This week Ali Bacon reflects on what she heard (or hopes she heard) at an evening with Nathan Filer
There’s nothing like a local hero to inspire us all to greater things, and since winning the Costa Prize with The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer is the man whose hand we have all wanted to shake, and so I did just that (pushy or what!) on Monday at an event in Yate Library where Nathan was talking about his book. In fact I discovered his roots are as much in South Glos as Bristol/Bath and there was a great turn-out.
I should say that up to then I knew only the outline of Nathan’s story and had belatedly dashed to only page 21 *blush* of Shock but by the end of Nathan’s talk about the writing of the book I knew a lot more about the book and the man. But then that’s what you might expect since the author and his hero Matthew had been close companions for a very long time. It was such a lively and inspiring evening I’ve decided to pass on the bits of Nathan’s writing story that stuck in my mind, but I didn’t take notes so I’m just hoping I haven’t imagined too much of it. They do say you hear what you want to hear!
First novels are rarely first novels.
Nathan has been writing for a long time and has a career as a stand-up poet. No, this is not his first novel, just the first to be published. Writers know that first novels rarely are just that, but sometimes it’s good to know that the truly great novel – and great writer – have started in the not so great place, and still achieved greatness after all.
Novels take a long time to write and change along the way
I think Nathan estimated Shock had 6 or 7 drafts. During that time it changed from a more sensational account – almost a thriller – to what it is now. In fact very many things changed – except the main character. He was the driving force and the insistent voice that wouldn’t go away. Getting Matthew’s story right was what mattered. And Matthew’s character changed only to the degree that the author may have changed along the way. An interesting admission, which brings us to
Fiction and autobiography, i.e. my book and my life
Nathan was entirely candid about how much of the novel springs from his own experience and how many of the characters were originally modeled on members of his own family. I thought this was refreshing. How often do writers insist their work is not autobiographical when actually our writing is bound to be shaped by our lives. But, as Nathan pointed out, we put these characters into new situations and suddenly they are new people, they are fictional characters. I’m hoping this will be read by all those people who say ‘Am I in your book?’ because the answer is probably ‘yes of course you are’ and at the same time ‘don’t be ridiculous!’
Do creative writing courses work?
Ah, the chestnut question! But asked by a young writer in the audience who had no academic axe to grind and really did want to know. Nathan was quick to say that the Bath Spa MA worked for him, but that he knew people who had failed to benefit or even been set back by it. I think his advice was to embark on this style of course only if you are sure of the story you want to tell.
Road to publication
(Well I wanted to know!) After many ups and downs, Nathan finished his first draft on the MA at Bath Spa and submitted it to the Tibor Jones novel competition. Nathan has a healthy cynicism for writing competitions which I am beginning to share, but in this case although the book didn’t win, it was spotted by an agent. There was another year of work before the final submission, but within a week it was out to publishers and they were all bidding for it. So the long gestation was over very quickly and The Shock of the Fall was soon out in the world. No lessons here except that hard work does pay off, and real quality will get attention even in this mad new world of what often feels like publishing mayhem.
These reflections are hardly news, but sometimes hearing them from someone who has been through the mil and come out the other end reminds us of why things are as they are and what we have to do to overcome the odds.
Finally, with many of the audience asking about the setting and the mental health issues, I learned a disturbing fact, namely that NHS cuts have been 20% greater in the mental health sector than the service over all. In a world that threatens our mental stability in so many ways, I find that shocking.
So to respond to the South Glos feedback form, yes, I met someone new, learned something new, and in my own little way yes, I was inspired by the evening. I was certainly moved to buy the very pleasing paperback even though I have the Kindle edition! And if Nathan should pass this way, he’ll be pleased to know I’m now zipping along on page 90 – and counting.