Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of hosting the first ever Noir at the Bar in Sunderland as part of Sunderland’s Creative Writing Festival. One of the writers on the bill that night was the lovely Alan Parkinson.
Two years ago, I gave up the day job to become a full-time writer and there were many things I took into consideration. Could I afford it? Despite the romanticised image of life as a writer, it is generally a poorly paid profession.
Would I be taken seriously? I’d self-published two novels at that stage. They’d done well but was that enough to sustain a career in writing?
Would my friends ever stop thinking I was unemployed? The answer to that one is no, they still ask if I’ve got a ‘proper job’.
One thing I hadn’t considered, and possibly the most crucial thing of all, was would I lose my most valuable source of material?
Writing is all about observation. Noticing the small detail in things and shaping it into your own little world. I thrive on seeing humour in every situation, even the darkest moments, and thinking about how I can use it in a future story.
Whether they realise it or not, my workmates were a deep well of idiosyncrasies, amusing phrases and peculiar behaviours. As were the hundreds of people I saw on my commute each day and the thousands I encountered on my daily lunchtime wander around Newcastle. I was giving that up to sit at my posh writing desk, on my posh writing chair (I soon moved to the settee) and meet and talk to nobody other than the Amazon delivery driver and my elderly neighbour asking me to fix her laptop again.
This is why you see so many dull novels where the protagonist is a writer struggling to put words on a page; by becoming a writer they have lost their inspiration.
That’s not to say I’ve ever taken person wholesale and put them in a book; I’ve yet to meet anybody interesting enough. I steal one characteristic and match it with another, and another from somebody else, and shape a new character.
I do the same with situations. I’ll take real life situations, adapt and exaggerate them with different characters to make my story come alive.
When I worked for one of the world’s largest banks. In a period of months, we had one colleague locked up for murder, one for attempted murder and another for a dodgy internet history. I’ve never considered any of them worthy of writing about because they are all a bit ‘obvious’. It’s the little things that are funny and give your story life.
It’s over fifteen years since I worked in a call centre but my short time there has inspired two novels, Idle Threats and my current work in progress, Troll Life. Anybody who has ever worked in a call centre or phoned one will recognise the utter despair and understand how it can drive people to extremes.
I’ve never been in an armed siege, or dressed as a Mexican, or dealt with an irate customer in their pyjamas but my experience in a call centre helped me make this unlikely scenario realistic.
I don’t regret my decision for a minute but every now and then I long for a workmate who would say “I wish Andrea would move to one side, so I can get a good blast of her fan.”