The Seven Ages of Authorhood
1 Even as a mewling and puking infant, he shows signs that one day he will be an author. There is something about how he grips his copy of The Cuddly Cloth Kitten in his little hand, the way he looks out of his cot, observing the world around him with oddly knowing eyes.
She, on the other hand, is a real talker. Within weeks of her making her entrance, she is chuckling and laughing and speaking in her own strange, gurgling language – a foreshadowing, it will later be said, of her experimental novel EndOf, which will be written four decades later.
2 As a schoolboy, he is a voracious reader. He reads Little Dorritt when he is nine. He is pale and solitary with an acceptably unhappy childhood, which will feature largely in his later work. Like many successful writers, he suffers from asthma and hates games.
She is an enthusiastic writer of poems and stories, which she illustrates with her own drawings. Her last end-of-term report from her primary school commends her outstanding communication skills, and predicts that she might well grow up to be a teacher.
3 His teen years hit him hard. Convinced that he is unattractive to girls (and it is quite true that he is no Adonis), he locks himself away in his room, reading obscure science fiction novels and playing computer games. At the age of 17, he writes a 120,000 work of fiction, set in the 23rd century and narrated by an ant, but leaves it on a bus.
She writes every day, too. Hopelessly smitten by an obsessive crush on her art teacher, she pours her teenage longings into an autobiographical novel she calls Love in a Time of Whatever.
4 He surprises his parents and himself by emerging from university with a perfectly respectable 2.1, and a Nigerian girlfriend, whose presence in his life gives him a social credibility he has never experienced before.
Tipped as a possible BBC trainee, he decides, in the manner of Waugh, Orwell and Golding, to teach at a prep school in preparation for being a writer. His first comic novel In the Shadow of the Ha-Ha, set in a fictional prep school, fails to find a publisher, but one rejection letter contains the phrase ‘nicely written’, which encourages him to embark on a satire of literary ambition.
Her twenties are a time of excitement and experimentation. While working on the problem page of a women’s magazine, she becomes pregnant. She keeps the child, and earns a living as a freelance, ghost-writing the autobiographies of models and pop stars, and writing paperback reviews for a tabloid newspaper.
5 By this time married with two children, he finds a publisher for his fictional take on modern marriage, A Faithful Condition, which is described by one critic as ‘a remarkable debut’. Shortly after his wife returns to work, he becomes a full-time writer, reviewing for the Sunday papers, judging prizes, sitting on committees, and attending parties. He is pleased to discover that he is more sexually successful as a married man than he ever was when he was single.
She writes a series of novels of contemporary life, and builds a following among readers. She acquires a reputation among publishers for being difficult after she refuses to write the same novel over and over again, and objects to the appearance of butterflies and flowers on the covers of her books.
She has married a sweet but dull university lecturer who, after her fifth novel has appeared in the bestseller lists, retires to become her agent. Shortly after her fortieth birthday, she discovers that she is a lesbian and leaves him.
6 He is teaching creative writing, and so is she. It is not perfect, but they have to earn a living somehow.
On one occasion, they meet on a panel at a synopsis-writing seminar. Later, as they gossip listlessly about the decline of publishing, he wonders whether he has the energy to make a pass at her, while she works on an excuse to get away from him.
7 Seated in his chair in the care home, he sees her now and then on the TV. She has been rediscovered, and is now a silver-haired literary celebrity, invariably described in the press as ‘sprightly’. Her teenage novel Love in a Time of Whatever has been published as a Penguin Classic. Watching her being interviewed by Alan Yentob, he is almost sure that he knows her.
When a nurse brings him his tea, he points at the screen. ‘I had her once,’ he says.
The nurse laughs. ‘Course you did, love,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you write it all down?’
She passes him a note-pad, and he starts to scribble.
Published first as the Endpaper column for the Spring 2015 edition of The Author.