Word Factory Apprentice Blog: Claire Adam
The Word Factory apprentice Claire Adam talks about the community that helped her to write her first novel – and how it wasn’t long before it was snapped up by Faber.
My novel is set in Trinidad & Tobago in the 1980s. I started working on it while I was still doing my MA at Goldsmiths, around five years ago. It tells the story of a man determined to be a good father to his twin sons: one gifted, bordering on genius; the other a day-dreamer who hasn’t learnt to read.
When one of his sons goes missing, the father finds himself isolated, struggling against forces beyond his control, faced with choices he hoped never to make. The Faber publisher, Mitzi Angel kindly wrote: “This is a book about fatherhood, about family, about growing up in poverty and longing for a better life. Claire Adam brings her sense of rhythm, her keen perceptions, to this beautifully crafted tale. Hers is a rare talent.”
It’s hard to say exactly where the story came from, but one thing I can say is that during the whole thing, and maybe for some time before I started writing it, I had a strong image of one of the central characters. I see him walking through a dark passageway – a tunnel, or perhaps a dimly lit corridor. I can’t see any details of his face or clothing, but I know his mind is utterly focussed on something visible only to him. I can see the purposeful way he’s walking, heavy with determination.
The story took about five years to write, and by the time we submitted to publishers I was on my eighth draft. It took me a long time to find my way in to the story – I knew one major element of the story, but nearly everything else was up for grabs. I tried all different points of view, using different characters’ voices, different time angles… It took me a long time to find a structure where the essential pieces would fit together somewhat smoothly.
Another major challenge was the language: we speak English in Trinidad, but we have our own version of it, and I had to make some decisions about how to render it so that it would seem real to Trinidadians, and accessible to everyone else. I very much wanted this book to be one that Trinidadians could read and recognise their own country in it.
The Word Factory Apprenticeship was a huge boost, and it came at a time when I really needed it. It brought me into contact with other writers who were at a similar stage to me, which was wonderful for the sense of camaraderie, and also a sense of validation – not feeling like I was the lone crazy fool who had decided to dedicate so many years to this unprofitable endeavour!
While I was on the Goldsmiths MA, there was a little bit of contact with agents through readings and workshops, and also the Pat Kavanagh Award, which I was lucky enough to be shortlisted for. I signed with Zoë Waldie of Rogers, Coleridge and White in the spring of 2016. Zoë had only seen the first few chapters at that point. I did have a full-length draft available, but I still wanted to work more on it and she was willing to wait. I eventually sent her a full draft in the December, and worked on small revisions. She sent it out in early February: I was settling in for a long wait, but she phoned me after only a couple of days with the pre-empt from Mitzi Angel at Faber. Shortly after, there was the offer from Hogarth in the US, and then a pre-empt from JC Lattès in France – all very exciting.
My mentor, Jacob Ross, was a massive help, not only in terms of the encouragement he gave me, but also on the nuts-and-bolts on the writing side: he helped me untangle the problems I was having with my novel’s structure and helped me move past a bottleneck I’d been stuck on for months.
Many of the conversations Jacob and I had were about not so much about the words on the page (although there was that, too), but about some of the wider issues associated with my stage of the writer’s life, and particularly a writer coming from outside the UK. I’ve attended discussions, for example, where people use terms like, “Of course, everybody has read such-and-such a book…” And I listened with a growing realisation that by “everybody” they are actually only referring to a limited set of people. This supposed “everybody” certainly didn’t include many readers from, say, Trinidad.
Or, I’d read the discussions and reviews around certain contemporary books, and I’d find myself so strongly disagreeing with what appeared to be the general consensus on things. Why, I would wonder, would a particular book or story, which I considered mediocre at best, be so well received? If Author X’s writing was valued, if people felt that was what good writing looked like, surely it meant that there was no place for writing like mine?
I’d find myself feeling distracted and troubled, trying to make sense of incidents like these. What a luxury, to have someone to turn to. Jacob always had time for a grounded, frank, sensible discussion with me which always gave me reassurance and courage to continue on my own path.
Next comes another round of editing, based on feedback/discussions with my publishers and agent. Even though it’s still in draft form, the book has already been in the hands of quite a number of people – that in itself is a rather uncanny feeling, to know that your once-private words are entering the minds of people you have never met, and provoking a response you perhaps didn’t expect. It can bring on a bit of panic, to be honest, the sense of losing control, but that’s the business we’re in. I think, as a writer, you just have to really do your best with it before it goes out, and don’t send it out until you’re completely confident it’s something you can stand by, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
In a way, I can see that writing the book is the easy part, you do it in your own little cocoon, in your own time, in your own way… once it gets out to the world, it feels like much more turbulent waters… there’s so much that you don’t have control over.
But I think the trick will be to just put the blinkers back on and keep writing, and leave the business end of things to my agent and publishers. Already, just in this early stage of the publication journey, I’ve had new distractions to deal with and I’m still learning to manage my time according to slightly different set of commitments. But I’m not complaining! Publication schedule to be confirmed.
It’s a two-book deal with Faber, so as soon as I finish this one, it’s straight on to number two! It’ll be completely different. Almost certainly not set in Trinidad, though I don’t know where yet. I have an image forming… it’s an exciting stage to be at, right back at the beginning, with all possibilities still open, and the total privacy that exists between me and the characters.