First published on Gillian Polack’s blog in March 2020 for Women’s History Month
It took me a long time to get here, possibly too long. If I’d known then, what I know now, it might not have taken so long… but I didn’t, so I did.
If only I could go back… I probably wouldn’t do anything different.
To start at the beginning. I’m a Yorkshire lass through and through. I was born in Barnsley, a working class town in the middle of what was then a thriving coal field. I was only two generations away from grandfathers (and their grandfathers) who hacked at the coal face for a living. Mum and Dad belonged to the first generation to be totally free of coal dust in their lungs. They were the post-war Brits who wanted more out of life than their own parents had. Dad left school at 16, drove a tank across the Western Desert in the Second World War and then put himself through night school to end up with a management job, so though we didn’t have much when I was young, we were doing comparatively well for ourselves by the time I hit my teen years. Comfortable, though never rich.
But let me backtrack.
I was a really good reader even before I went to school, so I skipped the first year and went straight into a class of kids who’d already had a year of school. Sure I could read, but I was a very slow writer. So my mum encouraged me to write a little story when I went home for lunch. Twenty minutes of me, a pencil and a Basildon Bond writing pad. A new story every day… and bit by bit I didn’t feel so left behind in class.
And I got into the habit.
As soon as I was old enough to get tickets I spent every Saturday morning in Barnsley children’s library picking the five books I would take home for the week. They were all pony books, of course: Monica Edwards, Elyne Mitchell, Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters. And then I found a pony book called The Horse and His Boy, and that was my gateway book into fantasy. I ended up reading all C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books in the wrong order, but that didn’t matter. I discovered Hugh Walters’ space adventures… and that was it, really; horses, fantasy and space – what more could the discerning young reader want?
It was the days of grammar schools and secondary moderns; your future decided by how well you could answer a series of exam questions on one particular day in your eleventh year. Pass and you got a decent education, fail and you ended up in a school that told you not to worry about fractions because you wouldn’t need them down the pit or on the factory floor. An unfair system, but I can’t grumble because I passed and spent the next seven years in a girls’ high school learning academic subjects. School even taught me how to bake a decent Victoria sponge, but not much about how to navigate the grown-up world. When I left I could write an essay on glaciation, but I didn’t know how to open a bank account.
I did know how to ride a horse, however. Reading all those pony books as a kid had led me to the nearest riding stables where I cleaned tack, led out little kids on rotund ponies, and shovelled shit in return for rides. A pony of my own was out of the question, but I loved riding other people’s.
Was there a point where I realised that I needed to write? I do remember being set English homework when I was about fourteen. Write a story about a storm at sea–at least two pages long. Mine was twenty pages. I could see that storm, taste the salt of the ocean, feel the icy blast of wind-driven water on my face as I struggled hand over hand along the rail–the deck rolling beneath my feet. I knew nothing about the sea or sailing, but I managed to make it feel real.
By the time I was sixteen I’d started to write my first novel. It was terrible, but my friends thought it was wonderful. It was a future dystopia (eat your heart out, Hunger Games) and the characters were thinly disguised versions of my favourite pop stars. The fact that I never got beyond chapter six is a blessing. I wanted to write. I had to write. I couldn’t not write, but I was a terrible writer.
I went away to college, learned to be a librarian, got married, circled back around to Barnsley where I became the custodian of the same children’s library that I’d haunted from the age of five. I loved that library, the brown wood panelling, the smell of old paper, the funky little twisted staircase that put it outside the reach of the main lending and reference library. It was my own little kingdom. Surrounded by books all day, I went home to my best beloved and wrote – longhand in an old exercise book.
Yes, it was a fantasy story.
Two kids later, and a move to the house we still live in, I joined the village babysitting circle. My daughter was never a good sleeper, so by the time we’d wrestled her into bed and finally settled her down, there wasn’t much time for writing, but babysitting for other people’s sleeping kids gave me hours of me time. I turned up with a bag full of handwritten manuscript and if the little darlings woke while I was working, I never heard them.
Then my friend and neighbour was called away to look after ailing parents and she lent me her Amstrad PCW. Green screen, and not even WYSIWYG, it was still a revelation. I’ve never been an accurate typist, but at least this gave me a fighting chance. By the time my friend came home I couldn’t do without it, so somehow I managed to scrape together the money for my own Amstrad. And I wrote my first two books on that. OK, I admit, they are still in my bottom drawer, but that’s probably how it should be.
