Succession began in April 2007, when I first heard of Margaret Beaufort. I started to write it after a sequence of events which were unprecedented in my experience. The most unexpected of these was ‘writer’s block’. I’d heard of this, of course, but had never imagined that it would happen to me. I’d been inclined to dismiss it, in fact, as a way of describing those days when writing simply doesn’t flow. It isn’t.
My experience of it was triggered by working with a series of editors on the same book. Each of these editors wanted something different, and foolishly, I tried to oblige them all, with the result that I lost my direction. But worse was to follow, because for a period of 16 – 18 months afterwards, I could not get to the place I needed to be in my mind. When I say unprecedented I mean that I cannot remember a time in my life when I haven’t wanted or been able to write. I declared my intention of being a writer aged seven, after finishing a series of four line verses about fairies. I never deviated from this objective. So to be unable to ‘get there’ in my mind was to suffer a powerful loss of identity. I did not know who I was any more.
I kept myself busy, of course. There was always the routine business of money to earn, children to support etc. I organised literary events, at the Portico and Chethams libraries in Manchester, and at Manchester Cathedral. I kept a diary, partly in order to gain a perspective on my experiences and partly because it was the only kind of writing I could manage. When I look through that diary, I can see that in many ways it was an interesting and rewarding time. One of the most interesting things about it was going to Botswana with the British Council and a team of writers in 2007 to judge a writing competition. It was a fabulous, mind-opening week, significant for any number of reasons. But in terms of my writing, the most significant thing that happened was on the way back. At Johannesburg airport I sat near a group of black women, one of whom leaned over at one point and said, ‘Excuse me, are you a writer?’ Somewhat surprised, I said I was, then asked her, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Because my friends and me were just talking and we think you look like a writer.’ She sat back. I sat back.
In order to convey the significance of this, I need to rewind more than fifteen years from that point.
In June 1991 my first novel was accepted by a major publisher. Soon afterwards, I had my first experience of travelling to London to meet my editor. The building was quite an imposing one, on Vauxhall Bridge Road. I stood outside it for several moments, knowing that I had to go in. I had been almost paralysed by excitement about this moment for several weeks; there was no question of not going in. But I stood outside, suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that I couldn’t, for the most bizarre and inexplicable of reasons. Because I didn’t look like a writer.
I’ve never had that feeling, before, or since. It makes no sense. I do know enough about other writers to realise that we don’t all look alike. Even so, I will never forget that feeling, irrational, ludicrous and crippling; that I couldn’t go in because I didn’t look like a writer. Forward wind to the airport in Johannesburg, early February 2007.
It seems improbable to say that I could feel all the depression, all the darkness and despair, rolling away from me on the journey home, but I did. And shortly after that I was in Manchester Cathedral again.
In the roof of Manchester Cathedral there are fourteen stone angels, each with a different musical instrument. The carvings date from the late fifteenth century. A leaflet I read about them said that it was thought they had been donated by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. I remember being surprised that I had not heard of this lady before. Especially since there are other links between Margaret Beaufort and Manchester Cathedral. There is, for instance, the Stanley Chapel, belonging to the family of her 4th husband, Thomas Stanley 1st Earl of Derby, and King of Mann. I began to pursue these links out of curiosity, but the more I read, the more amazed I was at my ignorance. The facts of her life were extraordinary; she had been married three times by the age of fourteen; she herself was a writer and translator of religious texts; also a revolutionary who led a rebellion against Richard III. For a short while I considered writing a biography. For a long time I had no idea what form this book would take at all; only that, at long last, there was something I wanted to write. So I wrote; very often sitting up in bed in the early hours of the morning, following the advice of Dorothea Brande, who maintains that the best cure for anyone suffering from writers’ block is to write first thing, before the business of the day kicks in. There have been so many other creative writing text books since Becoming A Writer, but this is the best advice I have ever found. I wrote without knowing where I was going with the writing, sometimes just copying out large chunks of text from the medieval sources. Whenever I stumbled, or doubted what I was doing I told myself: Never mind, it doesn’t matter, no one will ever read it.
Which was, for a long time, the only way I could get myself to write.
I withdrew completely from the writing world. My books went out of print, contracts failed, editors left, vague promises to reprint earlier works were withdrawn, ideas I’d offered previously were rejected, and my editor at Puffin explained to me very kindly that in all probability our relationship had come to an end. I wrote on, sustained by the sheer fact of wanting to write. I woke up every morning wanting to write! I knew who I was once more. I told no one what I was doing, partly out of a superstitious fear that it might all just disappear; by which I mean the urge to write, rather than the subject matter. I didn’t think I could survive another bout of writer’s block. It took me a long time to write Succession, partly because the subject matter was much more complicated than I had initially suspected. The world Margaret Beaufort knew was infinitely more complex than I had imagined. England changed dramatically during the course of her life. She lived, for instance, through the reigns of six kings; through a shift in society from medieval feudalism to early modern capitalism. The concept of the world also changed with the discovery of America, and improvements to mapping and navigation techniques. And not only the world but the universe, or at least the model of the solar system, changed. There was the problem of voice, perspective, the sheer number of characters. Not to mention the fact that so many of them were called Margaret or Henry, Richard or Elizabeth. The book underwent a number of metamorphoses.
Roughly three years after I started, I mentioned what I was doing to a woman who was not at that time a close friend. She immediately said she would like to read it. I had my doubts about this, but at the same time I had an instinct that she would, in fact, be a good reader, that it would be safe to expose the book, and my process to her. Once I started typing I began to send her my drafts. She was an unfailing and invaluable support, through all the difficulty that was to come. Five years after starting, I sent a version to my agent. She said that it was unpublishable in that form. I then sent the same draft to an editor who turned it down. I was devastated. Apparently I’d done all this for nothing.
But a few days later I thought that I must be able to communicate this material which had fascinated me for so long. Eight days after receiving the rejection, I started again. I only had three months, since I’d been offered, and had accepted a job which I knew would be demanding. I worked between 10 and 12 hours a day. Fourteen weeks after starting my re-write, I sent the new draft to a new agent. Two weeks after that I came in late from work and there was a message on my answerphone which said simply to contact this agent. I spent an almost entirely sleepless night. It took until almost noon of the following day to get through. The agent began by telling me all the negative features of my book, and how it would need to be substantially re-written (!) In the end I said, ‘Well do you want to take it on or not?’ and he said, ‘Oh, yes.’ Four weeks later, Penguin accepted it, on condition that I undertake extensive re-writing. Which I did.
The result is Succession.