Salvation on the screen

The Books Interview; What does a career novelist do when writer's block strikes? Zoe Fairbairns talks to Kate Figes
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The Independent Culture
Zoe Fairbairns was understandably nervous at her first interview for seven years. Her voice shook as I struggled to hear what she was saying over the din of Muzak and cafe chatter. After a string of successful novels, she discovered the doldrums of every professional author's dread - writer's block. She would sit down to write each day, but produced nothing that she felt remotely happy with at the end of it.

As the months of creative barrenness turned into years, her anxiety level rose; she suffered agonising stomach cramps, and the money began to run out. She had to commit the ultimate shameful act for any writer: handing back money to a publisher because she could not complete the contract. "After two years of this," she explains, "I decided that there was no point in being this miserable. I made a list of my saleable skills, which was very short, and began looking for a job."

It is easy to think of the professional writer's life as heavenly when most of the rest of us have no choice but to struggle with the 9 to 6. Two or three hours of scribbling at home before a long lunch and then, of course, there are all of those six-figure advances paid by publishers that we keep reading about in the newspapers.

But the life of the writer can be nerve-wracking, lonely and financially precarious. A small number of very successful authors do make a great deal of money, but most of the rest live a life of creative highs and lows where they are at the whims of the market and publishers' marketing departments. It is a fickle business and the fall from fashion can be fast and hard.

Advances are usually low, based on crude, conservative calculations of how many copies the publisher thinks it can sell. Writers need to produce books regularly in order to build up a readership, a profile and an income. If a writer enjoys early success, as Zoe Fairbairns did with her futuristic parable and third novel Benefits - one of the landmarks of Seventies feminist literature - then the pressure to produce even better books is immense. It's not enough to produce one good book: there have to be more, ever more original and eye-catching.

"I had produced several novels on a rush of energy and assumed that I would always produce another," Zoe Fairbairns says. "But I grew tired intellectually. Because writing was my living and my sense of self, I had this feeling that I always had to be productive, a source of great anxiety which made the block worse. I had assumed that I would be a writer for ever and that I would always be financially comfortable, but when this happens you have to completely rethink your presumptions."

She never expected to earn a great deal from her books: "a book earns its keep, if it pays a notional salary for the time it takes to write it." But with few other distractions (such as children) and no previous career (her first novel was published by Macmillan when she was only 19), the prospect of not being able to write anything worth publishing was bleak indeed.

"I felt quite lost, I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. I had heard that there were therapists at the Writers' Guild but I couldn't bring myself to ring. Writing can be a very depressing, draining business. It's a strange thing to do, sit on your own and make up stories, and you need to get away from it from time to time."

Then Zoe Fairbairns saw an advert from the BBC for trainee subtitlers. Now she works three days a week for the Independent Television Facilities Centre in West London, subtitling programmes for deaf viewers. Most budding writers long for the day when they can give up their day job, but she just felt a huge wave of relief. "It got me out and there's a different rhythm to life. It's normal, with commuting, office politics, pension schemes. It suddenly felt as if I were rejoining normal life."

Working in the real world helped trigger the creative juices again. "Working with someone else's plot and dialogue got me back into writing again. It was like swimming with water wings. I still had to kick my legs but it took the pressure off. I needed to live life in order to write about it."

Even though I admired her robust attitude, I could not help feeling a little sad that this writer - a pioneer of the women's writing groups which gave so many women the confidence to write during the Seventies and early Eighties - now had to turn to television, rather than other women, as a source of creative energy. Zoe Fairbairns was in the most enviable of writers' groups, with Michele Roberts, Sara Maitland and Michelene Wandor. They proved that it was possible for women to encourage one another and they helped persuade publishers to take feminism seriously.

But where were they now, and could they have helped? "Some of my writer friends were a bit disconcerted when I got a job; I think they felt as if I was letting the side down." But she is quick to point out that this is popular work for other published writers. Toby Litt, Neil Blackmore and Simon Corrigan have also worked as subtitlers.

Zoe Fairbairns' career seems to have coincided neatly with the rise and fall of feminism. Benefits captured much of the vigour and political bite of the Seventies with its brilliant, disturbing portrait of a future where women are paid to stay at home and have babies. By taking the economic dependency caused by motherhood to its logical conclusion, she produced a powerful examination of gender politics. She put women's politics at the heart of a family saga in Stand We At Last and played with other literary forms too, setting a mystery among temps in Here Today. Then, in the early Nineties, the block set in, as it did with much of feminism.

Her new novel Other Names (Michael Joseph, pounds 9.99) is set in 1989 and revolves around two women, one middle-aged and middle-class, the other a daughter of a single mother and active Seventies feminist. Both are in love with the same man, a City shark who persuades the older woman to become a Lloyd's "name" just before the great hurricane sent shivers through the insurance industry.

"I was working on a half-hour programme about Lloyd's. When you subtitle you play the programme over and over again to catch every word and then you edit it down. I became intensely interested in this woman who had lost all her money. I really knew how she felt."

But there's a deep cynicism to the plot, which inevitably reflects Fairbairns' own disheartened view of feminism. All these two women from different backgrounds do is get hoodwinked by an unreconstructed schmuck. Unwittingly, she has plonked herself straight into the middle of the backlash against feminism.

For women, it seems, have made no more progress. A former feminist giant returns to the age-old romantic formula in which intelligent women lose every brain cell when it comes to a good-looking guy. Fairbairns laments the loss of Seventies activism, when women focused on an agreed programme of demands: equal pay, equal opportunities, child care. "Feminism has come to mean whatever the person talking wants it to mean. In one way that is very democratic; you're not delegating powers to a leader, but it's not conducive to effective campaigning."

Wisely, Zoe Fairbairns has no plans to give up her day job, for the literary Dyno-rod of television subtitling has not yet been completely effective. "I have learnt that there is no law that says that just because you produce one book, you have to produce one every year after that. People don't forget you." But the sad truth is that people do. There's a new generation of readers who could not read when Benefits was first published. Will Other Names excite their palates? Older women who remember loving Stand We At Last have moved on to other things - general fiction rather than novels that centre around women's politics. So all you budding writers out there, take care. One or two hits on the crest of a marketing wave does not a career make.

Zoe Fairbairns, A Biography

ZO FAIRBAIRNS was born in 1948 in Tunbridge Wells, grew up in Middlesex and studied history at

St Andrews. Her first novel, Live as Family, appeared in 1969 and was swiftly followed by Down. Her third novel was rejected with the words "there is a book to be written about the women's movement but this isn't funny enough". She joined a writers' group and together they published Tales I Told My Mother (Virago, 1978). Her third novel Benefits (1979) has been reissued by Five Leaves Publications and was made into a play for the Albany Empire. Her family saga Stand We At Last was published in 1983, Here Today in 1984, Closing in 1987 and Daddy's Girls in 1991.