I mentioned earlier that I got married. I did and I am still… but that led to a second career in music. Yes, I know I haven’t mentioned music before, but I sang in the school choir, and my husband, Brian, went through music college (playing cello) and eventually taught in a primary school (general subjects with a big slice of music) and just because he’s wired that way he wrote songs for the kids.
Sometimes I don’t step back quickly enough when people call for volunteers. Our village hall needed a new roof and I said I’d organise a folk concert to fundraise. No one told me you couldn’t make money out of folk music, so I did. And because we needed an opening act I found myself on stage with Brian singing folk songs. A chance meeting with Hilary Spencer expanded our duo to a trio. We went to folk clubs in the area to advertise our fundraising folk nights at the Village Hall, and people started to ask us back. By that time we’d persuaded Brian to write some songs for us, and Artisan was born. No one should ever decide to give up the day job and go on the road full time as an itinerant folk singer until the gigs are coming in so thick and fast that you literally can’t manage to gig in the evening and still do a day job. We reached that tipping point in about three years , and so in the summer of 1989 Brian gave up his deputy headship and the three of us went on the road full time.
When we were making up our mind about whether this was a good idea, Brian phoned his mam, a very down to earth Barnsley woman. He expected to get an earful of abuse for giving up a safe job for what is the very definition of the gig-economy, but all she said was, “You do right. It’s no use getting to seventy and wishing you’d done it.’ Thanks Mam. That started twenty years of touring the length and breadth of the country and, eventually, Canada and the US. We did 31 tours to North America in a decade, and one to Australia via Hong Kong. We did a little bit in Belgium and Germany but preferred to sing in places where English was a first language. Brian’s lyrics are pretty good. Hey, you can make up your own mind if you go to www.artisan-harmony.com. There’s some youtubery on there and a page full of our CDs. Tou can even buy some of our CDs is you want – they are all still available.
Anyhow, did I forget about writing? Well, no. The thing about singing for a living is that there are gaps between the gigs with time to write. Also, when we discovered America (or America discovered us) we were introduced to the joys of the internet. It’s great for booking gigs on the other side of the planet (which was one of my jobs in the band) but also I discovered the wonderful world of usenet and a group called misc.writing. Those guys on there taught me the basics of manuscript format, and the work ethic of: apply bottom to office chair and fingers to keyboard. Write, revise, polish, send it out. While you’re waiting for it to come flying back, apply bottom to office chair, fingers to keyboard and write something else. Rinse and repeat. I’m eternally grateful, and I’m still in touch with some of them close to a quarter century later.
It was through music that I got my first invitation to write a story for an anthology. Annie Scarborough – Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Nebula winner for The Healer’s War – had been commissioned to edit an anthology for DAW. A music friend of mine was writing a story for it and suggested I should ask Annie if I could do the same. Annie, being an Artisan fan, figured that if I knew how to entertain an audience I could probably tell a story, and so my first short story publication, The Jewel of Locaria, came out in Warrior Princesses. That led to getting an invitation to go to Milford a full week of SF writers critiquing each other’s work. If that sounds scary, it is, but it’s also a massive learning experience. Previous writers who’ve been through the Milford mill include Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. In my first year I was with Liz Williams and Alastair Reynolds (before either of them got their first book deals) plus oft-published American author, Patricia Wrede. It’s not just the critiquing, though that’s educational, but the contacts you make and the hints and tips about the business of writing, and markets for science fiction and fantasy.
We can skip over several years during which life happened. I worked on novels and sold a story or two; Artisan retired from the road (and did a reunion tour five years later and then ten years later) and I became a folk booking agent, driving a desk for a living. I continued going to Milford, and I got an introduction to an editor at DAW via a writer-friend I met there. It was July 2013 when I got the email I’d been waiting for all my life. Sheila Gilbert said, ‘I want to buy your book.’
Let me say that again because it never gets old… ‘I WANT TO BUY YOUR BOOK!’
And just like that all my birthdays and Christmases had come at once. Then Sheila followed up with, ‘What else have you got?’ And because I’d taken that misc.writing advice to heart, I already had another six books completed. I got a three book deal for Winterwood, Empire of Dust, and a sequel to Empire as yet unnamed (which became Crossways). Incidentally Empire of Dust was the book I took to my first Milford in 1998 and it became my first published book in 2014. So my overnight success only took sixteen years. I’ve now got two published trilogies; one is space opera, the other historical fantasy, and there’s another (standalone) book in the pipeline, but probably not until 2021. I can’t tell you more about that, or I might have to shoot you.
So that’s me.
Thanks, Mum, for encouraging me to write those little lunchtime stories when I was five. It’s all your fault.
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