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The Ghost Worlds Within Me: A Novelist’s Journey

[1]We’re thrilled to have multi-published author Stephanie Cowell [2] back with us today for a guest post!

Stephanie is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her next novels (she hopes!) are Blanche and the Water Lilies (the story of the profound help and influence of Monet’s widowed daughter on his last great water lily paintings) and Robbie, a love story set in the English midlands 1900 between a young male artist and a married man. Her work has been translated into nine languages.

You can learn more about Stephanie’s work on her website [2].

The Ghost Worlds Within Me: A Novelist’s Journey

I first heard them as a young child, murmurs of another time and place. A low man’s voice, laughter, footsteps, a door closing. I was very young and quite alone a great deal. By the time I was eight, I had an imaginary friend. Where he came from I don’t know and only I could see him. He was lonely like me. I had to protect him.

My friend was my stability; I was an only child and the fractures in my parents’ marriage were running down the walls. I hid inside myself and in my room with the ghost worlds and ghost characters who assured me they loved me. They’d always been there for me. In a way I existed through them.

Where did the voices come from? Of course I read constantly and my ghost characters partially grew from my reading but also from deep inside me. By the time I was twelve, they became stories hand scribbled in a black-and-white school notebook. Museums, old houses, graveyards, empty streets inspired me. Then I banged out my worlds on my mother’s old typewriter. In my late teens I published several stories and then left writing to sing because writing was too lonely.

But the ghost world waited inside me and in my forties, it began to emerge again. I wrote four novels in seven years and at the end of that time, an editor from a good publishing house called me and said she wanted to buy my first novel with an option for the second. I lay in bed very faint the next day. I was about to open my inner world to strangers.

That book and the four that followed were great gifts …the things that happened to me, the people I met through them (including indirectly my husband and many dear friends), the events and the very welcome checks which paid for many extra things for my family. It was more than I could ever expect. And I found a lovely agent.

Then phrases began drifting into my world from agents and editors, ones I had not heard before: “Can you get your sales up?” “You write beautifully but that subject isn’t salable.” “Can it be about her brother rather than her love story?” “Nobody wants to hear about…” “You have to build a platform….” “We need more of a social media presence from you…”

I wanted to please the publishing world. I wanted them to want me. But with my novels that editors and agents said they wanted, my writing became forced and stiff, and they asked me, bewildered, “What’s wrong?” With the books I wanted most to write, I often received back the words: “Too difficult to market.” I thought with despair, “What does the publishing world want from my writing? What do I want? – and suppose they are different things?

I found myself in the middle of what I fled from as a child: an entirely unpredictable world.

Finally I wrote my writer friend Susan and miserably confided in her. “I’m thinking about stopping, not writing any more novels. Pulling books together is too difficult and what they want from me is too difficult. Since I no longer work in a day job, I could work on my languages, take up country dancing, volunteer for the community garden. But I’m feeling so sad.” Suddenly my rich life full of friends and culture and travel seemed meaningless.

She wrote back at once, “I’m sure you DO want to keep writing because writing is what you do ― and being an author is who you are. Not ONLY who you are, but a major part of your identity. I think not writing would make you feel kind of rootless and depressed. It’s second nature.”

Yes, rootless and depressed…that is just what I felt, and I was wretched. So after five published novels and at least six more in draft form, I found myself asking what I wanted from writing.

I went for walks in the park. I read much of other people’s work, which thrilled me. I do believe that reassessing who you are and what things mean to you is something that we should do often.

Was it the business of writing that I missed?

I remembered something nice. For my fourth novel, my lovely editor had sent me a dark wicker box at Christmastime wound in ribbon and full of chocolates in gold wrappers and nectarines. I realized as I walked under the trees that I wanted to write something so marvelous that I would again find that box on my doorstep. I wanted all the attention of successful book publishing. Oh the marvelous hour when you are at a PR meeting and everyone is gushing over you!

But it’s a fleeting rush, like a sugar high from a dark wicker beribboned box of chocolates.

It wasn’t the business.

The ghost voices started whispering to me again, in my sleep and from my computer. I opened files and saw my incomplete stories and felt thrilled knowing that they could be full stories one day. The ghosts that came to me as a child and still ran down old wood winding steps in museums and side streets in England are still there; I had only been too overwhelmed with the demands of the ever-changing publishing world to hear them.

All of us on this site are writers. Some of us may write something that hooks into the public’s imagination and sells huge numbers of copies. Some may write literary works that find a small press. Some may self-publish or hybrid-publish; I have read several of these in the past year and found them simply wonderful.

I no longer want to spend time grumbling about the business. I want to return to the world that made it all begin, because in a way the worlds and people I write about are more myself than I am.

Last night again, voices woke me at two in the morning. They wouldn’t let me sleep. I tumbled to my desk and began to work on one of my unfinished novels. I first heard these ghosts and their worlds long ago. Here they are, changing as I have changed. Some may, with good fortune, find themselves in full book form within book covers; others may remain just within me and my friends. A low man’s voice, laughter, footsteps, a door closing and opening. Suddenly I love my life again. I love to write.

Have you ever found yourself so discouraged by the business side of writing that you’ve considered giving up the craft? If so, what changed your mind? What keeps you returning to the keyboard?