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My grandmother and novel-writing in my teens

The weird thing is, I’ve always told stories. One of my earliest memories is talking to my little brother who had just been moved from our parents’ room into ‘my’ room – so I was probably about three or four. I was telling him he was NOT to interrupt when I told stories and talked to invisible people –  or else. Another memory I can date is when I was in hospital to have my tonsils out at the age of 5. A nurse came into my room to find out why I was shouting – she thought I was having a bad dream. “I’m telling a story about a naughty hamster,” I informed her coldly. She told me to be quiet so I stuck my head under the blankets and went on with the naughty hamster story.

By the time I was seven I was writing several pages when we had to write compositions at school. It’s true that I usually left it until Sunday evening before I admitted I had to write something and my parents often had to shut me in the dining room which was full of encyclopedias and books so I’d get on with my homework. It was a waste of time sending me to my room because they knew I’d just read one of my many books. So I’d storm and yell that it wasn’t fair and then eventually settle down and start writing something.

This is when I got the story feeling – the feeling that something much larger than me that was also me was leaning down and pouring the story through my fingers and out through my pen. I always wrote a rough draft because I often had trouble keeping up with the story and so the first version was full of mistakes and words that turned into a scribble because I knew what they were. It was a wonderful feeling, a magical feeling and it’s still the reason why I write. Poetry made the story feeling as well and the sense that a poem was there, waiting to be written though I didn’t know what it was yet, was so exciting I couldn’t sit still and paced up and down for hours. I used to get a peculiar ache in the palm of my hand, around my thumb which was always the harbinger of a story and that still happens too.

When I was 12 I demanded a typewriter for my birthday. I got my grandmother’s old one and learned to touch type when I was 15 (I taught myself). I needed the typewriter, I explained, because I couldn’t keep up with the words otherwise. Sometimes I’d sit at the typewriter, full of the story feeling but not knowing what to write; sometimes I’d be writing and writing late into the night, gripped by what I was reading as my fingers typed it.

Around then, when I was 12, my grandmother decided to take a hand. She had been a Hungarian novelist before WWII and what she gave me when I went to visit her on Tuesdays was essentially a writing apprenticeship.

Most of the time she just asked me to write a story or another chapter of a novel and then critiqued it very carefully, usually in writing. She was only a bit harsh with one story which was about a cat and which she thought was twee. I’m still trying to write the cat book in a non-twee way.

I kept on going to her until I was seventeen when she had another stroke that put her in a care home. At least she saw my book in draft form, and said she liked it. She helped me with some of the situations in the story which were too far out of my experience. She knew that my book would be published but I don’t think she saw it as an actual book. I visited her a couple of times – the nurses put my Hungarian grandmother next to an Italian lady so they’d have something in common! – but she couldn’t really talk any more. She died a couple of years later, after my second book was published. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I stopped writing fiction for about five years then because… well, because my grandmother wouldn’t be reading it. I did freelance journalism instead.

Firedrake’s Eye was the first thing I wrote after I realised this and came out of the dry period. I wrote it on my grandmother’s old typewriter in a garden shed while I was pregnant with my first child.

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