I read this article in today’s Star. Telegraph has the story online but I’m reproducing it here in its entirety. It’s an inspiring story.
The latest publishing sensation Sadie Jones had everything – except for success as a writer. She tells Cassandra Jardine how it all dramatically changed
Aspiring writers will want to hate Sadie Jones. The 40-year-old who is curled up on the sofa of her Notting Hill home appears to have it all: sultry good looks, a happy marriage, two children and no great money worries. Slender in a floaty silk dress, she appears as pampered as the exotic Maine Coon cat that stalks her polished floorboards. On top of it all, her first novel, The Outcast, is number two in Amazon’s bestseller list.
|Success at last: Sadie Jones
But stop grinding your teeth. There are at least three good reasons not to want to lynch her. The first is that she has paid her dues to misery and frustration. For 15 soul-destroying years she sat at her computer churning out words that no one had a use for. She wrote four filmscripts and a play, none of which has seen the light of day. All she had to show for her toil was a few lines of a film that went straight to video. “They only used a third of my pages,” she says ruefully.
The second reason not to hurl this paper away in irritation is that The Outcast – about an unhappy, alienated young man in the 1950s – is extremely good. When it came out in February, reviewers compared its delicacy of tone to Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Although it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen as a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, the vertical take-off in sales began less than a month ago when it was chosen as one of Richard and Judy’s summer reads.
But bad writers don’t suddenly become good ones, so why did her luck change? The answer to that is the third reason why Sadie Jones is interesting. In the depths of rejection slip-induced despair she learnt some lessons that other aspirant writers might heed. For one thing, she realised that she was aiming at an impossible target.
“Whenever I had a fantasy, it was always of getting up on to the podium to receive an Oscar, never of getting a book published,” she says in a low, sexy voice that will be yet another of her assets now that she’s in demand on the book festival circuit.
“I wrote film scripts because I liked the idea of being a paid professional, and of working with other people. But it gradually dawned on me that I was on a hiding to nothing because scripts submitted on spec never get made.
“Everybody always points to the success of Withnail and I [for which writer/director Bruce Robinson was paid just £1], but it’s the only example. Films always start life as books, or a producer has an idea and hires a writer.
“What I should have done, if I had been able to conform, was write for telly. I talked to people about that but it didn’t work out – probably because I don’t watch television. Producers can sense when you are doing something in order to get somewhere else. Now I think: ‘Thank God.’?”
However, she didn’t think that when yet another project came to nothing. But, with little left to lose, she decided she might as well do what she wanted during the long hours spent at her keyboard. Instead of writing yet another script, she let herself explore the early life of a disturbed young man who had appeared in one of her rejected scripts. Instinctively, by turning his story into a book, she played to her strengths as a writer. What is memorable about The Outcast is not the scripted dialogue but the nuances of feelings and the atmosphere she evokes of stultifying conventionality in the post?war Home Counties.
She draws a picture of a time when emotional turmoil was buried under the comforting rituals of Church, gin and tonics, and Sunday lunch. Her hero, Lewis, is deeply troubled, yet we never cease to sympathise with him, even when he becomes violent to himself and others. Such scenes are pure fiction, says Jones: “I believe we carry all of human experience in our heads. It’s a matter of finding the nun or the psychopath inside you, of opening that door. Research only makes you feel more confident about making the imaginative leap.”
Yet she speaks so feelingly of the disparity between “the vulnerable inner person and the violent behaviour on display” that it is clear Lewis may not be totally unlike her own adolescent self. She is writing about something she knows when she describes what it is like to want to fit in with conventional surroundings, but not to succeed.
In the arty, haut-bohemian west London set she has now found her spiritual home. But, as a child, Jones felt different from the other girls at her private school, Godolphin and Latymer, because her father was a Jamaican-born poet and scriptwriter and her mother had been an actress. “The other girls all seemed to be called Emily and Sophie,” she says. “Also, I was never a group person.”
While her elder sister was an academic star who went to Oxford, Jones scraped four O-levels and was in constant trouble. “I hated the school, hated the teachers. I was always being hauled out of assembly to change my holey tights. Other people got away with smoking and talking, but I never did. At home I experienced extreme love, but at school, I knew extreme failure.”
Having painted graffiti on the walls and called the teachers “bitch” and worse, she took A-levels at a technical college, decided against university and launched herself into scriptwriting, like her father. Instantly, she landed a commission but, in 1993, when she was in her mid-twenties, the producers dumped her.
Fifteen years of failure followed, during which she and her husband – Tim Boyd of the fashionable architectural partnership Michaelis Boyd – had Tabitha, 11, and Fred, nine. But Jones wasn’t content. “It would have been fine if I was a happy housewife, but I am obsessive about my writing. I worked to keep sane. There was a terrible contrast between my happy personal life and my miserable professional life.
“It is slightly mysterious what kept me banging away. I suppose there were always just enough crumbs of hope: a director who wanted to see this or that script. But I did get very depressed, and I feared not being a good role model, particularly to my daughter, because I was an angry and unfulfilled woman. The lesson I drew from failure is that you must write for its own sake, not for what might come out of it.”
Having acted on that she found that it is considerably easier, as an unknown, to get a book published than it is to get a film script made. On the very day that she typed “The End”, a friend who was becoming a literary agent asked if she had ever thought of writing a novel. Nervously, she handed it over. A month later it sold for an advance large enough for her to be coy about mentioning it. Was it more than she had earned for the past five years? “Easily. But that wasn’t saying much.”
She is now working on her second novel. It will be about “how war and politics impact on a marriage, or vice versa”. In low moments she has to look back over the emails she sent to friends while writing The Outcast to remind herself that, three or four times a week, she was so depressed by the futility of the exercise that her hand was poised over the delete button. What kept her going then were the tales of writers such as Mary Wesley and J?K Rowling who became successful after years of struggle.
“Now,” she says, “it’s nice to be someone else’s hopeful story.”