What Getting Published At 16 Taught Me About Becoming a Writer
Catherine Banner on the Privilege and Luck it Takes to Live the Writer's Life
All writers have a journey-to-publication story, and usually it involves some element of struggle. We love to hear about the writer who received a hundred rejection letters; the writer who drove buses and wrote each evening; the writer who began at 75. But the truth is, these anecdotes are only part of the story. The real struggle to become a writer begins long before a word of the debut novel is written, when a young writer first decides to apprentice themselves to the craft. My own apprenticeship began at 15. And I think, though it is utterly unrepresentative, it says something about what it takes to make a writer, something that perhaps we need to talk about more.
I have a confession to make: I am the only person I know who got a literary agent not out of persistence but out of luck, through a chance meeting at a literary festival (I was there for a school assignment: “research the job you want to do when you leave school”). When I signed the agency contract, at 15, I was still too young by a year, technically, to be working. Therefore, I was ill-equipped to deal with the surprise of being treated by everyone around me like a real writer, and of therefore becoming one. When I received the news that a publisher had made an offer for my book, it was so unexpected, and shook me so profoundly, that I walked out of my new agent’s office, and walked, and went on walking, and ended up six miles from the train station in darkening London with no idea where I was. Afterwards, at home, I ploughed through the contract with a dictionary. A parent or guardian, by law, was required to initial every page.
In a literary world where “young writer,” usually, means someone under 35 or 40, I was a rare breed, a kind of publishing-industry experiment: a person who was a writer from the beginning, like one of those Olympic gymnasts who begins training before they can walk. When my agent first sent my work out to publishers, he left my age off the submission letter. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll always be doubting yourself.” So when my new publisher called me on the morning of my first end-of-school exam, the experience was probably as strange for them as it was for me.
In that year, 2005, there were exactly three other teenagers I knew of who wrote for a living. I followed their fortunes obsessively, searching for parallels to my own situation. Their names were Christopher Paolini, Helen Oyeyemi, and Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Paolini, according to Guinness World Records, was and still is the youngest ever author of a bestselling book series. Atwater-Rhodes, extraordinarily prolific, has written one fantasy novel every year since she was 14. Oyeyemi, of course, has gone on to become a writer of great distinction. I felt an affinity with her, the only other British writer on my (admittedly short) list, but I never met any of them. Teenage writers, in my experience, don’t meet other writers very much in general. After all, we had school to attend.
People often ask me what it was like to be such a young writer. What is it like to have every book I’ve ever written somewhere out there in the world, under scrutiny? To have had every word of my apprentice work put through the exacting mill of a publishing house’s editorial process? To have never been an aspiring writer, only a professional one? Once, a journalist even asked me if I wished I’d waited until I was 30 to publish (a question 16-year-old me simply did not understand—why would someone wait until they were old to start writing?)
The honest answer to all these questions, of course, is that it was an incredible privilege. Instead of studying writing alone, from library books, I got accustomed to having my sentences pulled apart by an editor. I spent three years asking my agent every question I could about the book trade. With an odd, unjust circularity, being a published writer was the very thing that enabled me to continue to be one. If I hadn’t been paid to be a writer from the age of 16, I would have spent my after-school working hours doing other jobs—stacking shelves and delivering newspapers—and only come to writing in the scraps of time I had left, like every other ordinary teenager who writes seriously. I wouldn’t have had time to innovate, to experiment, to get things wrong, to go back to the beginning and start again. Instead, being published gave me every opportunity a writer could possibly have to become better at her craft.
But the really important thing about beginning writing so early, the crucial thing, was this: it funded me to keep making more work. And, in turn, spending so much time writing changed the work itself. I first realized this when, on my behalf, others became fiercely ambitious. My first young adult book in their eyes was not an end-point but a beginning. When I decided not to go to university, my agent sat me down and gave me a serious talk. “You need to give yourself time to develop,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re not going to be the writer you want to be in 30 years’ time.” I was stunned that anybody cared about the kind of writer I was going to be in 30 years’ time. I hadn’t even thought much about it myself. So indirectly, it was writing, too, which gave me the means and the confidence to study literature at university, something I would not have considered before; to train as a teacher; to move from my hometown, which I had never lived away from, to the other end of England. For a long time I didn’t even write; instead, I read hundreds of other people’s books—and writing, too, was what gave me permission to do that. At times, I wondered if I would ever return to writing. Weren’t all these other books in the world enough?
But things were more complicated. In 2008 the financial crisis happened: the first global historic event of my adult life. That was my first year at university, and so, by the time I had graduated, it had insinuated itself into everything. By 2012, I was living in the northeast of England in a small ex-mining town, working as a teacher. When I had any time off, or any money to spare, I spent it traveling by long-distance train to the opposite end of Europe, to the small towns in Italy where many of my extended family lived. During those years I began to be preoccupied by signs that something was not right in small-town Europe: by boarded houses and closed factories on the estate where I lived; by the increased difficulty of everybody I knew to get a job; by my own two-hour commute and temporary contract; in Italy, by the ubiquitous pawn-shop notices on every main street which read “Compro Oro”: We Buy Gold.
