Kathleen Jones: Exploring a Writer's Life

I’ve always enjoyed reading about other writers’ lives, so, when I began to write programmes for radio it seemed natural to write about writers.   One of these programmes became a biography, and then I wrote another and another and suddenly I was a biographer, peering into other writers’ lives on a daily basis and doing a kind of upmarket exposé of their relationships and the progress of their careers.  I’ve often wondered why I’m so fascinated by the process of becoming a writer.  Am I hoping to learn some magic trick?  Or am I simply guilty of being a literary lace-curtain twitcher?

About 8 years ago, as part of an Arts Council project, I was asked to write a biographical pamphlet about Margaret Forster, northern author of the iconic nineteen sixties novel ‘Georgy Girl’. The concept was to explore her work in the context of her life, with the focus on books rather than biography, but as many of her novels appear to have autobiographical elements and she’s also written several memoirs, the life became an important framework. 

It was great fun to research and write but, because Margaret publishes at least one book a year, the booklet soon became out of date.  The print run was short and it proved more popular with readers than anticipated, selling out within a year.  Since then I’ve often been asked for copies.  Margaret’s novels and memoirs are favourite choices for book groups and I was told that they found some biographical context useful when discussing her work.  An update seemed a feasible idea and Margaret very generously gave permission to re-write and re-publish.

Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies
Margaret Forster was born in a council house in Carlisle - not exactly the city of culture, and certainly not in 1938.  Her father worked in a factory and her mother was a housewife.  Apart from the bible, a medical encyclopaedia and some cookery books, there wasn’t much to read at home.  But, from an early age, Margaret became a voracious reader and a high achiever at school. In a memoir she describes herself as ‘fiery, selfish, ambitious .... precociously clever’. The family were worried that she was ‘getting above herself’, but she was driven by a determination not to live the life mapped out by her birth.  ‘I would not marry and therefore would not have children.  I would keep out of the trap and I’d be safe. . . The circumstances of my mother’s life and her unhappiness were the spur to make my own life into something different.  I would not and could not be like her.’

She won a scholarship to Oxford, but hated academia, met a wide range of interesting people from very different backgrounds and began to formulate the idea of writing a novel. Margaret had originally intended to be a biographer but found writing fiction more satisfying.  She turned down Dennis Potter (according to Dennis!) and married a local Carlisle lad, Hunter Davies, who was currently in London working as a journalist, and the two of them began successful literary careers.  They are very different personalities.  Hunter is gregarious; Margaret intensely private.  He loves the literary limelight; Margaret refuses to have anything to do with it.  She won’t even make appearances at literature festivals or do talks in bookshops to promote her work, and she’s always avoided the literary social scene in London - the dinner parties and book launches that have become such ruthless net-working opportunities. 

Writing about a living subject is tricky.  I wanted to know what was behind such single-minded reclusiveness.  I would have liked to explore the difficulties faced by two successful - and completely different -  writers in a close relationship that has lasted for more than 50 years.  Margaret’s daughter Caitlin Davies is also a very well published author - and that relationship would have been interesting to explore.  But everyone (and particularly a public figure) is entitled to a degree of privacy.

What I was interested in, and focussed on, was how Margaret’s novels grew out of the fabric of her own life and experience.  I’m fascinated by process - the imaginative meat grinder that turns fact into fiction. Where did her ideas for the novels come from?  Where did she write?  How did she write?  Was there anything I could learn from it?  Was there anything that would help the reader understand the book?   Margaret writes a novel very quickly - in a matter of weeks - and claims not to work on it afterwards.  The process of working out and thinking through is all done beforehand - the act of writing each page by hand forces her to shape each phrase before it hits the page - she’s editing in her head before putting anything on paper.

I’ve enjoyed re-writing and expanding the text.  There was no restriction on length this time, so I could write a proper book - about the size of a long novella -  and I’ve been able to include illustrations.   There were no magic tricks - what I’ve learned over half a dozen literary biographies is that each writer’s story is a one-off - we all work in different ways.  But if, as a reader, I read biographies because I’m interested in the life behind the text, as a writer I’m looking for moral support.  We need successful role models to keep believing in ourselves - writing is like tight-rope walking - it's all about confidence and self-belief.

The seismic catastrophe in publishing over the last few years has destroyed much of that confidence.  Literary biography was a staple of the ‘mid-list’ sector of publishing which vanished down the fault-line which opened up under our feet creating a rift between us and the publishers who used to provide a roof over our heads.  We are now standing on the other side of the divide, in the E-book zone, looking in a rather puzzled way at where we used to live, and just beginning to explore the new territory created by the earthquake.

Margaret Forster: A Life in Books, is my first wholly E-book biography.  I really think the E-format is perfect for this kind of book - I can include ‘live’ links to web sites, interviews, and copyright material I would otherwise have to pay to use.  It’s also quick to update when new material comes to light.  But it’s not easy to do the coding. References and end notes have been a nightmare to convert to html as live links - the Book Mill lap top has narrowly escaped being hurled out of the window on several occasions!  But now it’s done and it’s up on Kindle and on Kobo.  A bit of a celebration called for, so Neil and I are off to open the Prosecco!

More books by Kathleen Jones

Kathleen also blogs here.
The Book Mill is a small, independent northern press publishing books on literature, social history and art.


CallyPhillips said…
Fantastic. And really interesting. And I am also cheering that it's out on KOBO so that I can buy DIRECT for my OWN chosen EREADER FORMAT. I'm off to buy it RIGHT NOW as this will be the FIRST indie ebook I've been able to get on Kobo. The Kobo interface isn't as glitzy as Amazon but it represents an alternative place/way to buy (unless you're welded to a Kindle) and I'm doing my bit for market diversity by buying it there.
CallyPhillips said…
hurrah - a simple download process AND following a rush of blood to the head I bought THREE as well! Three cheers for KOBO.
Stephanie Zia said…
Fascinating! How interesting she sounds, and your notes on the process also - am off to download.
Chris Longmuir said…
I found this a fascinating post, and Georgy Girl was one of my favourite films a long time ago, however I've never read the book. Not to myself that I must download the biography. Oh, and Cally. I think my books are in the Kobo store as well, they get there via Smashwords, so if any other writers on this loop use Smashwords I reckon their books must be there as well.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks for all your supportive comments and for the purchases! Yes, you can get books on Kobo via Smashwords, but they don't always come up as you originally design them and sometimes are very slow to download. I've decided not to rely on Smashwords and to load books directly to Kobo in the proper format. I think the Writing LIfe facility is going to be very good for Indie Authors.

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