I have the final cover artwork for New World Fairy Tales. This is it. This is how my book is going to look when it goes out into the big, bad world.
There’s a comforting feeling of shared-experience about this moment. All published writers, anywhere, ever – the great ones and the terrible ones and the ones in between – have been where I am right now. We’ve all had that same feeling, the one that’s not as negative as fear and not as confident as excitement, knowing that for the very first time, our words are about to become a commercial object. A thing people will pick up in shops and buy. Something, in fact, that people are expected to pay money in order to own.
That’s the real test of whether your writing’s any good, I suppose; whether someone will actually pay money for it.
And everyone around me is so excited for me! I’d always secretly assumed this would be a private moment, with meaning only to me and maybe my immediate family. But as it turns out, all my friends and acquaintances are thrilled for me as well! Even relative strangers, overhearing discussions in the school playground or in supermarket queues, burst impetuously into the conversation – “You’ve got a book coming out? That’s so amazing! Congratulations! What’s it called? When is it published? What’s it about? And where did you get the idea?” And then, the lovely but sadly unlikely prediction; “You’ll be the next J K Rowling.”
Of course I won’t, and I know I won’t; but that’s okay. I’ve got my ambitions, but setting the bar at “I want to be the next Jo Rowling” is about as realistic as “I want to win the lottery five weeks in a row”. Here’s what I’d like to achieve. I very much want to live up to the three generations of published authors in my family who’ve gone before me.
My great-grandfather William May, who was a Methodist minister with a late-Victorian-size family to feed, wrote a seemingly endless series of didactic semi-tract-like books for use as study-guides in Sisterhood meetings. They were about a middle-aged unmarried woman called Mary-Martha (d’you see what he did there?), and the moral lessons which could be drawn from her life-experiences. Surprisingly, they’re much better than I’ve made them sound. Sometimes my brother and I hold late-night readings of them, and fall about laughing at our long-gone ancestor. Meanwhile our spouses look at us and then at each other, and eventually leave us to get on with it and find something less ludicrous to do instead. Of course, the Mary-Martha series is long out of print, but I still have a few of them, and they turn up in charity shops and on AbeBooks from time to time.
And once, in his heyday, William J May filled an entire shop-window. A whole window-display, just of his words! We have a photo of it somewhere. I never met you, William, which is probably a good thing, since I suspect that much about my life would scandalise you to your bones. But you set a good standard. You were a working writer. You found a niche, and you filled it. Your words made your family’s life far more comfortable than it ever could have been on a Minister’s stipend. In that sense, I’d like to follow in your footsteps.
My grandfather – not William May’s son, but my mother’s father, Jack Fyson – wrote short stories as a sideline from his life in the Merchant Navy, and then his second life in his family’s printing business. This was back in the days when newspapers printed short fiction, so his work was even more ephemeral than William May’s. All we have now are a few crumbling newspaper cuttings. But I’ve read and loved those stories, and I remember sitting on his knee and hearing him talk about writing, and wanting to do the same. Furthermore, Jack Fyson’s work was good enough for Leslie Charteris to refer to his short stories as a model in his book on the craft of writing.
Grandpa, you were a devout atheist, so I know that you – like me – firmly rejected the intellectually dubious comfort of believing that the dead watch over the living. But I wish, so very, very much, that you could have been here to see my short stories in print. If by any chance we’re both wrong and there is a part of us that goes on, I hope you’re watching me now.
Finally, my dad Jonathan May. Dad, you were brought up by two of the loudest, most opinionated matriarchs it’s ever been my privilege to know, in the shape of my grandmother Mildred and her older sister Anne. It’s no surprise to any of us that you grew up to be rather quiet, since you – like your father – can surely have never managed to get a word in edgeways. When you were working as a Rig Medic at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster, and you answered that desperate radio call for everyone with a smidgen of medical skill to get the hell over to Piper field right now, and you and so many others worked through the darkness and the smoke and the flames and the unspeakable horror to save the lives of sixty-one men, it didn’t surprise us that afterwards you only told us the bare facts of what it had been like. Instead, you stayed up late into the night for months and months, and wrote your story into a novel. When Carol Blake agented it and Hodder and Stoughton published it and we read it, we all cried. From your Amazon reviews, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. One day, dad, I’d like to write something as moving as your account of what that night meant to you.
So, now it’s my turn. My turn to wait for the presses to roll; my turn to wait for those precious author-copies to drop through the letterbox. My turn to wait and see if anyone actually buys my work, my turn to wait and see what they make of it when they do.
William, Jack and Jon, this is my ambition. I want to live up to you.