Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Unpublished History - Part 2

Back in 1997/98 the price of oil was dropping just as I was expanding my business. I had started a company that made the mechanical parts of downhole for the oil industry in Aberdeen a few years before. Our profitability depended on the oil companies spending money in the search for more oil and activity and was therefore closely correlated to the price of oil.

I believed the dip in the oil price was temporary. To take advantage of the upturn when it came I decided to expand the business. I bought over a competitor and started building new premises to house the expanded business. To do this I borrowed about one and a half million pounds sterling on top of my existing business debts of about half a million. Most of the money was secured on my house and through personal guarantees. If anything went wrong I knew I'd be made bankrupt.

Almost the very next day after I'd fixed up the new loans work in the North Sea dried up. It was as if the oil companies had turned off a tap.

When you're highly-borrowed and trapped in a niche market, believe me, when things go wrong there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. Above all, you're very much on your own. Exactly like when you're dying.

I didn't know it at the time but I was to spend the next three years fighting to save the company.

In less than six months I lost a stone and a half in weight, my hair turned white and I never had more than two or three hours fitful sleep a night. Very soon I lost the ability to think straight. Over and over in my mind I rehearsed a million scenarios that would drag me out of the hole I was in. None of them worked.

After a few months during which my brain was working overdrive I reached the point where I couldn't concentrate for more than a couple of minutes at a time. There were other physical changes. I suffered palpitations. I had a persistent headache. My mouth was pemanently dry. My blood pressure was through the roof.

Stress is often a trigger for depression. I lost all pleasure in life. The phrase "this sterile promontory" repeated itself endlessly in my brain. I stopped loving my wife and my children. I hated myself for the mistakes I had made. The world turned monochrome. I really wished I was dead.

I started writing again as an escape from the dread reality of life. It wasn't writing as therapy, rather an attempt to capture and understand what was happening to me. Because I could no longer think straight words came slowly and reluctantly. I couldn't work for longer than half an hour at a time. Some days I only managed to produce a single sentence.

To make matters worse, while I was writing I felt I should be working. Yet when I was working I longed to be writing. Whatever I was doing I felt guilty.

Hemingway said once that you should write about big experiences like that but that you should leave a little time so that you gain enough objectively to write properly. I was writing about these things as they happened to me and I know that has had a detrimental effect on the book.

Gradually I turned the business round.

I cut overheads, slashed costs and trimmed prices. Cash flow stabilised and one day I knew we would survive.

That day I stopped writing even though the book wasn't finished. I had to. I was emotionally exhausted. I needed time to recuperate.

After about a year I picked up the book again. I found it almost impossible to re-read what I had gone through. I guess I was suffering some kind of post traumatic stress. However, I wanted to finish the book, I wanted to draw a line under what I'd been through. To try and make the book publishable I superimposed a plot that involved....well, you can read about it for yourself.

The trauma with the business meant that I was still depressed. That's a real problem for me as a writer because in other books I have written there is a certain poetry that, I believe, makes the books sing. I had no poetry left in me. My soul was destroyed, a wasteland.

The experience had also sensitised me, making it painful to re-read what I had gone through. I still find it difficult to revise parts of the book.

Eventually I finished the book and in September 2002 I reluctantly sent it off to Curtis Brown, the literary agents. Reluctantly because I was still an emotional wreck and I really didn't want to face the pain of rejection again. In a subsequent post I'll describe what happened next.


  1. A. Nonny-Mouse2:16 pm

    This is riveting.

    Here's what I don't want to hear next: 'Curtis Brown really wanted to represent me, but I wasn't prepared to make the changes they required. So I tried six other agents, all with the same result. I then approached five publishers, all of whom were really keen. However, I finally decided that integrity demanded that I self-publish.'

    And here's what I do want to hear next: 'Curtis Brown expressed no interest, and neither did any of the 25,763 other agents I approached. I then tried contacting publishers directly, and 23,487 of them were not interested.'

    This latter scenario, you see, would have the ring of truth, and would make others feel better about their own failures. Me, for instance.

    On no account tell us that you came very close to success several times. Even if you did.

  2. Good to hear from you again, Nonny. You had me worried for a bit there.

    Don't worry about the pitfalls of publishing success- I've managed to avoid all of then so far.