This past weekend I was very pleased to be in conversation with Michele Roberts at WhitLit, Whitstable’s literary festival. In a wind-blown marquee on Castle grounds, Michele shared her work and her writing process with good humour and a real generosity of spirit. The interview wasn’t recorded, but here are a few things I’ve taken away with me:
LIVE WELL: At 68, Michele Roberts is still doing what she loves: writing, swimming, exploring London, drinking wine and going to parties. Recently, she acquired a new agent, has a memoir for sale and has just started writing what will be her 14th novel. I was impressed with her energy and vibrancy. At any age, writers may worry they are falling behind. (Am I on track? Will there be time to tell all the stories I have in my head?) Michele is only one example of a writer’s longevity. (Think of Diana Athill, 99 and still publishing!) Michele’s days are rich and varied; so is her work. Writers may be as old as their backs, but we can remain as young as our ideas and our hope will let us.
WORK HARD: Michele was very honest about her setbacks. We might think any writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Daughters of the House) has “made it” – whatever “it” is. When her newest novel, The Walworth Beauty, was initially rejected by her publishers, she didn’t let herself despair for long. She said it took more than two years of rewriting, cutting hard and twining in new story lines, to get a book that both she and her editor were happy with. That process, she said, forms her newest memoir, on how to write yourself out of “failure” and what you discover as you do. Established writers don’t often speak publicly of the hard times, but Michele was very generous to remind us that every book can be a struggle, when you are trying to push both yourself and the form, but any writer can turn a book around, if she can find the strength and self-belief. The process turned into two books and a new agent for her – which isn’t bad going at all for a bout of “failure”!
KEEP GOING: When I asked her for one last bit of advice for us, she simply said to keep going, even when it feels like there is not enough support or encouragement, in the long slog of rewriting and the fear the book will never come together, or in the wake of an editor’s “no”. At any age, we can down tools and decide the work is too hard – or we can pick ourselves up, strengthen our resolve, and just keep going. The writers I most admire are all in it for the long haul. How about you?