Two years ago, I stood by a table of books in front of WHSmith at Chiveley Service Station. I turned to Hugh and said, that’s where I want to be. He raised his eyebrows. Really? Between Harlan Coban and E.L. James? I nodded. You don’t see many Booker Prize winners here, he said. We’re both teachers of great literature: Hugh is a trained actor who teachers Drama and loves playwrights like Stoppard and Mamet; I’m an English teacher with a weakness for Ondaatje and Eliot. We both have a soft spot for Tennessee Williams (of course). And we worship Shakespeare. So, when I’d told my husband to be that I wanted to be a writer, I think he imagined that I’d be more like Donna Tartt than Jeffrey Archer. I want to be read by lots and lots of people, I explained. I’d rather be a best-seller than a prize winner.
Why? Because, as a writer, the single most important thing for me is to be read. To have people hold my novel between their hands, to spend hours in a world I’ve created, to fall in love with my characters, to be moved by the twists and turns in their lives, to feel changed when they look up from the page. There is a magic to being read. To knowing that what started in my head, as I sat in silence, on my own, planning and scribbling, has sprung to life in a reader’s imagination. It’s the best magic trick I can think of. Better than any invention by apple or Google.
Yesterday, my publicist, Kirsteen Astor, sent me an emailing: a journalist from FABULOUS magazine at The Sun on Sunday said that she was going to review Milo in print and online (look out for it on the 27th of July) and run a competition to win one of ten copies. She’d read Milo on the plane back from a few days away and LOVED IT(her capitals) and added – Although it did make me sob a bit. I’m starting to get reviews in magazines and websites. People are reading my story. They’re getting to know Milo. A few weeks ago, my lovely librarian at Wellington College said that she’d been at a conference and had Milo recommended to her by a colleague! I’m waiting for that spine-tingling moment when I see someone reading Milo on the tube – or in the coffee shop where I write. To have strangers read and love my novel is the greatest of gifts – the gift I’ve wished for every time I’ve thrown a penny in a fountain or blown on an eyelash.
Of course, winning prizes and being widely read are not mutually exclusive: some talented writers straddle the divide. But the divide is there. A few years ago I invited Jodi Picoult to the school I was working for at the time, Downe House, and she told me and the girls that she and her friend, Stephen King, would never win any literary prizes. No matter how brilliant our novels, we’ll never be in line for a Pulitzer, she said. We’re considered too commercial – and too prolific. Picoult was educated at Princeton and Harvard. She’s one of the smartest women I’ve met. And her novels are intelligent, topical and well crafted. And she’s just about the most widely read novelist writing today. She researches and writes for nine months and spends the rest of the year travelling, promoting her novel, talking to readers. A life I dream of. (She also has cats and dogs and ducks and goats in her back yard – and lives in New England…)
So, my greatest wish as a writer? More than fame or prestige or pennies? To be read. To be read far and wide. To know that my stories are sparking to life in the imaginations of people around the world and that, if I’m lucky, having read Milo, they might want another story from Virginia Macgregor.