Why I Write

November 7, 2015 | By | 2 Replies More

Elizabeth buchanIt certainly is not for the fun of sitting hour after hour in my study on the days when the ideas have dried up at source and the words are being stickily stubborn, bad-tempered and unmalleable.

It is not for the times when, having made a journey to an out-of-the-way book festival, it is only to be told the event is cancelled.

It is certainly not for the moment when the edits arrive from my editor with a covering note which says something along the lines of: it looks worse that it is. That’s rarely true. It almost always is exactly as bad as it looks.

You might fairly conclude reading the above that, for me, writing is a grim process. Quite the reverse. It isn’t. I can’t imagine myself doing anything more exciting or rewarding. More than that it has given so many opportunities, including a lot of travel and has allow me to indulge my imagination in virtually any way I choose.

But why I write is more problematic.

As an army family, we were moved from pillar to post – Egypt, York, Edinburgh to name some of the places where my mother glumly unpacked and packed the tea chests of our belongings. This meant I did not have the chance to make many enduring friendships. In fact, I don’t think I made any real friends during those pay, pack and follow years. Of course, we met other children at the army compounds but there was never that deep-down connections of children whose lives had been entwined for years and years in the same neighbourhood.

Virginia Woolf once wrote to the effect that you are never as intimate with any human being as you are with a book. Without understanding why I did, I turned to books to give me exactly that intimacy that I was missing in my life – and I discovered that books had the power to subvert despair, lighten loneliness, rout boredom and make me laugh.

The-New-Mrs-Clifton-380x609All of these things, I badly needed when, at the age of eight, I was dispatched to an icy, God-fearing girl’s boarding school when my father was posted to Nigeria. Naturally, my mother would go with him, along with my two younger sisters, but it was thought it would be better for my education if I remained at school in England.

My hunger for them, for good food and for a home was so intense that my bones literally ached – an ache which was only soothed when I disappeared under the bedclothes with a book and a torch to read books about friendships, jolly adventures and cosy kitchens where there was always bread and jam for tea.

The stories which meant most were the ones with mothers at home in them and, by the time I clambered onto an aircraft to Nigeria, those fictional mothers were more real to me than the flesh-and-blood one who, handkerchief in hand, waited impatiently by the airport barrier in the steamy heat of Lagos.

One thing leads to another and the habits learnt in childhood can be impossible to discard. Not that I would wish to shake my reading addiction because it was one of the most important things in my life and, after my children had started secondary school, a voice whispered in my ear: why don’t you try?

My first effort was a young adult novel about a girl struggling to run a wool business from her manor during the reign of Richard 111. ‘Put it away’, the editor to whom I had sent it advised. ‘Best to regard it as a trial run.’

Wise words and I set about toughening up my writer muscles by writing a children’s biography of Beatrix Potter for Hamish Hamilton. In my ignorance, I thought a book for children/teenagers would be an easy initiation . How wrong I was. Whether you are doing it for the nine-year-old or the ninety-year-old, it requires the same thought and the same effort. However, I did learn a lot about pacing myself and about what day-to-day writing actually entails. .

I Can't Begin FINAL pbk coverThen, I fell in love with the French Revolution and was drawn to write about three women during the Terror and what happened to them. I discovered that writing and researching it gave me as much pleasure as all those years of reading under the blanket, plus a permanent sense of astonishment that I was actually creating something out of my own imagination.

The way had opened up to a new world where I was free to write about undercover agents, houses, gardens, women on the edge… anything that I chose… , culminating in my latest, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, my second wartime story of undercover agents, family division and secret codes.

It isn’t always straightforward. Some novels are better than others. Some sell better than others. I can never tell. Every writer’s life has its bad patches and they have to be negotiated. What keeps one going? There is, of course, the mortgage…. But over and over that, there is the sheer delight of seizing on a subject in which to immerse myself with the aim of creating a story that readers will find just as compelling.

Put simply, I want to try to write the novels that I would like to read. With each novel, I set out to entertain the reader in the widest sense. ‘Make them laugh, make them cry and send them home’, runs the old theatre adage. There is something in that, too, for the novelist. You are there to give your readers an experience which will nourish and entertain them. And, if you are good and lucky, your novel will earn a place in their library, either on the physical shelves or the mental one.

It is a very tall order and one on which I shall still be working as long as I am able. That is why I write.

Elizabeth Buchan began her career as a blurb writer at Penguin Books after graduating from the University of Kent with a double degree in English and History. She moved on to become a fiction editor at Random House before leaving to write full time. Her novels include the prizewinning Consider the Lily – reviewed in the Independent as ‘a gorgeously well written tale: funny, sad and sophisticated’. A subsequent novel, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman became an international bestseller and was made into a CBS Primetime Drama. Later novels included The Second Wife, Separate Beds and Daughters. Her latest, I Can’t Begin to Tell You, a story of resistance in wartime Denmark was published in 2014.

Elizabeth Buchan’s short stories are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in magazines. She reviews for the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and has chaired the Betty Trask and Desmond Elliot literary prizes. She was a judge for the Whitbread First Novel Award and for the 2014 Costa Novel Award. She is a patron of the Guildford Book Festival and of The National Academy of Writing, and sits on the author committee for The Reading Agency.

Find out more about Elizabeth on her website http://elizabethbuchan.com/

Follow her on twitter @elizabethbuchan






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Category: On Writing

Comments (2)

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  1. Hi Elizabeth, I really enjoyed reading your piece. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about trying to write for younger readers, thinking this may be easier but coming down to earth with a bump! Writing for children and young adults is, in my opinion, the hardest thing of all! I have recently become interested in the French Revolution and shall definitely put your novel on my to-read list! What is the name of this one? Thanks again for an inspiring piece, Rebecca

    • Hi Rebecca. I was so pleased to see your comment. Thank you. My French Revolution novel’s title is: Daughters of the Storm. Good luck with any of your writing and thank you again Elizabeth

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