Catherine Chanter, 2013 Fiction Prize winner with The Well, shares her journey as an author.
The view from here
Ten years ago, I was on a train to London for my first ever appointment with a literary agent, buoyed up with excitement and weighed down by a novel which I had sent out as an unsolicited manuscript. (In those days, you needed an advance just to cover the cost of the postage. It was a vicious circle.)
Eight hours later, I was heading in the other direction. The three agents I met were full of insightful suggestions as to how I could make The Well a more marketable proposition. The female protagonist was too old to be attractive. Another death in the novel might nudge it into the crime genre more securely. There should be less religion; religion puts people off. They all had a point, but it was not the point of the novel. I stuffed the pages into a bottom drawer: if it couldn’t be published as the text I envisaged, then it wouldn’t be published at all. I do not offer this as good advice.
A prize I never believed I’d win
The following weekend, googling around (as you do as a writer when you’ve run out of words) I stumbled across the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. I hit send, forgot all about it and pressed on with the day job. Now, adolescent in-patient mental health units are not places conducive to administrative efficiency. May 2013. Several unanswered phone messages are piled up on post-its in the office. Have I received the invitation to the prize giving dinner?
Over drinks, I witter on to a distinguished lady about Cambridge/the problem with prizes/ etc, only to discover I am talking to Professor Janet Todd, the president. After coffee, totally unprepared, I deliver an excruciating acceptance speech in which I say that this is probably the point at which one thanks one’s agent, except that I don’t have one and are there any takers?
The close-up retrospective view from here is toe-curling, to say the least. I would put it down to youth except I was fifty-four years old at the time.
A new perspective
Pan out, however, the panorama has changed and I am facing a new direction in a different literary landscape. After two successful novels, I have discovered the enormous challenge, but immense reward of writing creative non-fiction.
My new book, A Child in the Middle, is an exploration of adoption from both a personal and professional perspective. I am still a storyteller; the account of my search for my birth parents has enough twists and turns for any lover of the detective genre. But the book also draws on my thirty years’ experience of working therapeutically with vulnerable children.
Adoption is a multi-layered concept and this drove the nature of the text and gave me the incentive to play with multiple genres which co-exist: diary entries; poetry (both my own and that of my birth mother who turned out to be a poet as well); the letters and emails we exchanged; and case notes, both from my own file and those I have written over the years to be included in the files of others.
Creative non-fiction where the facts matter
Obfuscation often clouds adoption, so authenticity has had to be my watchword. References were double checked and cited, primary sources interrogated, quotations verified. Unlike fiction, making stuff up was no longer an option. As we know only too well in 2022, the truth matters.
All those years ago, maintaining control over The Well felt important for probably all the wrong reasons, but this time around, it has been vital both as an author and as an adoptee. This, after all, really is my story. A Child in the Middle will be published by Linen Press, the only Indie women’s press in the UK. They have proved to be the right home for this, my first non-fiction baby. It will be out in the world in June this year and, like most new parents, I am simultaneously proud and terrified.
A good start in a literary life
The view from this summit shows Lucy Cavendish College as a sort of early home which gave me an amazing start in a literary life and I still feel a strong attachment to it. I can trace the lane which runs from there to here, passing through unexpected places, offering extraordinary experiences and glimpses of understanding.
To all of you who have recently made the long list or short list, congratulations! From here, it may be uphill, but it will be rich and rewarding - and certainly a much better view than staring out of the window on the delayed 17.21 from Paddington.