On being hopeless By Judith Amanthis 26.5.21

I was alone on a train checking my phone when I read the Society of Authors email. Dirt Clean was on the shortlist for the Paul Torday Memorial Prize. I said loudly, ‘Good god almighty.’

There were three reasons I invoked a deity I don’t believe in, and loudly. One was the train was covid-emptied so no-one was likely to hear. The second was, being seventy-two, I talk to myself a lot anyway. In fact my next poem (I’ve transitioned into a poet while dragging my latest and I hope last novel Voracious through the submissions swamp) is provisionally called Growing Backwards.

The third reason was I’d totally forgotten Victorina had entered me for the prize. My memory lapse had nothing to do with my age and everything to do with the state of mind I believe has prevented me going insane during my long and unsuccessful literary career, viz. never ever hoping for success. Publication of my work (some short fiction, one novel, one poem so far, some left of field journalism) has always come as a surprise. Thank you, Consuelo and Victorina Press, for shocking me out of my skin in October 2018.

Conversely, when I’ve hoped for publication let alone an award, or, worse, expected it, I’ve always been disappointed. I’ve then stared into the abyss of what’s the point/I’m a hopeless writer anyway/give up now ffs/Einstein: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ At the same time I have no alternative to offer my life.

I started writing with an eye to publication thirty years ago. A long short story suggested I could write something longer, which I duly did, the first of my seven novels. Dirt Clean is the sixth. Since Voracious, poetry has accompanied bits and pieces of memoir. I have copious notes for a science fictionish/dystopian novel but real events have overtaken especially my dystopia, and personal commitments have intervened.

So don’t hope but don’t give up. It also helps to have one or two writer and/or artist friends who know what it’s like.

Dirt Clean itself has been a long haul. I finished the first draft in March 2011 on a novel writing MA at City University, prior to which, just before my sixtieth birthday, my employers made me redundant. Not intending to be kind, they overlooked the brilliant timing: redundancy money + pension. For about twenty years I’d got up at 6 a.m. and written for five hours before going to work (part time receptionist). I’m a slogger. I am not among the ranks of the inspired.

According to my Dirt Clean folder, the book has been through twenty-two drafts but that leaves out the sub drafts inside each draft and the drafts I failed to record. It’s been through radical rewrites, re-orderings, additions, slashings. Its word length has halved, doubled, dipped by a third, risen again and fallen. It’s fortunate I’m not prone to sea sickness.

It’s been submitted to more publishers and agents than I really care to remember. I’d relegated it to its chronological place in my Novels folder and the Bobokian souls of my unpublished novels. My next and seventh novel Voracious had been long time drafted. And then along came a newly established publisher, recommended by a friend and ready to risk a story about mainly West African office cleaners in London told from three points of view and not avoiding the racism and other cruelties of the UK’s immigration system directly connected to its long relationship to Africa.

Taking the advise of another friend, I’d already re-read Dirt Clean and decided it wasn’t too bad. The difference between a writer being hopeless and her work being hopeless can be massive after all. Her work may be shortlisted by the organization that awards the Betty Trask Prize, previous winners including Nadifa Mohamed, Jon McGregor and Zadie Smith, which means my book should get a few more readers and my CV already looks a lot better.

But of course, I definitely won’t win the 2021 Paul Torday Memorial Prize.

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One Response

  1. Excellent piece, Judith! Good luck in the Paul Torday Memorial Prize and remember that every underdog has its day…

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