Life is not a practice run. We press forward living our existence as best we can, chasing our desires, ruing our regrets and missed opportunities.
Last year I became very ill. The fragility of life hit me between the eyes and woke me up.
My creative self had lain dormant for years. I longed to write and sat down at my laptop and started and haven’t stopped since. Distractions get in the way, like the day job and socialising, but I keep coming back to it like never before.
Does our youthful creativity desert us as we hurtle through the years? I remember going to see artists’ studios in the Torpedo Museum in Alexandria, Virginia a few years ago. A number were inhabited by retired or older artists. The pictures were beautiful but lacked innovation, or that excitement you get in the pit of your stomach when looking at new art. I wondered if, while good artists, life had sucked the fire from their bellies?
We still see, fortunately, current ageing artists who never fail to excite – David Bowie for example.
A little closer to home and accessible to me is the award-winning writer V.G. Lee who I am also privileged to call a friend.
VG, or Val, started writing later in life and in the last 20 years has published four novels and a collection of short stories.
In 2009, to celebrate her 60th year, VG Lee decided to become a stand-up comedian. She set herself a target of 60 performances which grew to 90 and she finished the year as a runner-up in the prestigious Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year 2010. She has appeared twice at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2013, she performed her one-woman play, Lady of the Wild West Hill to packed audiences as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.
Val is inspirational and full of stories and experience. I asked her a few months ago if she would allow me to interview her for my blog, looking particularly at pursing a late blooming desire to engage in one’s chosen art.
I met Val at her residence on the West Hill in Hastings. After enjoying a sumptuous lunch of Carrot and Coriander soup, made fresh by Val’s good friend and neighbour Mary, accompanied by delicate slices of fresh sesame seed baguette, we settled on a comfortable settee and prepared to start the interview.
‘I’ve put my M&S aquatically patterned toilet rolls out in the bathroom,’ said Val proudly, adding this extra touch of comfort to her already commodious dwelling.
‘Thanks,’ I replied, wondering whether I should complement her later should I have occasion to sample this luxurious item.
After a couple of tests on my recording equipment we were ready to go.
What was going on in your life in your early 40s Val?
Absolutely nothing basically. I’d split up with somebody who possibly didn’t even know we were still dating and I was on my own. I went to two classes: gardening and a writing class and the writing stuck. I completed both classes and I still love gardening but writing is what I do best
What made you decide on these two courses?
To be honest I think I was possibly looking for friends because I didn’t have any. I still don’t have many if anyone is reading and is interested…
The interview paused so that I could pick myself off the floor. Val is spontaneously funny and in fact quite popular.
Did you find any friends?
I found a couple of writing buddies that I still know today and I’m still friends with the tutor also.
What was the inspiration to start writing in your 40s and develop further from the class? Were you not ready to start slowing down?
No. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d never been particularly good at anything, but I had been able to make people laugh all my life. And I thought I’d write something funny, and people did laugh and that gave me the nudge to keep going.
Did you always have passion for writing?
Absolutely not! I’d never had a passion for anything up until then. I wasn’t good at writing but I was good at art. I was a commercial artist although I don’t do it now and that’s what I did right up to my 40s.
Had you written since school?
Yes. I wrote stories at school but they weren’t very good. I’d tried to mimic Shakespeare on a couple of occasions and I wasn’t quite up to his standards which rather surprised me at the time.
Again after several minutes of laughter imagining Val as a budding schoolgirl Shakespeare we returned to the interview.
Who do you write for?
I write for me. I have a real interest in the characters, and the characters’ lives. I’m drawn to the lives of very ordinary people. My interest in my characters is fanatical; what happens, why they’re like they are, where they’re going and how they can change.
It’s not clear to me who to write for so that’s really helpful. Some writers who achieve great praise from the writing community don’t necessarily have commercial success and some that can’t really write, do. How can you balance the two?
As far as I am concerned it’s not worth writing if I’m not writing what I want to write. Having always been rubbish at everything up until then, and finding something in my 40s that I was good at, then there would be no point in trying to focus on a certain market. I’d then, and yet again, be doing something for someone else. If my writing wasn’t for me it wouldn’t have a soul and in my view wouldn’t be very good.
