It’s possible you’ve never heard of Newark and, if you have, you’ve only ever sped through it on a train to or from London. Most people only see it as they leave it behind: the fading lights of the station Costa, the carpark sliding past a smudged window. In the past, it’s been a big deal; King John, the bad one, died at the castle in 1216, which was then ruined when Charles I was besieged there in 1646. Now, it’s all kicking off again, thanks to arts consultant Sara Bullimore, now artistic director of the Newark Book Festival. Since 2017, she’s occupied a number of venues across the city for three days every year. Over a long weekend in July, her army of volunteers hand out brochures, rip tickets, direct people to the loos: bring culture to the people.
I’m one of the volunteers. I normally spend these three days running from one ornate room in the Town Hall to another, finding writers, showing them to the green room, getting cups of coffee and trying not to sweat directly on anyone. This year, I brought Chocolat author Joanne Harris a glass of water, facilitated the creation of a sandwich for bestselling fantasy writer Samantha Shannon and offered Michelle Harrison, winner of Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, a mint. It was a crazy few days and I met a lot of interesting people. In the few minutes before they went onstage, I was able to grab a few of them and ask for the truth about their lives as writers. I wanted to know what being a writer actually looks like, the steps they take to make sure they meet deadlines and how they manage to keep up with their writing when they tour, appearing at festivals like Newark. Were we getting in the way of their next novel? Were they really happy to be there or would they prefer to be at home at their computer, in the worlds they’ve made up?
“I do most of my writing at night, quite late on. Maybe because I’ve run out of the day and I feel like I have to do something. Between midnight and three – if I have to get work done, that’s when I do it.” – Sara Barnard
On Friday, I was stationed at The Palace Theatre. The theatre auditorium is very grand but the dressing rooms are strange, full of pipes and gurgling sounds, as if in the hold of a ship. It was in one of these dressing rooms that I met Sara Barnard, author of the Bookseller YA Book Prize 2017 shortlisted Beautiful Broken Things and its sequel Fierce Fragile Hearts. She arrived with her publicist, Sabina, who sat at the table while I asked Sara about her writing process.
‘I’m not an early bird,’ Sara told me. ‘I do most of my writing at night, quite late on. Maybe because I’ve run out of the day and I feel like I have to do something. Between midnight and three – if I have to get work done, that’s when I do it.’ Catching Sabina’s expression, she started to laugh then.
‘I had no idea,’ Sabina said.
‘But I do get it done!’ Sara laughed.
A few hours later, I was back in the same room with a fresh jug of water and glasses, waiting for Joanne Harris.
Joanne Harris is very famous – most people have heard of her, even my Nan who, whenever I mention books, tells me she doesn’t like ‘any of that stuff that’s made up.’ I was a bit nervous before she arrived, waiting with the jug and the glasses, but Joanne is warm and friendly, the kind of person that can talk about anything to anyone, seemed genuinely happy to be there.
‘I don’t really have a routine because I don’t have the sort of lifestyle that can incorporate a writing routine,’ she told me. ‘I do too much travelling, journalism, touring and book events. I tend to claw back time to write, not just hang on for ideal circumstances that rarely arise. I find little and often works best for me. I try to write three hundred words a day, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. That’s about twenty minutes and you can manage twenty minutes even on a busy day.’
That day, her three-hundred words were written under a tree near King’s Cross Station, before she boarded the train to Newark.
‘It means the project is still in your mind,’ she went on. ‘Even if you don’t write more than that, it adds up and you get a first draft within a year or so.’
With over seventeen published novels, one with a successful film adaptation, two novellas and several shorts stories, all spanning multiple genres from magical realism to crime, cookery books to Norse mythology, it’s a system that works, allows for creativity, for words on a screen to develop, become a story.
And Harris is full of stories. She has stories about people she meets at events, about Harvey Weinstein and Johnny Depp, about the boys she taught at school and where they are now. Her life, like her books, transcends genre.
‘My category is other, always!’ she says. ‘It’s a big category – lots of space in there for all kinds of people.’ It seems like a good place to live.
