The impetus for writing Sanctus was very simple. I had quit my job telling everyone I was going to write a novel. I figured that by doing this I’d have to really do it or end up looking like an idiot and never be taken seriously again.
I had wanted to write something substantial for a long time but my full-time job as a TV producer, and my two young children, tended to eat up all the acres of time I would otherwise have ear-marked for making stuff up and putting words on a page. I was also approaching 40, so that peculiar period of stocktaking may have had something to do with it. I found myself working in a creative industry where I wasn’t feeling particularly creative and suspected if I didn’t at least try to write a book now, then I never would, and I’d always wonder.
My bosses at work were very kind, they offered me a sabbatical – probably assuming I’d work out my minor mid-life crisis then come back humbled, obedient and grateful that I still had a job. I didn’t take it. I knew that writing a novel would be hard and if I had the carrot of a job with a salary dangling at the end of the year it would be too easy to give up and slide back into the comfy rut I had been ploughing for the last five or so years. I also had a plan.
My eldest, Roxy, was a year off starting school so we were not yet tied into the tyranny of term times. It meant we were pretty mobile, but wouldn’t be for long. So we rented out our flat in Brighton and went to live in France for seven months, going out of season so the one paid for the other. I figured seven months was long enough to write a first draft of something and I was going to stick to the advice I’d read on so many websites and ‘how to’ books – write what you know. It made sense. John Grisham was a lawyer, Michael Connolly was a crime reporter, Joseph Wambaugh was a cop – it worked out for them. I also wanted to write in a commercial genre, partly because these are the books I read and partly because I needed to feel there was some possibility of earning some money at the end of it all. I hoped that I could return to England and within four or five years (and two or three books) hopefully be good enough to make a bit of money and justify the time it would take to write the books. The rest of the time I would freelance as a TV producer. That was the plan.
It started going wrong almost immediately.
The midnight ferry over to France was hit by a force eight gale and we limped inland looking for a cheap hotel before attempting the long drive to our new home. We found Rouen, and there I saw something that planted the seed of an idea in my head that started to grow.
A few days later when I settled down in my new (cold) French home to outline the ideas I’d already been knocking about, this new idea was already starting to elbow its way to the front. But whereas the existing ideas were within my sphere of experience, the new one was not. It was ambitious and epic and dealt with big themes. It was the sort of book I’d love to read, but I wasn’t sure I could write, or even if it was wise to try. Write what you know
Besides I only had seven months, this new idea would eat that time up in research. But the idea wouldn’t go away so I outlined it along with the others and a month later, when our families descended for Christmas, I handed them all out for everyone to read so they could tell me which one they liked the best.
They all liked the massively ambitious one.
Seven months later, when we returned to England and my eldest started school, I had about a third of a novel and several hundred pages of notes. It took me more than two years to finish the book in between paid jobs back in the land of telly.
During this time I came to realise that the advice was actually spot on. I was writing what I knew. As I developed the characters and moved them about, as I plotted the story and tried to make it as compelling and exciting as I wanted it to be as a reader, all I was really doing was using things I’d learned from my own life experiences and from reading all my life.
So if you’re about to set out on your first novel I would gladly echo this advice – write what you know: just don’t take it too literally.
Sanctus comes out in the UK in April 2011 and then in more than forty countries. I started writing it in January 2008, finished the first draft in July 2009 and the 7th Draft in April 2010.
Sanctus is published by HarperCollins