Julia Hamilton is the author of six novels, most recently Forbidden Fruits and Other People’s Rules, both from HarperCollins. Before those, Julia published with Penguin (A Pillar of Society, The Good Catholic, and After Flora) and Collins / Flamingo (The Idle Hill of Summer). Other People’s Rules was described by Rosamunde Pilcher as “A clever story, a really good read.”
I was leafing through a book about writing by Stephen King and was struck by what he has to say about being a writer: ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut…….I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories.’ How true, I thought to myself, how direct and sensible. If you want to be a writer…..read a lot and write a lot.
What he’s really talking about here is the vast hinterland of books that forms a writer and keeps the writer going throughout his or her working life. You have to read and read and read and then read some more and never stop. Reading is the vital fuel for the writer’s imagination. It doesn’t matter what you read but read you must. Novelists read to see how other novelists do it. If you don’t read novels there’s not much chance that you’ll write a decent one yourself. There’s a passage in Joan Didion’s wonderful book The Year of Magical Thinking in which she describes her husband the novelist, John Gregory Dunne, standing in their swimming pool in Brentwood, California reading William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice to see how he had managed a certain scene in that novel. This vivid picture of a writer standing up in a swimming pool reading a book entranced me. I’ve read in bus queues and walking along the street and in other weird and wonderful places too but never standing up in a swimming pool. Something to look forward to.
And then there’s the other thing he says, write a lot. I wrote my first novel when I was about ten – fortunately for posterity the script is lost – but the urge was there early to try and render life as I saw it going on around me. It’s extraordinary how difficult it is to do this. We observe closely and we try and communicate our thoughts and it comes out all wrong, wrong, wrong! But the thing about writing is that practice doesn’t make perfect but it helps. You have to keep doing it and getting it wrong and then something happens – sometimes – and what has been so unbearably, infuriatingly wrong suddenly comes right. I had to write numerous drafts of my first novel and it just wouldn’t come right, but I didn’t give up. I found I had some steely, resistant inner core when it came to rejection and I just kept re-doing it until, suddenly, and I remember this, I was redrafting it for the final time and the whole thing just fell into place. I knew it had, too, and I’ll never forget that feeling of euphoria. I sold that novel to the first publisher who saw it. The second novel was more difficult and my second novel remains unpublished to this day. But I published several more novels after that first one and some were easier to write than others. I must have written millions of unpublished words but that’s the way it goes in the writer’s life. These unpublished words are another part of my hinterland as a writer. I don’t consider a single word wasted. To quote Forster: ‘How can I tell what I think till I see what I say’ or, for another take on the subject here’s Mathew Arnold:-
“Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say and feel — below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.”
Let me allow Stephen King the last word on the subject: ‘We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style….but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.’