Revelations: I thought that only bad writers made money

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The Independent Culture
I WAS starting to get disenchanted with London; it seemed so big and the countryside so far away. In Edinburgh, you could stand in George Street and see out towards the hills of Fife.

I'd only came down to get a job - unable to find anything at home in Scotland. I'd tried to sell it to myself that London was where the publishers were, but as the only advantage was saving on postage I was not really convinced. Since primary school I'd wanted to be a writer and from 18 had been unsuccessfully submitting novels.

My mum didn't consider being an author a proper job; she'd much rather I was something respectable like a teacher or a civil servant. So she had been quite happy when I secured employment in London as a law costs draftsman, even if it wasn't well paid. My work involved drawing up the narrative to convince clients they had not been overcharged.

I had set 30 as the age when if I hadn't got a book published I would return home.

It was make or break time: I was 29 and my life was still on hold. After 10 weeks of writing at weekends and evenings I had finally completed another manuscript. I'd convinced myself it was entirely the most commercial thing I'd ever written or ever would write so the first time it came back was a real blow.

The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook told me that you weren't supposed to send off to multiple submissions, so one ordinary day in 1983 my girlfriend, Annie, and I went for a walk in our lunch break and dumped my manuscript at Macmillan's. The receptionist made me feel very small; being the lunchtime fill-in she almost didn't accept my precious parcel because I'd only written, "To the editor, fiction department".

"Who's it going to?"

"Whoever he or she is," I replied.

"But I need a name."

"No you don't; it's a position!"

It did not seem to bode well. I felt so depressed by the whole experience that I even turned down my girlfriend's offer of a pint - very unlike me.

It was a Monday morning, 9.30, and I was sitting at my desk when the outside line rang. A man introduced himself as James Hale, the name I hadn't know at the Macmillan. He'd read my manuscript, which I'd called the Wasp Factory, over the weekend and reckoned it was a winner because the hairs on the back of neck stood up. A noise went off in my head - ding. It was one of those moments that you live for; I'd written the scenario in my head so many times.

"Are you free for lunch?" he asked, and I agreed that maybe I could squeeze him in. My brain reacted but my body was a good few minutes behind. I must have been in shock because my heart didn't start beating faster until I'd put the receiver down. Annie worked for the same company so I ran upstairs to tell her, but was still cautious because although I'm a long- term optimist, I'm a short term pessimist.

Subsequently, I learnt that James Hale had a very odd impression of what I would be like from my writing. He thought I must be a complete psycho, so it took quite a bit of courage to ring me up. On being greeted by a well-trained voice saying: "Denton, Hall and Burgin - how can I help you?" he was so surprised that he had put the phone down! With James expecting to meet a cross between Rob Roy and Rasputin, he brought along the rights director as a human shield in case lunch turned nasty. Instead I turned up: a tall gangling man in a brown three-piece polyester suit! The first thing I asked was: "do you want to publish the novel?" Next I checked whether it had to go through a committee. When he told me it was his decision, I finally began to believe my ambition might come true.

I finally felt a professional when I received my first cheque, an advance for pounds 1,250, and could take my mates out for a curry to celebrate. When the paperback option was taken up it was enough to live on for at least a year, possibly two, and finally I could turn full-time.

What have I learnt about myself? My first reaction: I'm not as good a writer as I thought! I had this complete belief that there was reverse relationship between talent and reward; only really bad writers made money. I was horrified at the number of books I was selling. I never knew anyone else shared my weird tastes, but to my astonishment none of the fans are nutters.

People still expect me to be a very seriously disturbed individual - which I don't think I am. I've just got a good imagination without the usual circuit breakers which stops other people coming up with horrible things. Not being very self analytical and having a very woolly mind, I sometimes rely on critics to tell me what the hell I'm on about. It sounds facetious but I'm just being honest.

However, about 10 years ago I reckoned that a lot of my books are about identity - both mainstream and science fiction. There's often a character who is hiding their identity or who does not know all the facts about themselves. I don't understand it; I was not adopted and I look just like my dad. There's nothing hidden in my background that would give an obvious Freudian connection. My dad was a naval seaman and my mum a professional ice skater; I've always felt secure.

Although an only child, I was part of a larger extended family, particularly on my father's side. I have about three dozen cousins and quite a few of them are still good friends. But I don't give it much thought - in fact if I was offered some bizarre way of understanding my writing psyche I'd run a mile for fear of destroying it.

Up until the success of Wasp Factory my only ambition had been to become a professional writer; everything else, including getting married and having children wasn't even on the agenda. But now I've married Annie and have returned to North Queensferry in Scotland, where I was brought up, and again live close to lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. The cheque I enclosed for return postage of the Wasp Factory back from Macmillan's has obviously never been used, so now I have it framed on the wall at home.

I am much more fulfilled. I've got my ideas out there in some form; they are no longer trapped in my head. There is also a feeling of: thank goodness - I could have been wrong! I could have spent all that time and had no talent whatsoever. I seem to have stumbled into a bit more fame and wealth than I was expecting, but these days I've convinced myself that perhaps it is possible to combine literary excellence and high sales, after all.

`Song of Stone' is published by Abacus at pounds 6.99, while Iain's favourite songs have been collected for an album called `Personal Effects' to be released on 2 November by EMI

Interview by

Andrew G Marshall