Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin, book of a lifetime

Tomalin's book is impeccably researched but never reads like an academic textbook
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The Independent Culture

In 2006 I was working as a director on The South Bank Show. Although I loved the job, I never felt wholly fulfilled. I'd always wanted to be a writer and had recently completed a novel that had been rejected by countless agents and every major publisher. I was devastated and felt lost, with no idea how to move on in life.

Then I was asked if I'd like to make a documentary with Claire Tomalin about her upcoming biography of Thomas Hardy. I was intrigued because I'd studied Hardy at school but, as is often the case with the novels you're force-fed as a teenager, hadn't been able to engage. I was sent a rough draft of Tomalin's biography and within a few pages all that had changed.

Like all her work, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man is as engrossing as the most freely imagined fiction. It's impeccably researched but never reads like an academic textbook. Tomalin has a tremendous capacity for empathy, which brings her subjects alive emotionally. And, as she's also shown in her biographies of Austen and Dickens, she's particularly adept at exploring the link between an author's life and work.

I was drawn in further when I discovered that, like me, Hardy was devastated when his first novel had been rejected for publication – and even when he'd achieved success, his work was often derided by critics.

I went on to devour all his novels before setting off to shoot the documentary on location in Dorset, where he lived for most of his life and set the majority of his fiction, and Cornwall, where he met his first wife and was inspired to write some of his best poetry.

As I returned from what had been a wonderful shoot and began to edit the documentary, I realised that I now knew what I had to do with my life; I had to somehow find it in myself to keep writing. And I did. I wrote another book that was roundly rejected, started a new job as the culture editor on Channel 4 News, and finally landed a publishing deal.

Now my second novel has just been published and I've given up my career in TV to write full-time. I couldn't be happier. But I don't think I'd be where I am now if it hadn't been for Thomas Hardy – and Claire Tomalin.

Matt Cain's new novel is 'Nothing But Trouble' (Pan Macmillan)

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