Lisa Brinkworth: Publish or Be Damned
Journalism was never what I wanted to do. That’s what I told the interviewing professor on the renowned journalism graduate course, on being offered one of forty places out of thousands of applicants. ‘I’m only here because I’m constantly told that no one leaves school to become a novelist,’ I told him crossly.
I was always going to be a novelist. It was a foregone conclusion. Aged five I was able to put a name to the ambition that burned within me. I’d been writing for two years by then. I penned thrillers in spiral-bound notebooks spread over the dining room table. I’d send my childish handwritten chapters off to publishers, and sometimes received a kind note encouraging me never to give up. I remained mute throughout my childhood. I lived my life internally and found my voice in my pen. Writing has never been what I do; it’s what I am.
The problem is, I’ve never actually published a novel. Not after forty years of trying; not after a succession of literary agents telling me I was the next Lynda La Plante, or that I was destined to become one of the youngest ever best-selling authors. That was at 26.
My first book, Lady Flex, didn’t even need an agent. An editor at Macmillan offered me a book deal. I would be paid an advance of £15,000 staggered in three payments. What? If I was this youthful, literary phenomenon, then why wasn’t I being offered more? I sought an agent to negotiate a better deal. Within days I found myself the prize in a bidding war between agents. This was more like it.
I chose the hungry agent who promised he’d secure me a £100,000 advance. He put my name on the bottle of Cristal he’d reserved for his next signing. I never did hear that cork pop. Macmillan lost interest. Shortly afterwards my agent fled to India and signed the author of that year’s Booker Prize. I only recently read a published confession from the intern in whose incompetent hands my book languished, that she was ‘rubbish’ at her job.
On the basis of that manuscript, I received a call from Polygram and was asked if I’d write it as a screenplay. I signed with a film agent and Rude Girls, the film script of Lady Flex was commissioned. When Polygram collapsed, so did my commission. I reluctantly returned to television journalism.
I went undercover as a moll in the thick of Essex gangland. Following death threats and attempts on my life, I wrote my next book, a thriller about an undercover reporter exposing gangsters. It was – and still is – called Marshlands. I was signed to the Ed Victor agency, where once again, I let the praise about my literary talents go to my head.
Shaking Ed Victor’s hand, while he told me I had a promising future ahead, was a highlight of my life. My agent sent out my first three chapters to a selection of thriller editors. Each one came back saying that my book wasn’t strictly a thriller; it fell between two genres, a thriller and women’s fiction. It therefore wasn’t marketable. Those eight tear-smudged rejections lie in a transparent folder, where twenty years on, I still re-read them and try to avoid making the same mistakes. My agent told me she could sell me ‘tomorrow’ if I wrote chick-lit. No. I was a serious novelist.
I dived head-first into the undercover investigations department at the BBC. For five years I navigated murky, underground worlds of crime, prostitution and drugs in order to expose the perpetrators of others’ misery. Mine went into storage. Each time I became a character for the work I sacrificed my personal life and relationships. In my famous models’ expose, I took that conviction to a new level. I convinced a top model agency that I was beautiful enough to be on their books. I sashayed down the Milan catwalk, wired up, with my eye on the target. My target wasn’t just the predatory model agent, but the book I would write as a result.
I was approached by authors who wanted to use me as their central character. One did, without my permission. The head of BBC drama frogmarched me to the Groucho Club, produced a dictaphone and instructed me to tell my story into it for a drama he wanted to commission about my undercover life. Apparently I was a success. A BBC employee would write the script while I would be paid handsomely as a consultant.
Naturally, I refused. As my value as an undercover reporter was on the rise, I still felt a failure. I was losing sight of my true vision. It took me another six years to finish my next novel, The Reluctant Honeytrap. Again, no joy. Devastation doesn’t come near it. I’d stopped work to write. I’d thrown myself into my art, spending hours every day writing. I’d finally cut the umbilical cord with my journalism career, and now I was dangling in space, with nowhere to go, a dream cruelly dashed.
So my oeuvre sits boxed up with reams and reams of typed up notes and drafts for books that I’ve never finished. However, the novelist inside me won’t give up so easily. Ask me today what I do and I have to answer, ‘I’m an unpublished novelist’. Truthful and sounds so much better than ‘failure’.
Lisa Brinkworth is still writing for various broadsheet newspapers, glossy magazines and, of course, for LUSSO. Her books are ongoing. Her undercover career is not. Follow her on Twitter @brinksmate.