Lynn Shepherd is a successful novelist with two great novels to her credit – her latest Tom-All-Alone’s, inspired by Dickens’ Bleak House, and Murder at Mansfield Park, inspired by, yes, you’ve guessed it, Jane Austen. She is a perfect example of a woman who followed her dream, and the dream has come true! Although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t quite that easy….
Jane: Lynn, many thanks for sharing your thoughts with changing people readers. I do want to ask you about your books but can we begin chronologically? I’m interested to know what the young Lynn was like. Were you a dreamer? What were your thoughts about being ‘grown up’ and your ideal job then? Did you have early aspirations to write?
Lynn: I loved reading from a very early age – and I mean very early, I think it was about three! I don’t think I would call myself a dreamer though, I’ve always been a hard worker – every driven, very ambitious. I’ve always set myself goals and been prepared to put the effort in to achieve them. I don’t know who it was who said you make your own luck, but they’re right. You do need luck to succeed, but you increase your chances immensely by making sure you get yourself in the right place when that stroke of luck comes along.
What was the first paid job you ever had? Did it teach you anything that’s still of use to you today?
It was a Saturday job in a department store in the London suburb where I was brought up. I think it taught me my first lessons in dealing with people, both the customers and my colleagues. It was the first time I had to work with people as part of a team. I hadn’t really had to do that before at school – partly because I was useless at sport
You had a career in the City before becoming a novelist. What was your role there, and how did you get into it? How was it working in a testosterone fuelled environment? (I’m guessing here!)
Oh yes, testosterone-fuelled all right! And much worse then than it is now. It was a tough initiation, that’s for sure, and I had to grow a thick skin, and develop the ability to separate my private self from the role I chose to play at work. It gave me some practical skills that I hadn’t developed (I got much better at numbers, for example, having given up maths at 16), and it convinced me that you really can do anything you want to, if you put your mind to it. Though after three or four years I’d had enough and moved to work in the finance department at Guinness. It was after that that I got the chance to move into PR.
I think my favourite job was running the Guinness sponsorship programmes. I developed a humanitarian and environmental initiative called the ‘Water of Life’ that’s still running 15 years later – over 2 million people in Africa have gained access to clean water in the last two years alone. I’m both humbled by that, and very proud.
Presumably giving that up to write was something of a life changing decision. Who or what was your biggest source of support? Who really inspired you to go for it?
I don’t think there was one particular person who inspired me. It was more about opportunity. I was running a big PR department before 2000, but then I went freelance and I suddenly had more control of my time. No more business trips and late nights. That’s what freed me to start writing – the desire had always been there.
Most people try to write ‘that first novel’ in their spare time. How did you make time in your life to write? Are you a disciplined ‘1000 words a day’ writer or do you wait for the muse to strike?
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m a ‘morning writer’ not an evening one, so I was never going to get a novel done working full-time – I was just too tired in the evenings to sit down at another desk when I got home. But yes, I am very disciplined, both about the copywriting I now do for my freelance ‘day job’, and when I’m writing my own work. I do a gym session in the morning, and I’m at my PC by 8.30am. And I clock off about 5 – if I work much later than that I only end up having to re-do it all in the morning!
How easy/difficult was to find a publisher?
Very hard! The statistics about the number of people trying to get published are so stacked against a new writer, and an agent once told me he took on one in 300 of the unsolicited manuscripts that poured through his door. And I was unlucky that Murder at Mansfield Park was being pitched to publishers in early 2009, at the very worst point of the recession, when no-one was that willing to take on an untried debut writer like me.
But I have a great agent, and we got there in the end, and having found a UK publisher it was much easier to find on in the US, and then in Australia too.
What has been your biggest challenge in life to date?
Getting to Oxford. No-one in my family had even done A levels before, so when I decided I wanted to try for Oxford it was a huge mountain to climb. It’s still one of the things I’m very proud to have achieved.
If you could edit your past, what one thing would you do differently?
I’d have been more confident. I look at my friends’ children and they’re way more self-assured than I ever was. I wish I’d had the courage to believe in myself more when I was their age.
Following on from that, what advice would the adult you give 16 year old Lynn (and would she have followed it anyway?
I think I’d have told her she was on the right track, but to have more confidence in herself, and perhaps make time to enjoy life a bit more! And yes, I think she might have listened!
What advice would you give to any aspiring writers reading this?
Never give up. I had two and a half unpublished novels in my drawer before I got my break, so don’t get disheartened. And try to share what you write with people whose opinions might be helpful. You’re going to get a lot of feedback, both before publication and then from critics – it’s a good idea to get used to that as early as you can! And anyway, other people’s thoughts can help you improve your work.
Thinking of fellow writers, who of your contemporaries, who do you most admire and why?
I have to confess I read much less than I used to – if I have spare time I’m writing my own work, rather than reading, and I know it sounds weird but reading a good book by someone else can really get in the way of your own thought-processes.
But when I do read – say on holiday – I like to read good intelligent crime, as well as literary fiction. AS Byatt has always been a favourite, especially her earlier novels like Still Life.
And writers from the past? Presumably Dickens and Austen get a look in (Reading Tom-All-Alone’s alone has sent me back to reread Bleak House. Dickens might have been an awful husband but he was such a good writer!)
Absolutely, Dickens and Austen are staples of my bookshelf. I also love Thomas Hardy (another rather indifferent husband), and one of my literary heroes is Samuel Richardson, the ‘father of the English novel’ and a great influence on Jane Austen. Hardly anyone reads him any more but I think Clarissa, in particular, is a masterpiece.
If you could live in any other era which would you choose? Do you think there has been a time when female writers have been encouraged?
I think the 18th century would have been a wonderful century to live in, always providing you had plenty of money. Civilized, literate, and a time of new ideas and great change. Women were writing then – or at least some of them – but I don’t think a career as a writer was a real possibility for a significant number of women until the 20th century.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received? Personal or professional or both!
If you really want it – work for it!
Lynn, thank you so much for talking with us today; I’ve really enjoyed it and I hope your story will inspire some of our budding novelists. If you’ve got a story in your head, get it out there, you never know!
If you’d like to know more about Lynn and her work , and buy her book, visit www.Lynn-Shepherd.com
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Posted on April 17th, 2012 by Jane