The Making and Unmaking of a writer - Things you didn't know about Sam Hawksmoor - The History of Sam
Where are you on social media? An agent asks me. How many followers do you have? We’re only really taking on photogenic authors right now with a YouTube presence. Do you blog?
What is a dinosaur to do to get people to read his books I wonder?
Publishing has changed since a great deal since I had my first book published. Dinosaurs truly walked the earth and Apocalypse Now was in the cinemas, along with Alien, Mad Max and The China Syndrome. Then if you wrote a book and sold it, it went into all the bookshops and if you were exceptionally lucky it might get promoted. I was lucky, it got picked up by publishers in New York (St Martins Press) and I thought my career was set. Three more hardback books followed (two selling to paperback publishers as well) and even though I once made the bottom ten of the best seller list in the Sunday Times, it was only when I started to wonder where my royalties were that I discovered they may not be coming. If I had a time machine and could send myself belated career advice - 'go into real estate' would be the answer.
A friend recommended writing radio drama. I called up a producer and said I’d like to try. He said a writer failed to deliver a play and we have to record something in three days. Can you get me an hour-long drama by Monday? I rushed to the bookshop to look up how to format a radio drama (laptops hadn’t yet been invented let alone the internet) and wrote it in a weekend. Luckily I had been to film school, so writing scripts was no problem at all, but radio is tricky. You really need a good ear for dialogue. I turned up at the studio at 9am on the Monday. He sent me off for a coffee whilst he read it and when I came back he was making calls to cast it. It was about an employment agency for look-alikes and a copycat Marylyn Monroe being murdered in a hot tub. It was risqué for radio back then, but they read it through and then recorded it that day, hot tub sound effects and all. The magic question was then asked. Can you write some more? Say one a month for a thriller slot? Of course I said yes. Three years work was promised. I wrote around 35 in the end and it was hard work. The first 12 were easy, I had a bunch of short stories that had never seen light of day. The next 12 were harder and the last 12 were murder. I was desperate, reduced to asking waitresses for their life stories. They were only ever broadcast once and then the tape wiped to reuse. I rescued about 15 of them on cassette. But on reflection it was the happiest part of my life. All a writer can ask for is that someone wants your work and an audience. In those days around 1.2 million listeners as it followed the top-forty charts and people were too lazy to turn off and besides we were taught to write a really catchy beginning to hook them in 90 seconds. Those were the days huh.
At some point after all this I decided to branch out, go back to screenwriting and pitching ideas. Went to Hollywood and even had two or three screenplays optioned, but it was impossible to get anyone to commit. I had one piece of luck. An historical novel I’d written based on an original screenplay I'd written with a friend sold to an American publisher. I was just making the proof corrections when the New York agent called. ‘The $20,000 check bounced.’ Noooooo ...
I was devastated. I’d already put a deposit on a flat in Vancouver. I was totally screwed. I wasn’t going to get the money back either.
I’m not sure when exactly, but just after that I fell very ill. I discovered that without health insurance life is very expensive. Normal people have jobs, income, mortgages, insurance, cars that don’t need push starts or work with publishers who never pay. ‘Let’s face it, Sam, you have to grow up one day,’ my sister said. ‘If it doesn’t happen soon, you’re never going to make it. You need a job.’ Don’t you just love family advice? Especially when it’s true.
But what to do? Eventually I had to go back to the beginning. Teaching. Study for a Masters…
No one was interested in my previous life or even believed it. Many teachers, I rapidly discovered, have very narrow lives with limited horizons. Twenty-five years disappeared just like that. I still wrote screenplays, wrote a couple of books, but it was like I died and slowly I grew accustomed to the certainty of a salary, a mortgage, new cars instead of old and holidays with my pal Kit. No more worries about being paid. No more flaky producers who never could quite lay their hands on the money or publishers promises about the publicity they were going to do…
But still that burning desire for success was there, not quite suppressed. You can understand why old rockers never fade away, the alternative is so dull, so routine. They must long for the roar of the crowd.
Then I pitched 'The Repossession' to an editor at Winchester Writer’s Conference and she said ‘I’m interested.’ Good grief. You don’t let the fish get away. You write that book as fast as you can.
I’d like to say that there is a fairytale ending and to a certain extent there is, but publishing has changed. Build that social media following they tell you, that's the only publicity you're going to get. The book will sink of swim on your contacts. Well in the end – The Repossession became a trilogy in the UK, won an award (The Wirral) , and finally was published to success in Turkey and France in 2017. But as for the followers? Social Media … it’s a generational shift. I’m a storyteller not a blogger. The life of a writer is so monumentally dull, there’s no way I could post something ten times a day without going insane and I don’t follow anyone else. Who has time for that? I don’t post photos of my lunch or dinner. I guess I’m doomed. My pal's 15 year old daughter has 50,000 followers for her make-up tips without any effort at all and she gets fan mail and presents. 'You're too old to go on YouTube' she informs me and it's true and besides I know nothing about make-up. I still write. The novels are out there on Amazon. My new novel 'Girl with Cat (Blue)' is published and people seem to like it (phew), but I know that it’s a raindrop in an ocean of media.
‘Whom do you write for?’ I asked students at Lincoln University. ‘If the answer isn’t for ‘me’ yourself, you're going to end up crying. You write because you have a story you want to tell and with luck, just a few people will love it enough to tell others. It’s all you can do. If a million discover it and love it, it’s a terrific bonus, but first you have to love it. So many novels lay abandoned because the writers didn’t love it enough, or a reader didn’t care enough about the characters to continue reading. And every month there's another 1000 titles published to tempt readers to forget yours.
I got an email from Lily in France last summer after reading ‘VoLontaires’ – is there a sequel please? Honestly that’s the best any writer can wish for. That and when someone discovers one of your books in random places such as Jordan and posts a positive review on Goodreads. Or better yet meeting someone in New York who'd read one of my earlier adult books Diamonds and said it was their absolute favorite.
In November 2018 I was at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut meeting students and staff on the Creative Writing programme there. The Campus is built on the old summer grounds for Barnum and Bailey's Circus. It was beautiful to be there and see all the Fall colors. Must be an inspiring place to write. Where do you like writing?
© Sam Hawksmoor November 2019
You can download Girl with Cat (Blue) or order the print version here
*Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award 2018 & 'Honorary Mention' in the 26th Writer's Digest Book Awards 2018