Was writing something you always wanted to do?
ST: When I look back, it is really obvious that it’s what I wanted to do. But I once I hit school age, I just thought it would be impossible to be a writer. Nobody had those ambitions, and you weren’t really allowed to. Nobody could say ‘I want to be an actress or a ballerina…’ Being a writer was part of that. You had to say ‘I want to be a lawyer, or a doctor’. In those days – as is maybe still the case – you were supposed to want to get a job where you could support yourself. It was fashionable that everyone wanted to be an actress and your parents would say ‘but you should do something you can fall back on’. Only the real flakes would say ‘No, I definitely do want to be acrobat’ or something. Being a writer was just like that. You see you couldn’t go and do a degree in being a writer, so there was no qualification. Again, it was all based on getting a certificate that says you can do this thing to then get a job doing that thing. So, I really didn’t have actual writing ambitions. I wanted to be an actress. I did try to write a novel when I was 18, finished it, didn’t know who to show it to or what to do with it, so I just put it in a drawer. It was a Marxist-feminist choose-your-own-adventure novel.
I had never had any contact with anyone from the literary world. No contact with anyone who even knew what an agent was or what a publisher was. And the minute I met one of those people, a struggling writer who knew details about that world and had the Writer and Artists Handbook and kept getting rejected… When I saw that you just had to write a book and send it to that place, that’s when I started to actually try and do just that.
When did you publish your first book? How old were you?
ST: I was just 25, I think.
And did you already have contacts to give your work to by that point?
ST: No, I literally knew nobody. So we’re back in the days of emails just having been invented but no one really using them. We had to send hard copies or fax things. But if you wanted to get rejected by an agent, you had to ring them up. In those early days, I would spend a long time trying to summon up the courage to go through the Writer and Artists handbook and telephone agents, who would mostly answer their phones themselves. Or an assistant would answer, and then you’d have twenty seconds to pitch your work and tell them that you had a book and ask them what they read.
To what extent do you think the way in which young writers make first contact with the industry has changed?
ST: It has changed dramatically. First of all, you can follow agents on Twitter or Instagram and get an idea of who they are, what their personality is. You can directly email agents. Even when they say not to on their website, I still recommend that you do find a way. There are lots of ways of getting the right contact and connecting with them directly. And then you can write a really good email telling them who you are and what your project is. If the agent is interested, they will respond rather quickly.
I just think that phone calls can be so cruel. They demand an answer right then and there.
Is there any advice you would give to young writers thinking about making that first contact with the literary world?
ST: I think you have to feel like you completely 100% believe in what you’ve done, and that if you were in the agent’s position, that you would be desperate to take this project on yourself. If you don’t believe in what you’ve done, then nobody else will. It has to have that energy, where you think you’ve done something amazing, not in an arrogant way, but that you know that it’s something other people will want to read, and that you feel enthusiastic about getting it out there. The best work always has a sense of urgency.
SCARLETT THOMAS was born in London in 1972. Her novels include Bright Young Things, Going Out, PopCo, Seed Collectorsand The End of Mr. Y, which was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007. Her first novel for children, Dragon’s Green – the first in the thrilling Worldquake sequence, was published in 2017. She teaches at the University of Kent.
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