THE MAKING OF A NOVELIST
As everyone knows, Those Who Serve was Marcia’s first novel. The only problem is that is not quite true. Many years before Marcia was published we lived for a while on our boat whilst I was writing a book about sailing and articles for Yachts and Yachting. My guess is that we are talking about 1982 (Starting Cruising was published in 1983).
Somewhere along the way, I persuaded Marcia to write – so convinced was I that she had the creativity and command of English needed to become a first class novelist. I can see her now, sitting in a small cabin off the galley that we called ‘The Snug’ working away in longhand in large exercise books. Having finished this she became totally disinterested in writing anything more and, in any event, our lives were to change as we came to live ashore again. It was an extremely well written book but it was very autobiographical (as are so many ‘first novels’). It would, indeed, have been a real mistake to have had it published even if a publisher could have been found. I do not even know what happened to that manuscript as I have never asked but I would not be surprised to learn that Marcia has destroyed it.
Importantly, however, the fact that she had written this book spurred me on to doing something I would otherwise have not considered. I bought a copy of The Artists and Writers Year Book and worked through details of all the publishers who handled fiction and made copious notes on all of those that I thought might be interested in buying something written by Marcia – always assuming that I could persuade her to write another book. Later, much later when I had bought an early computer, I was to create a data base from all these details so that I could ‘rate’ each publisher in what I thought was the most sensible order in which to approach them. It was to prove to have been a worthwhile exercise.
Many years later – certainly more than ten – and we had come ashore, spent a few months in a thatched cottage by the sea at Blackpool (the one near Dartmouth in Devon – not the one with the tower), moved into the wing of a large country house and then to a flat in Dartmouth. Shortly after that I found I was doing work that was centred to the north of Exeter and so we moved to a cottage near Tiverton. About a year later, again driven by work, we found ourselves on the north coast of Cornwall on the cliffs above Boscastle. Then a friend of mine who lived in a delightful cottage not far from Launceston had to move and by some miracle we were able to sell the house near Boscastle and buy his with very little of the trauma that usually goes with buying and selling property.
What had all that to do with the making of a novelist? Marcia walked with the dogs over all manner of countryside in the south west and I am convinced that this period gave her the insights into and passion for the south west in all its variety that informs all her books (and into the minds of the dogs – and few of her novels are devoid of the odd dog). In passing I should perhaps mention that we were living near Tiverton when we bought our first Newfoundland – a bitch called Lydia.
And, of course, she still read – a lot – most of the time, in fact. It seems she had developed this habit when she was quite small, despite the fact that her family were not great readers. However, her mother had an extraordinary gift for finding very unusual children’s books that she would read to Marcia at bedtime. Obviously this was before Marcia could read for herself: Marcia wanted to learn to read as soon as she possibly could. There were other parts of the day besides bed time when one needed to be reading.
Luckily, in the house next door lived a retired Indian Army officer called Rob. Rob had quite a library and Marcia was free to borrow and read whatever she wanted: she steadily worked through everything he had to offer. None of these books would have been found in the children’s section of the library and Marcia frequently found herself reading matter that was going over her head. Nothing daunted, if she did not understand a book on the first reading but there was something there to hold her interest she would happily read it again, and again if need be, until it began to make sense. Then on one magical day when she was eight years old she discovered the public library in Bristol and, as she puts it, she really thought she had died and gone to heaven. She was still stretching her mind by reading all manner of novels (some of which I have to admit are way above my head) until she began to write at which point she found to her consternation that she could not do both. Thus for the six months or so each year when she is actually working on the manuscript she turns to another of her loves – poetry. I have benefited greatly from all of that: without her I doubt whether I would have read and thoroughly enjoyed books by people such as David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel (and I could mention the names of other authors where I have just given up because I had little idea of what they were trying to say). And so it was that after an apprenticeship that lasted at least forty years, the time came to put everything she had absorbed into practice.
There was one more childhood influence that was hugely important: Miss Chate, her English teacher. As Marcia put it, ‘She was very strict, not a bit “touchy feely”, but her passion for the written word was inspiring.’ Certainly it was a passion that had taken root in Marcia and flourishes to this day.
Meanwhile the business in which I was a partner was being badly hit by the recession in the 1990’s and Marcia wanted to do something to help out. As you can imagine she came up with all sorts of ideas (none of which seemed to me to be very sensible) so I seized the opportunity to nag her into writing. Eventually she agreed and came up with a short novel that she called Pay Day. It was a story about a naval wife called Cassandra who had a number of affairs culminating in one that resulted in the death of her eldest daughter. Yes, it was a small part of what was eventually to be Marcia’s first novel.
Now, is the time to mention a friend of ours: David Goddard. After spending much of his working life as a television producer, director and writer in the drama department of the BBC, David went to Australia to become Head of Drama for ABC. Returning to the UK, he joined Yorkshire Television where he set up (and became the first producer of) the series Emmerdale Farm. He had long since retired when we met him.
David (that’s him on the horse) read the manuscript – and promptly turned it into a screen play which he called Naval Manoeuvres. Then he took time to work through both this and her manuscript with Marcia: this interchange with a real professional was another step in the long process that created this particular novelist. David taught Marcia two important things: the need to revisit every single sentence until absolutely certain that it could not be improved and the truth behind the phrase ‘less is more’ – the latter in a rather dramatic way. They were looking at a particular sentence and David suddenly asked, ‘What is wrong with this sentence?’ When Marcia was unable to come up with an answer, he just crossed out two or three words and Marcia saw at once what he meant. Since then, ‘less is more’ is a concept we have both applied to our writing.
Even now there was to be a further fallow period: it was a couple of years later that Marcia revisited Pay Day. When she was satisfied that there was no more she could do, she said to me, ‘Now it’s over to you to sell it’. When giving a talk, Marcia tells her audience that that is what I did. It wasn’t nearly as simple as that as we shall see.
Meanwhile, the novelist was now made.