In the (many) interviews I’ve done since THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP was published, one question seems to come up again and again:
Our readers would love to know: are you a sheep or a goat?
I think, perhaps, you only have to take a look at my CV to find an answer to that one. I left school at 15, went to medical school in my thirties, and I wrote a book, sitting in an NHS car park in my lunch break. I would say that’s pretty standard goat behaviour. There are many other qualities too, smaller ones, which ear-mark me as a goat. One of them, is that I never told anyone about my car park book. It was all very covert, leaning against a steering wheel making up stories, and getting up at 3am to write before I went to work. No one knew I was doing it. People assumed I was eating a League of Friends sandwich and staring into space (and to be fair, there was quite a bit of that going on, too). The reason I never told anyone, is that if you admit to writing, you are generally asked three questions:
Have I heard of you?
Are you published?
Do you know JK Rowling?*
*I am still asked this question, if it’s any consolation (and the answer, sadly, is still no)
When the answer to all of these is ‘no’, when you admit that you don’t have an editor or an agent (or even a nice, snappy one-liner to explain what it is you actually write), I found that people backed away with an expression of slight pity on their faces (the kind of look you give to a dog, when it can’t catch its ball). And so I stopped telling people, and GOATS AND SHEEP became my guilty secret (although Lord knows, I hate that expression). By September 2014, I had thirty thousand words of my guilty secret, and I thought it was perhaps time I found out if it was any good …
When I went to the Festival of Writing, I had no idea how much it would change my life. You can read all about what happened here on the festival website, but to summarise, by the end of the following week, I had an agent and a publisher, and when the book came out in January 2016, I had a Sunday Times bestseller (incidentally, when GOATS AND SHEEP became a bestseller, I stayed up all night, eating crisp sandwiches and talking to the dog, because I couldn’t quite believe this had all happened to me). But along with that, the festival gave me something I never dreamed I could experience: it gave me a sense of belonging. It made me realise just how many people were out there, feeling just as I did. They might not have been writing in hospital car parks, but they were writing whilst their kids had a swimming lesson, or at a kitchen table, or in the back bedroom before the rest of the house woke up. The festival made me feel less alone. I might have still been a bit of a goat, but I had found my herd.
I was very fortunate to be able to visit a festival. I had wanted to attend before, but as a medical student, my budget couldn’t quite stretch to it – which is why I decided, along with the Writers’ Workshop, to set up a bursary, and to give someone else the kind of opportunity I was lucky enough to have, someone who would otherwise not be able to afford a place. The bursary offers one person two nights’ accommodation at the festival, a pass to all the amazing workshops and talks, one-to-ones with agents, with all meals and travelling expenses paid (plus, a little spending money, because there is a bookshop – of course!) In total, the bursary is worth over £800. All you have to do is submit a sample of your writing, and a letter explaining why you’d like to attend. The recipient will be selected by myself and Sue Armstrong, my wonderful agent at Conville & Walsh, and Sue has very generously offered to give feedback on the first 50 pages of the winner’s work in progress. Entries close on the 22nd August and the winner will be notified by the 28th August. The Festival of Writing is held at the University of York on the 9-11 September. More details on how to enter, plus the terms and conditions, can be found here on the Festival website.
I hope that for whoever is chosen, the experience is as life-changing as it has been for me, but I can guarantee that whatever happens, you will leave York inspired and determined, and whilst I would never discourage anyone from being a goat, you will definitely find yourself feeling a little more as though you belong.