Why success changes writers

Okay, first define success. Is it a success to have been long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG competition? Shortlisted for the Willesden Herald when it was still a £5,000 prize? Runner up in the Guardian flash fiction comp which brought nothing but glory (and precious little of that)?

Yes. And I’ll tell you why. Because things change. That’s how you know something’s happened to you, or the world, or both. Example – of the nearly 200 emails I got (and if you’d told me beforehand that 200 people knew my email address I’d have laughed), at least a third were from folk I haven’t spoken to for over a decade, and a few were individuals I really hoped I’d never hear from again. Funnily enough, I got an email from a former neighbour who went to prison after the Willesden and one from a former schoolmate who went to prison after the Guardian. Wonder what recedivist crim is going to pitch up if I make the shortlist on Saturday?

And many emails, and some phone calls, asked questions I’d never been asked before. Not ‘do you have any photos of yourself as a model’ which was the only one I’d prepared for and was rather miffed about when it didn’t come up, but weird, complex writerly questions or simple, irreducible business questions. So I had to think differently about myself and the world, and that was dislocating. Dealing with those questions, being fair to good friends who deserved my time while also trying to be good to new contacts who deserved my respect and attention was knackering. I emailed the wonderful Hilary Mantel who understood exactly what I was talking about and didn’t remind me to write first thing in the morning, because I think she knew I knew that I should, and I think I knew that she knew I wasn’t. So I returned to the habit of writing as soon as I woke up and it did restore some proportion to the world. But it was just a bit debilitating to deal with so much ‘stuff’ and I wonder how serious writers with big reputations ever get anything done.

Of course it was great to be long-listed and I shall be gutted if I’m not short-listed – but only for about ten minutes. I’ve learned something interesting about the discipline of writing under even the mildest media awareness and let me tell you, it changes you, it does.

Mini Book Reviews:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, published by Vintage Classics – book club loved this, apart from one person who found it a bit boring. We spent a lot of time talking about the quality and nature of Isherwood’s observations, the way he managed a combination of dispassion and wryness, and how the one or two times he slipped into emotional revelation (Sally’s departure, the likelihood of Rudi being tortured for his beliefs) were so much stronger for that quality of passive reporting. We talked a little about his homosexuality, quite a lot about the state of Germany at the period in which the stories are set and only fleetingly about Cabaret. Overall the club enjoyed the exposure to short stories, which delighted me, as a writer of short stories, and thought it would like to try a similar, thematically linked, collection again in future.

Learning to Talk, short stories by Hilary Mantel, published by Fourth Estate. Loathed the cover of this one: a vase of daffs against a rainy windowpane seemed to me to be a cop-out of the worst kind, given that Hilary Mantel’s writing is the opposite of the kind of genteel, domestic drama that such a cover suggests (well that’s what it suggests to me, you may feel menaced by daffodils for all I know). These stories are generally of the kind labelled ‘coming of age’ although they are much more nuanced than such a label implies and they contain hints of the menacing figures that are to be so brilliantly realised in Beyond Black. Yes, I’m an unabashed fan, and I went to this short story collection because I wanted to be reminded what it means to be a writer of short fiction. I cannot recommend it too highly for craft, for emotional range, and for that peculiarly British ability to make the frightening ridiculous and the ridiculous truly terrifying.

As for the publisher that’s supposed to be sending a book for review – nothing yet!


  1. Jim Murdoch
    5th March 2010

    Perhaps it has something to do with the desperate need for celebrity that people seem to have. If they can’t have it then they want to stand next to it, to bathe in its reflected glory: if I can’t be famous for being me then would it hurt too much if I could be famous for knowing someone famous? I’m both surprised and not surprised to hear about all these people crawling out of the woodwork. But if a few people manage to wangle a free lunch on the back of your success then is that such a bad thing? Unless they decide to tell the world all about the “real” Kay Sexton. I passed Nigel Havers in the centre of Glasgow five or six years ago – does that make me a better person? That’s about my only claim to fame. For now.

  2. Kay Sexton
    5th March 2010

    Jim, If you need another claim to fame (and why should you?) how about being the blog commentator who’s most likely to make me laugh out loud?

    Seriously, Nigel Havers in Glasgow? I’m amazed he got out alive …

  3. Mark Hubbard
    6th March 2010

    Fingers crossed for the 7th Kay.


Leave a Reply