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Writers as Outsiders

An image of books on a bookshelf.

RLF Fellows James Attlee, Lesley Glaister, Ruth Dugdall, and Mark Blacklock examine the idea of not fitting in, whether that means being an outsider, moving between genres, tackling loneliness or facing rejection.

Episode 458

RLF Introduction: Hello, and welcome to Writers Aloud, the podcast about writing from the Royal Literary Fund.

In this episode, four Royal Literary Fund writers explore what it means not to fit in, and how this idea relates to their writing. Creative nonfiction author James Attlee goes first, talking about being an outsider.

James Attlee: Many writers, it seems, are born outsiders, looking at the world askew. Brian Aldiss put it well when he wrote of himself that ‘by an accident of upbringing, and then by dint of a long sojourn in the tropics, I have become a Steppenwolf. A Steppenwolf enters civil society, is peaceable, but finds it faulty. Such is my disposition’.

What is it that we find faulty? Sometimes it’s other writers and the way they have approached the topic we are hoping to write about. Of course, we learn from those we admire, but it is just as important to our process, I believe, to differentiate ourselves from those whose work does not chime with us, however successful they may be, or however much they represent the established order. Above all, we reject the status quo that dictates who can or cannot write about a particular subject. As a nonfiction author I have repeatedly stepped into areas in which I am supremely unqualified, with the outsider’s belief that if I can decode what I find there, then my readers will come along on that journey to understanding. Indeed, I have grown to believe that outsider status in such a situation is an advantage — you have no academic overlord to answer to: your job is simply to comprehend and then explain what you have discovered, in language free of the suffocating rules, conventions and vocabulary that make so many disciplines opaque to the general reader.

Outsider status is not only useful to the writer in terms of positioning themselves, but to the practicality of doing research in the field. As someone who has leant heavily on chance encounters and conversations with strangers as I move through a location to generate material, I have found that people open up to me precisely because I am an outsider — as a blow-in, a wandering star, I present no threat; I will vanish again soon enough. But how can this position be maintained when you are not free to venture far — are constrained by circumstances, whether domestic or global, to your own neighbourhood? At such times, it’s well to remember these words of wisdom from an unlikely source: G. K. Chesterton wrote in his essay ‘The Riddle of the Ivy’ that ‘The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land’. In other words, the outsider’s eye must be maintained, even in the most familiar settings.

But there is a paradox at the heart of this thesis. The writer’s life is solitary: what anyone pursuing the craft discovers is that too long spent on the outside can feed tendencies unconducive to creativity. One of the prime motivations for writing is to alter that condition. Once the project is finished, published and hopefully well received, they will have built a community — of readers, booksellers, audiences at talks and other writers, so that, temporarily at least, their solitude is over, and the outsider can step back through the portal into a place they call home.

RLF: That was James Attlee. Writing itself sometimes doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes other people create for it, as novelist Lesley Glaister is well aware. In the following talk, she reveals what she has learnt about moving genre.

Lesley Glaister: Years ago, a publisher invited me to a meeting to discuss my work.

‘We’re all puzzled that you don’t sell more books,’ she said, over tea and Hobnobs, ‘and we wonder if you might try making your characters more normal?’

Meekly I crept away feeling puzzled and stung, but willing to consider the idea. By ‘normal’, I took her to mean more mainstream or relatable.

But my characters were (and are) normal as far as I’m concerned. Normalmto me, at least. I did try writing something with the ‘normal’ injunction in mind but, hampered by self-consciousness, succeeded in creating a hideously flat and wooden cypher, on pages fit only for the recycling bin.

On another occasion, my agent suggested that I turn my hand to writing crime. He pointed out that crimes often occur in my novels, but that I don’t make them central to the plot. Why not bring them forward? Temporarily lured by the idea of mega-bucks, I did try writing a crime novel. I churned out about twenty thousand words of something pacey, starting with a body and a feisty private detective. It was working in its own terms, but I found my interest waning. I couldn’t really care about the characters, and the ghastly self-consciousness set in again, so I put it aside and returned to writing…but writing what?

‘It’s a mystery that Lesley Glaister isn’t better known’ is the sort of wellmeant yet maddening comment that often turns up in reviews of my novels, and, of course, this is the issue that my editor and agent were addressing. And fair enough. Their advice wasn’t bad in itself, only uncomfortable for me to follow. After all, there are many literary novelists who’ve successfully turned their hand to writing crime, either alongside or instead of their original work. The trouble is that, though I occasionally read crime fiction, I’m not naturally drawn to writing it, and have discovered that I can’t bring myself to write something the length of a novel if my heart isn’t in it. I only want to write the stories I feel compelled to tell (where these arise from, and why, I really don’t know or even want to know).

My novels are categorized as ‘literary fiction’ but some are in part psychological thriller, most contain elements of suspense, crimes occur, some have historical settings, others are somewhat gothic and macabre (I once found one shelved in a horror section). Of course, this kind of genre fluidity isn’t particularly unusual among fiction writers. But it is why my editor and agent tried to get me to go in one way or the other. Be more mainstream literary (whatever that means) or else go headlong into genre, rather than sitting on what, it seems to me, is an arbitrary fence. This of course, makes sense — particularly to booksellers and marketers of fiction.

But I find that I can only feel comfortable and authentic straddling that wobbly genre-fluid fence, so on that fence I’ll stay.

RLF: Lesley Glaister there. Writing can be a solitary pursuit. Hours alone at the desk can sometimes lead to loneliness. So how do writers deal with spending a long time in their own company? Ruth Dugdall shares her thoughts.

Ruth Dugdall: Loneliness is knowing the language, but not understanding the subtext.

It’s entering a crowded café, and no-one looking up.

