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My new chapter - novelist at 78

All her life Kirsteen Stewart had wanted to write. It's never too late...

The older you are the stranger the transition. On May 14 2020, at the height of the lockdown, aged 78, I changed into a writer. My first novel was published. No roomful of friends and guests at Daunts Marylebone High Street, no gallery clattering with grandchildren and step grandchildren, no signing of the bright yellow paperback book. If the launch party hadn’t been cancelled I would have got to my feet and said that becoming a writer felt like ‘coming out’.

I am often asked whether my lifelong urge to be a writer was set off by the event that changed my life – the assassination of my father

I would have hesitated about using an expression which must sometimes involve a whole different level of potential drama and problems. And apologised for presuming to use it. But explained that I needed a sufficiently dramatic way to describe the momentousness of publicly changing into a different person.

Being a published writer is not like alchemy. The words I have written in notebooks over the years, in occasional poems and contributions to other peoples’ books and in tributes at tragic funerals, they did not suddenly turn to gold. But the person who wrote them assumed a new mantle. Her thoughts and preoccupations didn’t suddenly slide into focus, become clearer, more philosophical or more original, but they assumed licence to an existence of their own.

I am often asked whether my lifelong urge to be a writer was set off by the event that changed my life – the assassination of my father during the ceremonies to welcome him as the new Governor of Sarawak, North Borneo, when I was 8 years old.  That day I transitioned to being fatherless. But the urge to write goes back before that – back as far as I can remember.

I wrote stories and poems as a teenager – as John Lanchester says, most novelists have a teenage poetry phase. My inspiration was the wild elemental scenery of the West Highlands of Scotland, where I was partly brought up, and the belief in the unexplained spirit world which it instilled in an impressionable child. And the romantic and heroic legends including those of my Stewart forbears. I had a poem published in the school magazine about the Moor of Rannoch (too young to have read the TS Eliot poem), and a couple of (doggerel-style) ballads about the Jacobite Rebellions. My first love story was turned down by Mills and Boon at the age of 14. But I knew even then that I wanted to write about love and death.

My first love story was turned down by Mills and Boon at the age of 14. But I knew even then that I wanted to write about love and death.

Then there were the grown up things like taking a history degree, becoming a serious civil servant, marrying a diplomat and having children, picking up paid jobs where I could, teaching in comprehensive schools, doing education research and being the wife of an ambassador. But through all those years I still only really wanted to write a decent novel.

On ten Wednesdays in my late 30s I wrote a full-length novel called Stepp’d in so Far – with hindsight a suitably symbolic slow burn title – “All causes shall give way: I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” [Macbeth Act III Scene iv]. It was set in Jordan in 1970 in the era of Palestinian abductions and hijacking. These were no surprise to anyone whose first experience of living in the Middle East was visiting pitiful sprawling tents where Palestinian refugees proudly showed you their only precious possession – the deeds to the lands that had been theirs before the emergence of the state of Israel and the 1967 war.

In Stepp’d in so Far the wife of a young diplomat falls in love with a Haitian development worker on the hectic cosmopolitan diplomatic circuit. During a clandestine encounter between them his office is overrun by local Palestinians activist resentful of King Hussein’s violent clamp down on their campaign for recognition. She and her lover are held hostage. Their passionate relationship is slowly punctured by being imprisoned together yet chained up apart.  The story is about mirror images of captivity – hostile life-threatening imprisonment and the longed-for strangle-hold of a passionate love affair.

Eight major fiction publishers turned it down. I decided that they were right. That I should go away and write something better.

Stepp’d In So Far was taken on by a well-respected agent whom a friend bullied me into meeting. He asked me to change a bit of the beginning and a bit at the end. That was how easy it was. THEN.  Eight major fiction publishers turned it down, two only marginally and said they wanted to see my next one. My agent was going to submit it to other smaller publishers but I said no. I decided that they were right. That I should go away and write something better.

There were only ever 2 copies – in the days before electronic documents – one at the agents and the other I lent to my friend, Barbara Amiel, and I lost sight of it. Why was I so careless? What was going on psychologically? Did I believe that I would be a writer one day and that I would be able to do better? Or did I think being a writer was too scary? Was it that familiar self-sabotage?

In embassies in Iraq, Paris and Abu Dhabi I was busy bringing up a family and getting to know new countries –- and in Abu Dhabi I was wife of the British Ambassador with a great deal of official entertaining and a series of ministerial and royal visits as well as working full time for the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Information and Historical Research. Living in other countries expands your horizons and can be inspirational. In old notebooks are descriptions of breath-taking scenery and outlines of short stories. I didn’t lose sight of the idea of writing another novel but I was held back, and it is difficult to admit this even now, by being not happily married. I couldn’t write about real feelings without the fear of upsetting someone and perhaps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well. And it’s no good writing unless you tell it true.

It’s no good writing unless you tell it true.

Yet in 1986, during that period of my life, I had a tarot card reading from Sally Quinn, high profile wife of Ben Bradlee, then editor of the Washington Post. You have to ask the cards a secret question. Mine seemed to cause Sally acute alarm. The message of the cards in answer to my question was that I would disrupt my whole family but it would eventually be all right.  And at the end of the session she said she thought my question must be about something as dramatic as entering a nunnery. Of course I’d asked the cards if I’d ever be a writer.  And the cards seemed to divine that I would need to be divorced to be free to write.