Now, when I turned to books to try and make sense of what I was seeing, as all compulsive readers do, a strange thing happened: I couldn’t find any post-financial crisis stories. I wanted to read about young people in small places and what happens to those places when the shockwaves of history break over their shores. There’s a Toni Morrison quote that I’ve always loved: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t yet been written, then you must write it.” I had used this phrase in the past as a way of justifying to myself my prolonged absence from writing: why write any longer, when all the books I wanted to read were already there, written by other people? Except they weren’t: not this one, not this small-town European book I wanted to read. The preoccupation would not leave me alone. It was not the book I had expected to write, but it was the book that possessed me.
I wrote The House at the Edge of Night as most writers work, in circumstances which were themselves somewhat provisional. At times, my idea of telling the story of the hundred years leading up to the financial crisis through a single European family seemed ludicrously ambitious: it required leaps of space and time and character; techniques like free indirect style which I had purposefully avoided previously for their technical difficulty; months of research. In 2013, I saved up a small amount of money, and gave up my job as a teacher to finish it.
What made the difference between abandoning the book and persevering? Sometimes it felt like very little. But there was a persistent flame in me, fed almost exclusively by other people’s conviction. By the apprenticeship I had received; by the belief my former editors had instilled in me that anyone—even a 16-year-old—could be a writer if they had something to say and knew how to say it; by my loyal agent, reading each chapter of the draft. At many points during those months I felt myself to be working at the edge of something, discovering the terrain as I traversed it, as though passing a torch over an unlit room. I was a debut novelist again, without a publishing contract. I had no local research library, no formal historical training. Instead I researched in archive newspapers online, and in arcane books my local public library dug for me from the stacks of neighboring counties, some of them last borrowed before I was born. I spoke to my family-in-law about Italy’s past, and when they couldn’t remember it I sought out eyewitness accounts instead, learning for the first time to read fluently in Italian. As I wrote, my agent and my husband read each chapter in parallel. I edited obsessively, stripped back and reworked everything that didn’t ring true to them or to me. And as I wrote I reread what other writers had to say about the craft, a habit I’d developed as a 15-year-old seeking guidance in an unfamiliar world of professional writing. From Virginia Woolf to Mario Vargas Llosa, I was reminded that in many respects, the process of writing is the same whoever you are and however many times you have done it: a process of searching and obscurity, not of conviction and strength. That the process of writing a novel—messy, protracted and indirect—is, like tidying a house, not to be abandoned at the moment of utmost chaos.
Until it was done, nevertheless, I didn’t know if The House at the Edge of Night would be my debut adult novel or a lengthy, failed experiment. On the night I heard the novel had been accepted by a publisher, I had almost run out of writing time. All the money I had left was in a box on my desk, scraped together each week from casual work tutoring and audio typing. That box of loose change and small banknotes was a reminder of how close I had come to the edge of something—to loss, to failure, to resignation; of how close I had come to giving up.
It was during this time that I began to realize the great gift I had been given ten years earlier. Most teenagers with a wish to write have stories to tell, often brilliant, important ones, but no apprenticeship like mine by which to develop the craft necessary to tell them. There are routes: the MFA, or the life-experience approach favored by the privately wealthy, or writing in whatever bits of time you can eke out from your day job. I knew from the biographies in the backs of their books that some of the writers I admired had done these things, and out of these things had come debut novels. And I had always written part time, so I knew about balancing writing with other commitments. But I am the only person I know who was, quite literally, funded by the publishing industry to learn how to become a writer.
One of the pieces on this website that has consistently struck a chord with readers, and did so with me when I first read it, is Lorraine Berry’s article on the literary class system. I recognized in her account a great truth about the lotteries and injustices of the methods by which we fund the development of new writers. Berry talks eloquently of the systemic barriers that keep many writers from accessing writing opportunities. But there’s another problem: where do young writers from ordinary backgrounds (both working and middle class, from all nations and cultures) find the huge swathes of time required to develop their craft at all? Writing is a profession with a painfully, incrementally long apprenticeship period. Sometimes it takes half a lifetime for a voice to emerge. And writing success is often sold as a tale of individual persistence, but when I was a teacher I worked with teenagers from all backgrounds, including some of the most deprived, and in my experience, a young person needs two things above all to succeed: the belief of others, to carry them through those periods when they don’t believe in themselves, and at least one stroke of good luck. The initial good fortune I received, and the thousand other opportunities that followed, and the hundred people who were ambitious on my behalf, are what made me a writer; it would be a lie to claim anything else, because my own hard work alone could never have been enough. And so we need to talk about what happens to the young writer of promise who doesn’t win the writing-apprenticeship lottery as a teenager, who has to somehow make that ten-year journey alone.