It’s walking down a familiar street, and feeling lost.

Twice, I’ve lived in foreign countries where I knew no-one. Both times, I experienced the isolation and heavy weight of loneliness.

My first experience was Luxembourg. A beautiful country wedged between more important neighbours, struggling with its sense of self. It has its own language, yet French is spoken in the city and German in the villages. I arrived knowing none of these three languages, not even able to locate the country on a map.

In the days and weeks before I found my compass, books were the friends I could rely on. Much-loved books, that I could revisit to anchor myself into the familiar. Lose myself in a book and ignore the fact that around me was a strange place I must learn to navigate. I visited the library — that universal temple to books, place of worship for writers everywhere. Familiar stacks of paperbacks, the communal hush.

After a brief return home, I relocated again, this time to California. Without the fixed arenas of office or school to make contacts, I wandered aimlessly around downtown Palo Alto, not even knowing how to order a coffee. You’d think it would be universal, but everything on the Starbucks menu involved macha or chai. A flat white seemed out of the question.

Dante, when he was exiled to Ravenna and homesick for Florence, said that the bread never tasted right there. This, more than anything I’ve ever heard, sums up the feeling of being homesick. There is something simply wrong about food in a strange place when you’re longing for home. How terribly British, that I was parched for a decent cup of tea.

What I really longed for, of course, was a friend.

Loneliness is a well-trod path for writers; natural outsiders, we are adept at looking both outwards and within, examining the paradox of living amongst others and yet feeling completely alone. The feeling of loneliness makes all connections when they come – and they always do, no matter how unlikely that feels – extra intense and valuable.

The friendships made during those years of exile were stronger than any I’ve made on home turf.

Everything is heightened when we’re lonely. Every slight feels like a mortal blow. We are so exposed, so vulnerable. And this is the perfect emotional space for writing.

Loneliness is productive.

In Luxembourg I wrote both Humber Boy B and Nowhere Girl at a pace triggered by isolation and the solace of the empty page. Both novels are about the disconnect of being somewhere strange.

In California I wrote The Seventh Circle, about a British girl – Rowan – who arrives at Stanford University in search of a fresh start. Again, the novel speaks to the experience of being an outsider.

Now, home again, I’m often nostalgic for the perfect isolation of arriving in a strange place. Loneliness has an austere appeal. That perfect isolation that can produce the best in a writer, forcing us to watch, taking the pain of loneliness and placing it onto the page, where everything finally makes sense.

RLF: That was Ruth Dugdall. Solitude may be one challenge for wellbeing, but hearing that someone doesn’t want the work that you’ve spent a long time on can also be very tough. In the final talk in this episode, novelist, cultural historian and journalist Mark Blacklock reveals how he deals with professional knockbacks and hearing that his work doesn’t fit.

Mark Blacklock: When my third novel was rejected by ten publishers, my friend, Martin Eve, reassured me with the message: ‘Just remember Beckett’s rejection streak. Was it eighteen? I’m sure you’ll get there’.

I value Martin’s opinion highly – he’s a garlanded scholar – so the fact that he was reassuring me at all was a consolation. And these were the words I needed to hear at that point in time. I was not so deluded as to compare myself to Samuel Beckett in any other way – hair, maybe, on certain days – but it helped a great deal to know that publishers make terrible, terrible mistakes. I was entering the second phase of grief for my stricken masterpiece. I’d been through denial, ushered into anger by seeing the actual rejection letters, which made it clear that only three of the publishers who’d declined the book had actually read it.

Beckett’s rejections were, I knew, for Watt, the novel he had been writing in France during the late stages of the Second World War, while moving around to evade the occupying Germans. I own the full four volumes of Beckett’s correspondence since taking them in lieu of payment for an essay for Cambridge University Press — I may not sell many of my own books but I know how to max out on value in the trade: always go for longevity and shelf-space.

A glance at the chronology told the story in blunt terms. 6th of June 1945: Routledge rejects Watt. 8th of April 1946, Chatto & Windus turn down Watt. 3rd of September 1946: Methuen rejects Watt. 27 th of August 1947: London publisher Hamish Hamilton considering Watt. By 24th of November, Hamish Hamilton has rejected Watt. And on. And on.

Beckett wrote to George Reavey, who’d sent it to Hamish Hamilton, to say: ‘I myself forget what it’s all about but I’m sure it will come back to me, with the proofs. Domicile me wherever you think best, all I want is money’. I think he was in the third stage of grief then: bargaining.

He did get some money eventually, but not much of it, in August 1953, when Watt was published by the Olympia Press following the success of Waiting for Godot. In the intervening years his mother had died. I look nervously at a photograph of my own mother.

Beckett’s story is not uncommon. Orwell’s Animal Farm was turned down for Faber and Faber by T. S. Eliot, Harry Potter was famously rejected twelve times and, as Robert K. Galbraith, Rowling was rejected again: it’s easier to be accepting of rejection when you’re already a multimillionaire. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected several times until an editor bothered to read past the first chapter and realised it just needed, well, editing.

I read about Helen De Witt, whose Lightning Rods is a brilliant satire of her own experiences with the industry when publishing her novel, The Last Samurai. Outraged at poor editing, De Witt took that back from her first publisher. Writers aren’t supposed to do that. We’re meant to be accepting of the power of publishers, despite their obvious mistakes. It’s not helping me to move beyond the anger phase, but I’m not sure I care. More of us should invert the dynamic. I have a new mantra: Reject publishers.

RLF outro: That was Mark Blacklock concluding this episode, which was produced by Ann Morgan. There’s information about all four writers featured today on the RLF website.

Next time: Royal Literary Fund writers explore the power and joy of reading.

We hope you’ll join us.

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