I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living. When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words. I still have one of those little books. It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover. I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.
I had started to write my first novel when I was 11. I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out. There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters! Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me. Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.
I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about. I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day.
Back in 2008 my first book was published. A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer. Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations. Devil in the Red Dress is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen. But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author. I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.
I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again. I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true. The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream. I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life. I decided to try and get an agent. That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.
I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years. She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching. I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work. When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel. It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon. After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.
Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future. She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism. I’ve never had any illusions about this business. I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am. I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.
Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill. I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.
Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again. Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support. I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book. I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita. She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer. I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am. She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming.
She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it. But instead there was a bomb shell. After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent. I don’t blame her in the slightest. I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset. Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally. I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other. I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way. Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone. It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment. Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable. I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life. I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.