Thursday 2 January 2020

What kind of author do you want to be?

By Candy Gourlay

The first time I met my agent, Hilary Delamere, she asked me a question that I have pondered time and again. 'What kind of author would you like to be?'

I really had no idea what she was getting at.

I mean, wasn't it obvious?

What kind of author did I want to be? I wanted to be the kind of author who had a published book. That is all.

It was the truth but of course I didn't say it aloud. I don't remember what I said on the day, something witty (hopefully), something that distracted her from pushing for an actual answer, something that didn't make her wonder if she'd made a mistake, signing me up.

But as I grew into my new identity, as I learned about the way the publishing industry worked, as I experienced the doubt, the fear, the feeling of being an impostor that seems to be the lot of the questing writer, it continued to  haunt me.

What kind of author did I want to be?

I am writing this in January 2020 – ten years after copies of my first book squeezed through my letterbox in a large jiffy bag. That book was Animal Tricksters, a sweet, three-story anthology for the Oxford Learning Tree reading series.

It had my photo on the inside page, under the title 'Letter from the Author'. I remember wrinkling my nose. Letter from the Author? The temerity!

I felt oddly reluctant to accept my new title of 'Author' minus the 'Aspiring'. The truth was, I had become very good indeed at being an Aspiring Author. It was my safe space. In fact, all my friends were Aspiring Authors.

I decided to become an Aspiring Author in 2001. I made time for writing. I attended talks and conferences and visited libraries and bookstores. I researched the market. I stalked agents. I treated being an Aspiring Author as a job, and it upset me when people referred to my writing as a hobby.

Though I did have a hobby. Having worked as a journalist before becoming a housewife and mother of three, I was fascinated by magazine and newspaper design. When the internet began its rise in the 1990s, I was excited by its creative possibilities – all  you needed was a screechy modem and a willingness to learn HTML.

I coded a website from scratch called Mum at Work – so called because I seemed to be surrounded by people who thought motherhood was recreation. I made comics about pregnancy and being a mum, I reviewed children's books and books about parenting, and wrote essays humorously extolling the virtues of creativity in domesticity with titles like 'Why we should all be more like Elizabeth Hurley' when the actress appeared with a flat tummy and 10 inch stilletos soon after giving birth. Mum at Work's motto: 'Let's do it all. We're already tired anyway.'

Upon discovering what I was up to, a friend told me, 'You are writing a weblog!' It was the first time I'd heard of a blog (as it came to be known) ... and when, in 2004, newly nascent Google introduced its blogging platform Blogger, I signed up.

By then I was deep in the submission/rejection cycle and searching the internet for clues on how to rise to the top of that infamous thing called the Slushpile.

I decided to call my blog Notes from the Slushpile. I was attending so many How to Get Published events that I had a LOT of material and I decided to use my journalistic skills to write reports on what I learned.

Looking back at those early years of blog posts, I realise now that I was asking myself that question all along. What kind of author did I want to be?

My debut post in 2004 explored race and children's books, reporting on a speech by Farrukh Dondy, who concluded that his first book East End at Your Feet was published in 1976 under a "deviant impulse":
We are still writing books that are basically written for a white audience, published by publishers because they are liberal enough to want to publish it.
Re-reading my piece, I can see my naivete. Although I reported Farrukh's speech accurately, I myself didn't fully understand systemic racism the way I do now. I, like the liberal publishers he was talking about, assumed and unquestioningly accepted that books should be written for a white audience.

When my first novel, Tall Story, was published in 2010, 'multicultural books' had been rebranded 'diverse' books after the government decided multiculturalism as a policy was a mistake. And my unique selling point became – guess! – being a Diverse Author.

I was learning though. In a 2015 blog post titled The Many Faces of Diversity, you could tell that I'd been doing more research on diversity and inclusion. Enough to offer this advice to anyone trying to write diverse stories:

1. Your character's Otherness doesn't have to be The Story.

2. You can't go wrong if your characters are fully imagined.

3. The best story, the one that will captivate readers, should be built on truth and not on agenda.

In my early years as an Unknown Author, diversity panels were how I got invited to festivals and conferences, panels that told (largely white) audiences about the lack of it.

... but what kind of an author did I ACTUALLY want to be?

Did I want to be a spokesperson for diversity? Nah. I was grateful to those diversity panels for relieving me of anonymity. But yeah, I did secretly wish that someday someone would invite me to speak about my writerly enthusiasms ... like Story Structure! I love talking about Story Structure!