On Saturday, I moved to Newark Town Hall. It’s big, it’s grand, makes everyone say ‘Oh my god,’ when they walk in. Even Alison Weir who, as a writer of historical fiction and biographies, has visited some impressive buildings. I took her through the huge ballroom, laid out in preparation for her talk on Anna of Kleve, to a small dressing room at the side of the stage.
‘I keep office hours,’ she says. ‘I’m quite strict. I write two books side-by-side usually, so I do one in the morning and one in the evening. I do housework early and I’m at my desk by 9:30, dealing with emails until 10:30. I work through for three hours until 1:30. Then I break half an hour for lunch. I’m usually doing fiction in the afternoon so I have to do five pages minimum. I can do ten – I did thirteen on one occasion – but five is the minimum. Then I do a set of exercises and deal with emails again. My husband is our chef and when I’m at home we eat at six o’clock, though if we eat out it’s later. In the evening, that’s my time.’
It turns out by ‘my time’ Alison means ‘time for more historical research.’
‘That’s when I’m doing my research on royal portraits,’ she said. ‘Scanning images from books and that sort of thing. At nine o’clock I get together with my husband and we watch a couple of hours of DVDs, or longer if we get hooked.’
She takes May and June off completely, to give her time to tour books, come to festivals like Newark.
‘I work hard and play hard,’ she said. ‘It’s a joy.’
“Finishing a book is the best feeling in the world. Starting one is the worst.”
– Mark Billingham
Also big on working and playing in equal measure is crime writer Mark Billingham. His bestselling Thorne books have not only brought him international acclaim and a loyal readership, but also an opportunity to play at Glastonbury with his band The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers.
In a side room in Newark Library, ten minutes before he appeared onstage with Nick Quantrill, a crime writer based in Hull, Mark (tall, hat, earring) sat with his long legs stretched out beneath a table and revelled in the memory of the gig.
‘Glastonbury was just bucket-list,’ he said. ‘It was an absolute dream come true. I was the one that got the call asking if we could play. I got to send the email to Chris [Brookmyre] and the rest of the band saying, ‘THIS IS NOT A JOKE,’ – that was the subject line of the email. It was just brilliant. I do a lot of live events with Chris Brookmyre and when you can do stuff with mates and have fun, that’s great. You just go up, mess about for an hour and then go and have something to eat. I never want to do events on my own.’
He’s not so keen on the actual writing part of being a writer. Sitting in a room, on your own, filled with self-doubt is difficult but he and Nick, who was waiting with us, make themselves write fifteen hundred words a day. Unlike Joanne Harris, Mark has designated writing days and designated touring days. On the train from London, instead of slogging away at the novel, he watched three episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, ate a snack-box.
‘But you’re writing the book all the time in your head,’ he explained. ‘Typing is just when you get to the computer and write it down. You’re constantly thinking about the book, especially if you’re writing crime. You’re trying to work stuff out and solve problems, get over brick walls. I haven’t written anything today, not a word, but something will have been going around my head. It’s really not a nine to five job. Finishing a book is the best feeling in the world. Starting one is the worst.’
Nick told us he finished a book the previous day but, when he handed it over to his wife to proof-read, he found himself feeling anxious, rather than euphoric.
‘Oh god!’ said Mark.
‘The act of handing it over was quite a scary step,’ said Nick. ‘I didn’t enjoy finishing it. I’m more excited about starting the next one.’
But he might not be able to start it for a while, as he and Mark are heading down to Harrogate this week for the biggest crime fiction festival there is.
‘It’s brilliant,’ Mark said. ‘As long as you leave yourself a week to get over it. You go to bed at, like, two o’clock in the morning, going ‘I can’t do this,’ and the bar’s still rammed with people. It’s Glastonbury for the book world, with fewer drugs… as far as we know.’
Sunday: back in the Town Hall, in the small room off the ballroom. I was with the first writer of the day, Rowena Edlin-White, a Nottingham-based author and researcher. She specialises in forgotten authors and her talk that day was on Dorothy Whipple. Like a lot of the authors I interviewed over the weekend, she says she drinks a lot of coffee. Unlike other authors, she likes to work in graveyards.
‘I specialise in forgotten authors and I like to know where they are,’ she told me. ‘I’m quite a graveyarder. If I’m not out and about, I sit down at the screen at nine o’clock. Once I get going I’m fine but sometimes that takes longer.’
