I spoke to the Faber Academy creative writing group in June. It was six weeks since I’d taken the decision to throw in the day job, and I was still glowing with the heady freedom of it all. To be able to spend every day writing was still an astonishing luxury. I was a full-time author. I could sit at a computer without the competing nag of PowerPoint presentations hovering threateningly behind the Word document that was my novel. I was able to head off down unexplored tangents in my book without worrying about wasting the little time I had to write. I looked out at the aspiring authors sitting in front of me and knew that this was their dream. To walk into the boss’s office and thrust a copy of the Great British Novel into their hands. “I’m off. Stuff your job and your OCD timekeeping and your bitterness. I’m an author now.”
I’m afraid I fed their dreams. I told them about how I’d said to myself that I’d chuck in my career as a banker if This Bleeding City earned back the advance. It wouldn’t mean that I was in a position to support myself or my family purely through writing; very few authors can. But I’d take that first step. And when my agent told me that I’d hit that target, barely two months after publication, I made my leap. It wasn’t as dramatic as I’d have liked. Much wrangling with work over notice periods and contracts ensued, but, a few days later, after spending more time with threatening lawyers than OJ Simpson ever did, I was free.
The Faber Academy students wanted to know what it felt like, to achieve that independence, to make the great existential statement. I answered them as honestly as possible. It felt very scary. But it felt like the right thing to do. Not only because I was ashamed of the mess my erstwhile profession had made of the world and my minor but undeniable role in that mess. But also because becoming a writer would mean more time with my kids, more time to read, more time for authentic experiences rather than the confected materialist fluffing that was part of the banker’s life.
I have no doubt that many of the Faber Academy students will make similar leaps. And whether they give up careers as I did, or start working part time, or take sabbaticals to finish their masterpieces, they will all gain a sense of seriousness about their writing, the impression that the words they are putting down really matter now. I spoke to them as if there was no question that this leap was the rightful culmination of their efforts, as if I could read their dreams.
It’s now four months later, and I’m not sure I’m quite so clear about it now. It’s not that I miss the job; nor am I disillusioned with the writer’s life – it has treated me well so far. But, like anything in life so swollen with existential ramifications as a change of career, there are many unforeseen consequences.
My job as a banker was full of tedium. The City pays bright people huge amounts of money to do repetitive, empty tasks. But it was a life with an intense sense of character about it. As I took taxis from Mayfair to Lombard Street, or stepped onto podiums at conferences in New York and Barcelona, I had a keen impression of the contours of my existence. And the bottles of champagne and sharp suits and burnished leather wallet were all part of that Stimmung. The writer’s life is not so clearly defined.
The next novel will get a larger advance than the first. And This Bleeding City is still selling well, both in the UK and across the world from China to Italy to Greece. But I have had to take on various jobs to bridge the gap between what my writing brings in and what it costs for my family to eat. I have been lucky, getting regular slots reviewing books for newspapers, magazines and, most excitingly, on BBC2’s The Review Show. When I finish my PhD, I imagine I will start doing some teaching. Creative writing courses seem to offer a relatively painless way for many writers to earn enough to get their teeth fixed/take long holidays, which they then write about in The Times/buy drugs.
I worry though, that this similarity of experience necessarily blunts the ability of the author to present a convincing world outside of that literary bubble. I have just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and, whilst I thought it a quite brilliant novel, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was partly a metaphor for the world of writers and the writing life: clones on identical existential treadmills. And, whatever ghastliness there was about my time as a banker, it did give me some cracking subject matter. I remember racing across Taipei late at night with my boss in order to catch a flight to Tokyo, neon lights exploding in puddles as we splashed through, mountains rising up above us with red Swastikas marking out temples against the dark sky. “I’ll put this in a book one day,” I thought, as we pulled out to overtake an ox pulling a rickety cart up the hill. The farmer perched on the cart turned to me and waved.
So I don’t think I’m saying that writers should stick to the day job. Just that for every T.S. Eliot who was desperate to leave his position at Lloyds Bank in order to become an editor (which is just a variation on teacher of creative writing in the experience stakes) there is a Wallace Stevens, who used his experiences at Hartford Life Insurance Company to instruct his work. Writing should feed off the life of the author. I feel sometimes that I have taken to my ivory tower too soon.