote. In my spare time I made a trailer for The Dating Detox (http://www.thedatingdetoxtrailer.com) and got married.
Looking back, I’m stunned that I did all that in two years. I’ve never been a workaholic. I’m more the shall-we-have-a-drink-and-think-about-it-oops-it’s-3am type. But there’s nothing quite like the pressure of a serious deadline to put the fear of God into a copywriter. We’re good like that.
Anyway. At the end of 2010 I got a new book deal with St Martins Press, and said sayonara to copywriting. And though I adore the luxury of writing full-time, I do miss copywriting. I occasionally work from home for some of my favourite old clients, and I do copywriting for free when my friends launch businesses and websites. Every single time, I get a punchy frisson of satisfaction. What can I say? I love Fun With Words.