The dressing room’s next occupants, How to Find Home author Mahsuda Snaith and Gavin Extence, author of the Richard and Judy Bookclub pick The Universe Versus Alex Woods and The End of Time have to find the time to write their critically-acclaimed novels around the schedules of their small children.
‘When I have my little one I have to wait until she’s asleep which is normally about seven o’clock,’ Mahsuda said. ‘That has actually been good for me, though, as it’s proved I can write in the evening, when I never thought I could. I thought I could only do the mornings because that’s when I’m fresh, but I found that you can do it when you have to. I do write slower in the evening, though.’
For Gavin, it’s the opposite. He gets up very early, around five o’clock, and tries to do two hours work before the school run. ‘I write longhand,’ he says. ‘I find it easier. I find staring at a blank screen more intimidating than being able to doodle on a page.’
This idea, of typing versus longhand writing, is extremely controversial among the next group of writers. It’s a fantasy and sci-fi panel, featuring authors Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season, The Priory of the Orange Tree), Andrew Caldecott (Rotherweird) and Adam Christopher, author of the new Stranger Things novel, based on characters from the Nexflix series, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
‘I’m a manuscript man,’ said Andrew, showing us the pages of his journal. It was like something from Middle Earth; thick pages covered with slanting, coloured ink. ‘I change the colour of my pen every time I start a new day. I find that so much easier.’
Samantha and Adam both looked frightened by this.
‘I don’t think I’ve hand-written anything since I left uni seven years ago,’ Samantha said. She’s written a lot though and works eight hours a day every day, sometimes up to seventeen if she’s on deadline.
‘I’m on deadline at the moment,’ she said. ‘That’s why I might look like a panda – I’m exhausted!’
Neither she nor Adam can work if they know they have events scheduled later in the day but Andrew, who is a QC, writes very early in the morning and very late at night.
‘Better early,’ he said. ‘I tend to just edit late. When I write late, I wake up in the morning and think ‘How did I write that crap?”
A chorus of agreement from the others.
The final panel in the ballroom was a children’s fiction panel. Elly Griffiths, bestselling crime fiction writer for adults, was at Newark to discuss her first book for children, A Girl Called Justice. Thomas Taylor, who illustrated the very first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone back in 1997, has now written and released his own book for children, Malamander. With them, in the dark, slightly creepy dressing room, is Michelle Harrison, author of The Thirteen Treasures and A Pinch of Magic, winner of the Waterstones Children’s book prize. All three of them also have to fit their writing in around children, family, dogs, but most intriguingly, they also all have a kind of lucky talisman, that helps them write better.
Michelle keeps a set of Russian dolls by her side, a motif from A Pinch of Magic. Elly’s cat sits outside her writing shed at 7:30am every morning, staring at her, scolding her with his eyes.
‘It’s like he’s my conscience,’ Elly said. ‘Like he’s telling me it’s time to start writing.’
Thomas has a scarf that he likes to wear to write if it’s not too hot. It was knitted for him by his grandmother when he was very small.
‘She was a librarian,’ he explained. ‘She’s no longer with us but it’s a kind of a lucky thing for me. A big Dr Who-style scarf. It helps me think everything’s alright when, often when I’m writing, it doesn’t seem like it is!’
As the festival drew to a close, the market stalls were packed up, the brochures collected and I was able to sit down for what felt like the first time in three days. I sat down and I thought about it all, about Sara writing in the early hours, Joanne under her tree, Mark playing to the crowd at Glastonbury, Rowena in a graveyard making notes. I thought about Andrew choosing the colour of his ink for the day, Thomas in his scarf. All these people, these different, unique people, doing the same thing. But, like Mark said, that time at the computer, or scribbling in a notebook – that’s not the real writing. The real writing happens all the time. That was it, raging behind their eyes as I shook their hands, asked about their journey, offered them coffee.
Though the festival is over, the writing isn’t. It carries on as these people stare out of train windows, through the windscreens of cars. It’s happening while they pick up their kids, walk the dog, go shopping. If they find enough time, they write it down. If they and we are lucky enough, one day we get to read it.
About the author
Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.