Back in London there was the need to earn money. This meant starting on a new career at 48 – working with famous social reformer Michael Young at the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green and then at the Refugee Council and on a range of refugee projects. Hard work and exceptionally interesting, but obstacles to becoming a writer. As time went on the odds stacked up against it even as the urge increased. I imagined a table in a safe little corner of a room where I would eventually settle down to write. Always with my back to the wall. Tomorrow rather today.

As time went on the odds stacked up against it even as the urge increased. I know what I feared. That being the real me would bring the ceiling down round my ears.

In a lot of psychotherapy I was encouraged to write as a way of easing problems and anxieties. I was stuck in the belief that there was a version of myself that was acceptable to people and that it involved softening my opinions and feelings. I’ve never forgotten the horrified look on my mother’s face when I told her I had found an agent for Stepp’d In So Far. I don’t know what she feared. I know what I feared. That being the real me would bring the ceiling down round my ears. But my second husband taught me, among many things, that there is nothing as awful as holding back on the truth. That above all gave me the licence to write. And I am eternally grateful

So once again I wrote a novel rather quickly, from beginning to end, this time about how marriages struggle to survive tragedies. It is set in Former Yugoslavia and called Towards the Lost Land– a quotation from Jane Campion: ‘All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.’ Or perhaps it may be called The Plums Trees of Gracanica. I showed it to an editor who said that the writing was good but that it wasn’t ready to send to an agent.  So I put that aside too and started on a thriller. I owned a house in the Highlands of Scotland at the end of a two mile forestry track at the end of a single track road and I often went up there on my own in wild weather. Inspired once again by the overwhelming beauty of the wild unforgiving landscape , this story is about a flawed heroine being stalked by a resentful ex-lover and unable to escape. It is called The Cloth of Night or perhaps Seaweed. A very good agent was interested but suggested I went on a writing course to improve it.

In my mid 70s, who was I among these? Was it all too late?

I took her advice and that set me on the final stage of my transition. I was accepted onto the Faber Writing Your Novel course. From the start we were called ‘writers’ and taught to be writers and each of us was writing a novel and the weekly exercises applied to what we were privately writing. This conjured up a real sense of identity as a writer. That group were mostly in their 20s and 30s, English Literature graduates, journalists and already winners of prizes for first chapters and flash fiction. I was none of that. In my mid 70s, who was I among these? Was it all too late? Twice in the course we had to print off 5000 words of our novels-in-progress and submit them to the comments of the others. You learn a lot by commenting constructively about other people’s writing. My first experience was terrifying but encouraging. Perhaps if that had not gone well I would have finally lost heart.

Break These Chains is about the psychological underside of glittering 1960s London. Historical fiction to 20 year olds, the first stirrings of feminism to 40 year olds and a nostalgic evocation of the 60s to my contemporaries.

The published novel that emerged from the Faber course is not a Sally Rooney style millennial story. Break These Chains is about the psychological underside of glittering 1960s London. Bruised by childhood trauma, an attractive serious 20-year-old makes her uncertain way through the pre-Pill world. Her love for a sports car mechanic who is part of a rich but shady circle threatens the old-fashioned values of her doting grandmother and her serious civil service job. It is historical fiction to 20 year olds, the first stirrings of feminism to 40 year olds and a nostalgic evocation of the 60s to my contemporaries. To me it is a spotlight on what it felt to be me in those days, fatherless, unsure who I was, fearing that the opportunities would turn me into both a sex maniac and a drug addict. Several of the characters are loosely based on people I knew then, but the events and two key characters are imaginary.

…fatherless, unsure who I was, fearing that the opportunities would turn me into both a sex maniac and a drug addict.

Becoming a published writer has been a long journey and hard work and sometimes lonely, but I shall never again be who I was before. On a frivolous level I feel as though I now have licence to behave like a caricature of a writer – to get drunk, behave badly, be quirky and eccentric. Some, including my family, say that I’ve always been a bit like that, but even so treat me with a sliver of new respect. I know how I’ve adopted many disguises – from Oxford scholar to girl about town, from civil servant to teacher to ambassador’s wife to social entrepreneur, serious but often flightly and flirtatious too, masking growing feminism with a frill or an attention seeking cleavage.  So I should not be surprised when a few people, men mainly, especially men of my generation, treat me slightly differently now that my label says ‘writer’. Or do I just imagine that there is something a little patronising when someone comments  ‘I think you have been wrestling away at delivering yourself of something of what you have seen and explored and learnt during your highly alert life—and you have really done it.’?

…late though I have left it, I am much more me now than I ever was before.

It is over 50 years since I was a long-legged, mini-skirted, tousled-haired 20 year old. I have gone through a number of career transitions and those most fundamental of transitions to wife and mother and grandmother. But being a writer, a published novelist, with more to come, and late though I have left it, I am much more me now than I ever was before.

Break These Chains by Kirsteen Stewart is available from bookstores, from Hive (indy supporting retail site) and as a paperback and ebook from Amazon.

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