Becoming a published author with actual books on actual bookshop shelves forced a shift in my identity. Suddenly, I was no longer the Aspiring Author, pandering to other aspiring authors by writing about masterclasses, agent parties and too much craft not enough story.

Overnight my audience turned into parents, teachers and librarians and I realised, after all the years of blogging about writing and craft and trying to get published, that my new audience wanted to hear about other things: literacy, reading for pleasure, libraries.

I decided to blog about these things on my author website. I recommended books, I blogged about my ridiculous author schedule, I blogged about books I loved that turned out to be racist. The invitations to talk about diversity grew fewer and far between as the book world became more woke to the issues. The years of blogging were good practice for listening and learning about this brave new world that was all about reading rather than writing.

But what about Notes from the Slushpile? I had built a readership of thousands but with the publication of my novel, I no longer had the time to blog consistently and vociferously as I once did. The solution, as all you dear Slushy readers know, was to wheedle my friends into blogging on Notes from the Slushpile. Which I duly accomplished, recruiting Teri Terry, Addy Farmer, Kathryn Evans, Jo Wyton, Nick Cross, Em Lynas and Paula Harrison.

Rather impertinently, several of them promptly got published and it turned out everyone was just as busy as I was. (We were all learning that the Slushpile reaches beyond getting an agent and beyond publication. But that's a blog post for another time).

I can't believe it's 2020 and I've been an Actual Author for a DECADE. And still that question nags me. What kind of author do I want to be?

Looking back, there doesn't seem to be a clear pattern of the sort of Author I've become. My stories are diverse in theme and genre-less. From writing a light-hearted, family-oriented middle grade book Tall Story in 2010, I've gone on to write a darker, older, middle grade about ghosts and family secrets in 2013's Shine, and thence to 2018, with Bone Talk, a novel set in a forgotten historical moment within a cultural context that the gentle, modern reader might find challenging. I've also written a picture book Is It a Mermaid about a sea cow that believes she is  a mermaid, in addition to some books for young readers that have not yet been published (although lookee, Waterstones has already announced that my Ferdinand Magellan book lavishly and hilariously illustrated by Tom Knight will be out in April 2020!)

Shameless self promotion: Filipino peeps will be pleased to know I have written this book. It was Ferdinand Magellan who "discovered" the Philippines. Heh heh I leapt at the chance to retell this story. Four months to publication day!

Looking through my posts on Notes from the Slushpile, I feel like I'm literally watching myself evolve and learn and change as the book world around me also evolves and continues to evolve. I guess the answer has always been there, in my fevered scribblings.

What kind of author do I want to be?

• I'd like to be a Diverse Author...not just because of the colour of my skin but because of the worlds that can be discovered in my stories.  

• I'd like to be an author surrounded by people who love story as much as I do.

• I'd like to be an author who is always learning to be an author.

What kind of author do YOU want to be?

Candy Gourlay was born in the Philippines, grew up under a dictatorship and met her husband during a revolution. Her novel Bone Talk was recently shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Prize. Her picture book, Is It a Mermaid, lushly illustrated by Francesca Chessa, was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her novels have also been listed for the Waterstones, the Blue Peter and the Guardian Children’s Book Prize. She lives in London with her family, where she wages war on the snails in her garden.


  1. Fantastic post, Candy! You always make me thing about the things you are writing about. Keep up the great work! xo

    1. Thanks, Colleen! I have to confess I can hardly keep up with keeping up the work!

  2. I've been thinking and thinking about this. I think I want to be an author that people want to read. And an author who makes people laugh and cry. And an author that gets people talking about things that matter to me.

    1. I LOVE this, Kathy! Me too! Sometimes though the process of becoming an author transforms you in unexpected ways. I was so resistant to the diversity label at the beginning but now I realise that it's at the core of everything I write.

  3. Attitudes change all the way through the author journey depending on each persons experience at each stage and I find it fascinating. Some people have so much certainty about what they want to write, why they want to write and who they want to write for right from the beginning. I definitely wasn't one of those. The only thing I was certain of was - it had to be fun for me and funny for the reader. Turned out to be hard work too.

    1. I used to think I wanted to write funny books, but I feel like I've become more serious as I've gone down the wormhole of being an author. I'd love to recapture my earlier lightheartedness.

  4. Love this. I'm such a tortoise, it often takes me ages to process and understand my stories enough for others to get them!


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