TUMBY BAY - If you want to about the art and demands of writing, then dipping into the autobiographies of successful writers, past and present, is a good way to go.
At present I’m working my way through the two volumes, 1,000 plus pages, of Nicholas Monsarrat’s autobiography, Love is a Four-Letter Word.
Waiting in the wings for me are three volumes of HE Bates’ autobiography: The Vanished World; The Blossoming World; and The World in Ripeness.
Bates delighted the world with his chronicles of the Larkin family (beginning with The Darling Buds of May) and other novels including The Purple Plain and Fair Stood the Wind for France.
Monsarrat’s two novels, The Tribe That Lost Its Head and Richer Than All His Tribe, graced the bookshelves of many an expatriate in Papua New Guinea prior to 1975.
They usually sat alongside Robert Ruark’s two novels of Africa, Uhuru and Something of Value.
Monsarrat’s books are set in a district on an island off the southwest coast of Africa, where a solitary district officer tries to maintain the peace.
When the chief-designate returns from studies in England and tries to accelerate the development of his people, the ensuing political crisis erupts into a ferment of intrigue and violence.
Ruark’s two novels are based on events that took place in Kenya during the violent Mau Mau insurrections of the 1950s.
Despite the books being based on the realities of colonial Africa, the paranoia these books induced among many expatriates in Papua New Guinea were unfounded.
Monsarrat wrote 11 books before he achieved fame with his World War II novel, The Cruel Sea. Until then he had never made much money at all from his books.
After his eighth book he noted: “In thirteen years I had made £1,647 out of writing eight books … £1,647 worked out at £127 a year, a living wage for a starving dog, but not much else.”
This didn’t bother him unduly because he was at the same time carving out a career as a civil servant in South Africa and Canada.
What he did acknowledge, however, was his overwhelming compulsion to write. To Monsarrat, whether his compulsion met with success or not was neither here nor there.
He put down the success of The Cruel Sea to simple luck:
“What makes tens of thousands of people suddenly decide that they want to read one particular book, and no other, and that they won’t be happy until they have bought it and taken it home, is a mystery which has baffled publishers, beyond despair and into bankruptcy, since books were first printed and bound and launched into the market place.
“It does not baffle writers in the same way, since (unless they are harlots or computer-boys) they will write exactly what they want to, and take a chance on success, or failure, or a drawn game.
“I had written exactly what I wanted to, and was already stupefied by the result.”
And to prove his point his next book was one he wanted to write rather than the follow-up maritime story that his publishers urged him to write.
It sold only a few thousand copies, which didn’t bother Monsarrat at all.
I guess his philosophy and eventual luck should be gratifying for all aspiring novelists.
Stick with the literary lottery and one day the prize might be yours.
I’m currently working on book number 13 and am happy with my moderate success so far.
Despite the odds against them, I suspect that most writers, like me, crave at least critical, if not financial, success.
BY PHILIP FITZPATRICK....
You can read free downloads of these Philip Fitzpatrick books here:
Crocodile Prize Anthology: 2011-2016 (all edited by Philip Fitzpatrick)