I read my first Roald Dahl book, The BFG, to my daughter at the age of twenty-seven. Although I was a keen reader from the age of three, we didn’t have many books in my household. Learning wasn’t encouraged outside of school and I didn’t take part in extracurricular activities. Time after school consisted of watching TV, eating tea and going to bed. Despite top grade predictions, I didn’t do well in my GCSE’s thanks to a turbulent home life. But somehow, I got in to college. They suggested I take English Literature, Sociology and Photography. I soon started to fall behind in photography due to finances. My mum didn’t have the means to help, nor did she particularly see photography as a skill worth investing in. Feeling disillusioned with my future, and struggling with increasingly tense home life, I dropped out. By seventeen, I was homeless.
Fast forward ten years and I am married with two children. I was eighteen when I met my husband and for a while we were supported by his middle-class family. Instantly, I could see the differences in our childhoods despite only ever living several miles apart. His grandad was a doctor. His mother was a regional bank manager. He was encouraged to play sports as a kid and go skiing. Due to his college education, I decided he should be the one to go to University and I should do any job I could. I became a care worker on minimum wage.
My husband lives in the same house, has the same bank balance, deals with the same broken kitchen tap and drives the same car as I do. We have both been living the same life for ten years and yet I still feel the effects of growing up working class. It’s more than being broke. It’s about opportunities that pass you by because they’re too expensive or require a car to get there. It’s when everyone in your family is a labourer or a cleaner and you don’t even know people with aspirational jobs who can inspire you or help you get a leg up in a career. It’s when you know that certain things are not for people like you. Those things stick with you and shape your adulthood.
I was only able to take writing seriously after I was fired from my minimum wage job at twenty-five. I tried to get an apprenticeship and retrain as something else, but the Government Apprenticeship Grant only allowed employers to hire those between ages sixteen to twenty-four. I wasn’t hearing back about job applications and I remember failing the KFC aptitude test. With no job prospects and nothing to do, I decided to write. I wrote two novels over that summer and decided the latter had potential. I sent the manuscript to five literary agents and one independent publisher and told myself nothing would come of it.
Then I got an email from the independent publisher offering a Skype interview. They loved the book, and insisted it was funny. I couldn’t have signed that contract fast enough. I received no advance, as is normal with small publishers. Maybe I should have waited for a literary agent, but it’s hard to do and even if you manage it, they can’t guarantee publication. They also take a cut of your advance. Mostly, I just didn’t believe in myself to wait for one. A publisher was offering to take on my book and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by. As far as money goes, I didn’t receive a penny until my royalties kicked in, four months after my book was published. When I did, it was a pittance. Not unusual for first time authors and I wasn’t bothered. This was a dream come true. Money can’t buy that.
But it can buy the things required if you want to give your book a fighting chance at selling. I’m talking about book promotion, blog tours, leaflets, giveaways, Facebook ads. Not to mention all the things required to improve as an author. Things like writers’ workshops, retreats, conventions, literary festivals. Most of which are in London. Problematic when you live up North and train fare is expensive.
While charities exist to help underprivileged writers, such as Arts Council and Arts Emergency, they can’t possibly help everyone and that’s a problem in itself; how can anyone decide whose story is most deserving of being heard? There is a whole spectrum within the working-class and we all have different experiences and unique voices. The writing world cannot just accept one novel that fits their grimy and grey narrative of the working-class and decide that they have done their bit to represent us. There needs to be more ways to break in to writing apart from fee-charging writing competitions and trips to London. While we need to not sell ourselves short and believe in ourselves, the writing world needs to believe in us too.