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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Life Can Be Very Krool

Years ago when I was 25 and newly married, my husband and I decamped to Oxford so that he could take up a scholarship at Balliol to read for the BCL.

The first thing I did as he plunged into the gaieties of Noughth Week was to register at a temp agency. The second was to start writing my first Proper Novel. I had piles and piles of rejected pulp romances at home, but this was to be my first foray into proper writing.

When I finally finished it – my first “real” novel – I took the breathtakingly cheeky step of sending it off to Barbara Trapido.

The Whitbread Award-winning author of “Brother Of The More Famous Jack” and a slew of other critically acclaimed novels was, and still is, one of my literary heroes. I knew she lived in Oxford, and I knew she was born in South Africa. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to solicit her help for a completely unknown fellow Seffrican.

Barely a week after I sent the novel off, I got a phonecall from the great lady herself, informing me that she’d read my novel on the train and was going to introduce me to Felicity Bryan, her erstwhile agent. She had also written an analysis of my novel and was popping it in the post straight away.

I still have that three-page, hand-written analysis, and will probably keep it until the day I die. In it, she describes my novel as “lots of fun” and “eminently publishable”, and dispenses such useful snippets of advice as a reminder that Black Forest Cake is a very Non-U dessert, while Sacher Torte is perfectly acceptable. Who knew, right?

I deleted all references to Black Forest Cake from the text, and, armed with my letter of introduction, sent the novel off to Felicity Bryan. Again it was barely a week later that the phone rang and the lady herself invited me to pop round to her office to meet her.

She showered praise on the novel, and told me it was “very enjoyable” and had “great potential”. She also regaled me with anecdotes of her many high-profile clients, including yet another hero of mine – the great Robertson Davies – who passed away just a few months later.

I undertook to build the book up to 75,000 words (at 50,000 words, it was far too short), and we parted on the best of terms.

By this time, as you may imagine, I was having to rent an adjoining apartment just to house my rampant ego. I honestly believed that my ship had come in at last. I’d hit the big time, left failure behind me forever, and could expect Hollywood to come a-knocking at any moment. I remember feeling a kind of dim pity for those poor, and patently inferior, writers who struggled for years before they finally made it.

If someone had told me then that it would be another ten years before a book of mine got even a sniff of genuine interest from a publisher, I would have laughed in their faces. And possibly kicked sand at them too.

But so it was.

Felicity Bryan sat on the reworked version of the novel for months and months and months (never a good sign). Then she phoned to say that it wasn’t “exactly” her kind of thing, but that she was sending it onto another agent in London who would definitely love it.

The second agent sat on it for a few more interminable months, before announcing that it wasn’t “quite right” for her either, but that she was sending it onto yet another agent who would be sure to adore it. The third agent eventually came clean and admitted that she didn’t adore it at all … and she didn’t offer to send it on anywhere else either.

My ego began to shrink back down to normal size, which was probably a good thing for all concerned. I think I still have a copy of that novel lying about somewhere, but I haven’t so much as looked at it in the last ten years.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 8th, 2009 @23:44 #
     
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    Fiona...dig that novel up. As Ruth Ozeki said to me (okay, that was shameless, I met her only once, and that was sheer fluke): everything you ever write is material, eventually.

    You got a letter from Barbara Trapido??? I bow down before you. That was the REAL achievement, doll.

    When we finally meet, we must have a good nostalgic discussion of the dreaming spires. I thought Oxford was a conundrum -- a brutal place to be a student, a brilliant place, heart-stopping loveliness and heartbreak and coldness and beans-on-a-hot-plate squalor all at once. It was such an outsiders-insiders realm. But magical.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    February 9th, 2009 @07:33 #
     
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    I know, I am tremendously proud of my Barbara Trapido letter. The novel, however, will remain decently interred. But Ozeki (love her, too!) was right inasmuch as it provided material for a blog.

    I absolutely adored Oxford and often get pangs of almost unbearable nostalgia for it. But I think Bill Bryson was right - it is basically an ugly, poorly-planned city with pockets of great loveliness tucked away inside it. Christ Church meadow ... the New College mound ... sob, sob...

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    February 9th, 2009 @08:14 #
     
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    An achievement indeed! It's so gloomy for a novel to be interred-I'm sure you can spruce it up and why not turn that novel into a blogged novel?

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  • <a href="http://ingridwolfaardt.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid</a>
    Ingrid
    February 9th, 2009 @08:32 #
     
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    I like your chutzpah,Fiona-you can't keep a good woman down!

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    February 9th, 2009 @09:34 #
     
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    What a story, Fiona. A universal one at that.... That's the writing life: flatter, flatter, flatter, deceive. Either people are lazily talking you up for no particular reason, or they're being brutal for no particular reason. You can only afford to house your expanded ego if someone has put their money where their mouth is and signed a contract. And at the same time your inner child is yelling - Why can't I just be happy for a frikking moment?? Sometimes the only honesty you can trust is your own. And if you have a piece of work you honestly like, you have to try to convince someone to honestly like it too, or honestly accept the reasons nobody is going to take a splash on it. You can come round to mine and rifle through my locked cupboard of old manuscripts. (I'll unlock it...)

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  • <a href="http://www.jassymackenzie.com" rel="nofollow">Jassy</a>
    Jassy
    February 9th, 2009 @09:39 #
     
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    What a story! What cruelty of fate! Well done for picking yourself up and keeping on writing.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    February 9th, 2009 @12:55 #
     
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    I love this story Fiona! And can't wait for Trinity to Rise and knock 'em all dead in the aisles! Will this be happening soon? You'll have to send Barbara a signed copy ... how very kind she was to a fellow writer and South African. As Tracey Farren said to me - hang on let me just call her quickly for a bon mot or two ...(why go international when local is so very lekker?)

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    February 9th, 2009 @13:06 #
     
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    What an awesome and humbling story: meteoric rise complete with meteoric crash (on a wipe-out-the-dinosaurs scale). And quite in awe of your chutzpah at sending it to Barbara Trapido - and getting an answer. I hope she's blurbing Trinity Rising.

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