Those who visit Linda’s Book Bag regularly know how I love to meet authors and fellow bloggers. On Saturday 4th June 2016 I was fortunate to attend an author and blogger meet up in Edinburgh organised by the lovely Joanne Baird. You can see more about that day on Joanne’s blog here. Whilst having lunch I chatted to Catherine Simpson whose novel Truestory was published by Sandstone Press on 17th September 2015 and is available for purchase here. Catherine agreed to come along to Linda’s Book Bag and today she is telling us all about the ups and downs of moving from being a journalist to becoming a novelist in a great writing guest blog.
Alice’s life is dictated by her autistic son, Sam, who refuses to leave their remote Lancashire farm. Her only time ‘off’ is two hours in Lancaster on a Tuesday afternoon – and even that doesn’t always pan out to be the break she needs.
Husband Duncan brings Larry, a rootless wanderer, to the farm to embark on a money making scheme they’ve dreamed up. Alice is hostile but Larry beguiles Sam with tales of travel in the outside world and, soon, Alice begins to fall for him, too.
By turns blackly comic, heart-breaking and heart-warming, Truestory looks at what happens when sacrifice slithers towards martyrdom. Both happy and sad, ultimately Truestory is a tale of hope.
From Journalist to Novelist: The Ups and Downs
A Guest Post from Catherine Simpson
I wanted to be a fiction writer – so I became a journalist. This is not uncommon. Journalism seemed do-able, as opposed to novel writing which appeared as accessible to someone from a 1970s comprehensive as becoming a professional ballet dancer or a portrait painter. There seemed to be a recognised route into journalism, you could do a degree in it (I started mine in 1989); it didn’t seem embarrassing to admit ‘I want to be a journalist,’ unlike ‘I want to be a novelist.’ Even so it took a couple of false starts as a bank clerk and a civil servant until I did a one-year National Council for Training of Journalists (NCTJ) course and then on to do my degree.
I earned my living writing ‘real-life’ stories for women’s magazines – Woman and Woman’s Own, at first, then Closer and Reveal, Bella, Best, Chat and the rest, with occasional features for national newspapers: the Daily Mail, The Herald, The Scotsman. I fitted the work around raising my two daughters. In those heady days (pre 2008), journalism paid well and you met interesting people. I wondered why everyone didn’t want to be a journalist.
Then when I was 45 I remembered I wanted to write a book. My elder daughter has autism and it was getting increasingly hard to get out on journalism jobs because there was always a crisis to deal with, so I began to study creative writing from home with the OU and then a Creative Writing MA at Edinburgh Napier University.
My first (unpublished) manuscript was shortlisted in the inaugural Mslexia women’s novel competition and then the opening chapters of my second manuscript won me a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. This manuscript became Truestory – my debut novel published last September by Sandstone Press. By then I was 51.
People often remark that journalism must be a good training ground for novelists and in some ways that is true. I work well with a deadline; in fact I love a deadline. Without a deadline my work slows right down.
I never feel I must wait for the muse to strike. If I’m writing a novel, or (as is now the case) a memoir, I write it; whether with a pen and paper or on my laptop. I start to write and the words come – sometimes reluctantly – well, usually reluctantly – but they come none the less.
Having been a journalist I am used to sending off work for someone else to read and edit. I’m used to feedback. I’m used to my articles going out of my hands and having headlines attached and photo captions added by sub-editors.
All of this is good and helpful. However, in other ways journalism is not a good preparation for writing fiction, as fiction feels very different to writing articles that tell other people’s stories.
Truestory is about a mother raising a child with autism; it is a work of fiction inspired by real events, but it is very much fiction; the events in it are made up. This did not stop me feeling hideously exposed when the novel was about to come out. Would people realise it was fiction? Would they think I’d done all the things Alice (the mother in Truestory) had done? I got cold feet. When the first copies of the book arrived I could hardly bear to open it. What had I done?
But readers are more sophisticated than that and I’ve only been asked once or twice: ‘Did such-and-such really happen?
Having been a journalist people also remark that the people I interview must provide inspiration for endless fictional stories. In fact I have never found this to be the case. The people I interview for ‘real life’ stories are often victims of crime and abuse. Their stories rarely have satisfactory arcs – there is much injustice and unsatisfactory endings that would not suit the readers of fiction. Events in real life are sometimes so random that fiction readers would lose patience and not believe the plotline. It is usually true that real life is stranger than fiction.
Where being a journalist has helped me the most (and the fact that my husband has also been a journalist working in the national press for 25 years) is in the coverage I’ve had for my novel. I was happy to talk about my personal story of raising an autistic child – in fact I, and my daughter, who is now 21, were both delighted to talk about it to raise autism awareness. This gave us an angle for newspaper features which helped a lot with the publicity.
I could offer to write my own features, as I did here for the Daily Mail and here for the Daily Telegraph. Or the paper could interview me and write their own feature, as happened here with the Daily Record.
It’s very hard to get book reviews so being able to get coverage on news and features pages was vital. Having the experience of dealing with news desks and having contacts in the industry is where my background as a journalist really was a godsend.