University is a good place to write a novel. But while you have nothing to lose, you must have something to say. Anne Sebba reports
One of the hottest cinema tickets last month was for The Beach, based on a novel that has just sold its millionth copy and quickly become a cult classic among student backpackers. It was written by 24-year-old Alex Garland, fresh out of university.
These days, publishers and agents actively seek young, first-time novelists, often still undergraduates, recognising how easy they are to promote.
But the pressure to write a bestseller and be a media personality at the same time can act as a negative influence on a twentysomething unsure of their talents. Then the contract takes on a slightly Faustian whiff.
To Zadie Smith, 24, who began White Teeth, an exploration of multicultural Britain in the late 20th century, while still studying for an English degree at King's College, Cambridge, the celebrity circus is nothing more than a distraction. "Lots of people think fame in itself is some great joy. I don't know what I'm meant to enjoy about it. You get asked to do a lot of stupid things, as if you're a pop star. I think it makes you vain and you forget what you're meant to be doing. I need solitude to write."
Smith arrived on the London literary scene earlier this year. She was paid about Pounds 250,000 in a two-book deal and understands this allows her publishers, Hamish Hamilton, "to claim their pound of flesh". But within two months of publication she told me: "I've already come to regret the book I've written. You have to make your mistakes so publicly. If you really want to write good books I'd say wait. There's no huge hurry and you'll be embarrassed by it in the end. I don't think a lot of people have much to say when they're very young. The book I wrote is OK but sometimes I think it's quite excruciating - it's the product of my adolescence," Smith says.
She is already stuck into her second novel, which she promises will be quite different.
Smith, who thought she might have a career as an academic, or even a jazz singer, was discovered after several of her short stories appeared in the Oxbridge publication May Anthologies. "Just before my finals a publisher wrote asking if I could do more than just short stories. So I started writing the book in the college computer room. After my exams (she got a first) I moved in with a friend, completed 80 pages and sent them off to an agent."
One obvious disadvantage for Smith, (and any other young writer who is catapulted from penniless student to successful author) is that they have not had a lot of time to experience life. "If your aim is to write from life then you're going to have some problems because you'll end up describing stuff that's very dull, such as the parties or film premiere you went to. So far most of my experience has come from reading and I use my imagination. I hope that keeps on being enough for me."
Richard Mason, 22, and studying English at New College, Oxford, had the idea for his first novel, The Drowning People, when he was 16 and at Eton. He wrote it largely during his gap year and sold it, with the help of an agent who insisted on a considerable and time-consuming third draft, in the third term of his first year.
"This was incredibly exciting but not so good for my academic life. I had to take a year out and did a tour of 16 countries (the book was translated into 22 languages). I was often up at 4am doing ten interviews a day. When my book was published in the United States, CNN made a big documentary about me, which took six weeks."
Mason says he was paid about Pounds 110,000 for two books and has sold about 60,000 copies in hardback in the United Kingdom. Even if he does not earn his advance on his first book he is not concerned.
"My advance is a way for my publishers to say, 'You're a horse to back for a long time.' They are not rushing me for my second book, but I have started it."
He has now rejoined Oxford. "I said to Penguin (his publisher), when I go back to Oxford I must do (academic) work not publicity. This means I turn down a lot of stuff." Nonetheless Mason, explaining what fun he had last week when a Danish film crew spent an afternoon making a programme about him, clearly thrives on the publicity.
Alain de Botton, 22 when his first book, Essays in Love, was published and just embarking on a never-to-be-completed PhD, advises student writers to go for it while they can, "because for me to have established myself in another career and then to try to be a writer would have been much riskier. One's early 20s are years of experimenting so there is nothing to lose really. It's hard to give across-the-board advice, but if you start early and it goes wrong you can change style. Being a student is a very privileged period in one's life, full of intellectual discovery, when you also have the time to write. I sent Essays in Love to 30 agents: 29 turned me down. I was paid a Pounds 2,500 advance and my new editor took me out for a sandwich, which we then ate at his desk. It all started very modestly. I was not transformed from an obscure individual to a superstar, and I'm very grateful for that slow build-up because in the long term I think it's always better to exceed people's expectations than to raise them and dash them."
But the reverse is also true, he acknowledges. "If you're not paid much it can lead to financial worries. And it's dispiriting when you think you've written a good book and it disappears without trace. My publishers initially would have been quite happy to see me disappear because they had made so little investment in me.
"As a young writer you're particularly vulnerable to publishers," says de Botton, recalling the number that turned down even his fourth book How Proust can Change your Life, which has sold about 100,000 copies.
De Botton's advice to students who want to write is do not think only about a novel. Douglas Murray, an Oxford undergraduate, has just sold a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas to Talk Miramax, and another student I talked to is writing a diary of her struggle against bulimia. So if you are confident enough to withstand the media onslaught and can find a publisher, go for it. Youth is on your side.
THE PUBLISHER'S VIEW
Philip Gwyn Jones "I discovered Zadie Smith in two May Anthologies (collections of short stories and poetry written and published every year by students from Oxford and Cambridge) and it was clear her writing was head and shoulders above the rest," says Philip Gwyn Jones, editorial director of Flamingo, a division of Harper Collins.
"She is a natural storyteller, so I wrote to her and asked if she had any full-length work I could see." However, by the time she had written the first 80 pages of White Teeth she had an agent, and Harper Collins lost out to Hamish Hamilton in the ensuing auction.
"We refused to pay the asking price because I think it is dangerous for a young writer. I know some would say that's a pious attitude because she is a fantastic talent, but she'll be pressured and most young authors are delicate flowers."
What worries Gwyn Jones is the culture of novelty, which demands ever newer, virgin talent. "What you should be writing about," he told me, "is authors who were paid huge advances for their first or second novels but couldn't get their third or fourth novel placed at all."
His advice to would-be authors is to get as much feedback as they can from tutors and friends until they have the confidence to go public. Then consult the Writers & Artists Yearbook.
THE AGENT'S VIEW
Anna Davies Anna Davies is a novelist who teaches on Manchester University's creative writing course and works at the literary agency Curtis Brown. She took on two authors when they were mature students, -year-old Darren King, who studied at Bath University, author of Boxy An Star (Abacus), and 34-year-old Mark Powell, who has just finished an MA in creative writing at Manchester.
Davies has negotiated a "substantial" two-book deal for Powell, who was the first winner of a Curtis Brown prize, to be awarded annually to students from the Manchester course. Snap, his first novel, will be published by Orion later this year. Curtis Brown has had a long association with creative writing courses and has funded one student a year at the University of East Anglia school since its inception. The new award, worth Pounds 1,000, gives the agency first pick of fresh talent.
"Young first-time novelists are promotable," says Davies, "but that's only one aspect. Interesting work history and a good angle to tie into the book can also make you promotable. Powell hung out with a street gang in New York, joined the RAF and trained as a lawyer before he got a place at Manchester. It's the big deals that make the headlines but there are masses of authors we nurse through lots of books before they hit the big time."