Timing, connections and CHANCE ENCOUNTERS all play a part. LAUREN BERRY‘s first novel LIVING THE DREAM is published this week …
‘If it’s not funny, don’t do it’ was the motto of my twenties, which led to some pretty bad decisions and some pretty good material.
I was doing things ‘for the material’ long before I had an outlet beyond a notebook in my bag. We’d sit around after a bad day of temping in some horrible office, or the morning after the night before and smile wryly ‘it’s all material though.’
Cut to age 28, I got married and moved into a flat in north London that had a bookshelf built into the stairs (the height of sophistication). I was a couple of years into a career as a copywriter and if my life were a romcom, it was time for the credits to roll. But my job was brain freeze tedium, my flat was a rental with a dodgy landlord and a mouse problem, and a husband is just a boyfriend that’s harder to dump. None of these things is The Happy Ever After, they’re just status updates.
Realising that things didn’t magically fall into place was a bit of a shock. 28 is supposed to be adulthood, I hadn’t really thought about what would happen after that and in spite of all those markers of adulthood, I still felt like a scruffy teenager, and most of the time I dressed like one too.
Instead of saving up, or putting a deposit on a house or getting an ISA, or any of the things grown ups probably do at this stage in their lives, I signed up for an MA. I took a part time job in a well paid but staggeringly boring role and studied narrative non-fiction for novels at City University.
I thought I was a non-fiction writer, and that my stories were true. But studying non-fiction means there’s no room for exaggeration, they were obsessed with truth and verification and I realised I wanted to be able to write the things I wished I’d said but was too polite, or too late to actually say.
I dropped the MA but used the money it would have cost to quit my job and commit to writing the book. Transitioning from diary-esque chapters to proper fiction was brilliantly liberating, building characters and making them dance for me made writing easier and more fun because it wasn’t about me anymore, it was about all the people we pretend to be. It took six months of sitting in empty houses on my own, drinking coffee and staring at my laptop, with intermittent periods returning to London to take temp jobs and make enough cash to go back into hiding.
I finished the first draft in 2012 and showed it to an editor I had been working with. She told me it missed the mark, and although I was funny and well written, I had lost my voice in this book and should bin it.
I was surprised. I was gutted. I didn’t have the confidence, or the tenacity to fight her. I took myself back to work full time and thought, ‘oh well, fuck it, I can always have kids.’
That could have been the end of the story, but my best friend, Claire, was adamant that the editor was wrong. I sent her the latest version, which she read in a day and loved. She begged me not to wallow in the rejection. But I wasn’t convinced – she was my best mate, she had to say that.
Time flies whether you’re having fun or not and it was a year later before Claire told me she’d had the book printed and bound, so at least it existed whether I liked it or not. She had it in her bag and was reading it again and loving it still. The injury of rejection had healed a bit by then, so I started to think about self-publishing and I re-opened the document, it made me laugh and still felt wholly relevant. The relationships that Emma, the main character, has with her colleagues, her ‘work family’ were as true to my experience in my new job as they had been in the temp roles, and most of the jobs in-between. I realised there was a universality to the characters, and maybe it was worth another look.
What happened next happened quickly, the print out Claire had made got into the hands of a TV company exec, she loved it and raved about it. I realised she had no reason to humour me so sent it to an agent recommended by a friend. He said he loved it, his assistant loved it, I signed with them and after lots more work with some really great editors, it exists, for real.
Timing, connections and chance encounters are a major theme of the book. There were lots of ‘I’ve made it’ moments while I was writing, but now I’ve had enough of them to know that it’s seemingly minor events that can be life-changing and that we’re all just working towards the next happy ever after.
Living The Dream (£14.99stg) by Lauren Berry is published by Virago on July 6.
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