Are you going to share how long you’ve been writing or your current age? If indeed it’s appropriate to ask a lady her age.
Do you still have a lot of new ideas bubbling forward?
Don’t you want to say anything about me looking much younger than 63?
Yes of course. How remiss of me. 63! Good grief I thought you were 45.
Thank you that’s better. Always good to flatter your interviewees Mr Boulevardier! And yes I’m full of new ideas. I’m currently working towards completing my new novel and I have another unfinished novel. After the publication of my next novel I will publish another book of short stories. Most of the short stories for the collection are in preparation.
Do you want to tell us anything about your new novel?
It’s taken me twenty two years so far but I think we are on the home stretch. It’s very different from my previous work with the main character a man and it’s more comical. At least I hope people are going to find it funny.
If it’s as witty as you are today then I’m sure they will. Now I know you’ve spoken about it on Facebook but how much importance do you put on editing?
I put a huge amount of emphasis on editing. I think when I read people’s work and it hasn’t been edited properly, and I’m not talking about punctuation, I’m talking about extraneous words, phrases out of order, self-indulgence or just the wrong feeling which sometimes writers don’t even know they’re doing because they don’t check their work.
I go over, and over, and over my work. It has to sound good to read good in my opinion. I read my work aloud as many times as it takes to get it right.
One more recent option open to new writers is self-publishing. Do you agree with it?
It’s really growing and a great way of getting published and I’m very pleased that option is now available. However, I am concerned that people aren’t necessarily as careful with what they publish. I’ve seen very small print which isn’t easy to read with dodgy layouts and covers. I wouldn’t want things to become slipshod. At its best it’s an excellent way of getting published.
Conversely then, if you’re a new writer should you start searching for a literary agent?
As a new writer you should focus your energies on your work until it is absolutely finished and polished. You should not think of an agent. You should not think of a bestseller. And just get on and do what you are supposed to be doing which is writing. People often ask after six months, sorry this is a bit of a rant as I do get cross, how they should get an agent or ‘how do I get published’ and haven’t even started writing a bloody book. So write, write and write.
Thanks Val. I wonder if we could move into talking about your books a little and perhaps you could guide us through your inspiration for each.
The Comedienne was published in 2000 and previous to that I lived in North London and I was writing short stories to perform in a cabaret run by me and some friends called ‘All Mouth, no Trousers’. I’d written a story about a young woman living in Birmingham and on this particular evening there was a publisher in the audience who asked me if I had a novel. I didn’t have a novel at the time but I did have a lot of stories and I worked really hard and produced a novel which was accepted. It included older and younger people and I liked having the opportunity to write about different age groups.
Great! So moving along to the Woman in Beige, which is my personal favourite.
The historian Rose Collis was my inspiration. I met her at the poetry café in Betterton Street and I didn’t know what to do with my future and she was so full of life and energy I thought you’ve got to get down to it Val, and the idea of the Woman in Beige came to me and I just started writing it.
That’s interesting; so stepping back between the novels was it difficult to get the inspiration to write another after The Comedienne was published?
Yes I was quite lost for a time. I always write for short spells before I really get going. I was still doing a bit of poetry and lost for what to write story-wise. I started to write a piece about my parents and moved forward into other people’s parents and the Woman in Beige got started.
The collection of short stories came next. Were these ones you had in the bank you pulled together?
I had them in varying levels of completion from the time when I started writing. There is one story in the book called Behind Glass which was the first short story I’d ever written in my early 40s and I finished it just in time for the collection. I’m always writing stories and I had more than enough for a collection.
My favourite in the collection is Hotel Du Lac and I wondered if you fancied yourself as a bit of an Anita Brookner?
I wanted to do a more cheery and jokey Anita Brookner.
Did you have a similar slump in motivation after that or were you raring to get going on Diary of a Provincial Lesbian?
I moved to Hastings from London and I reread Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield which reflects life in the provinces and my life was so different since moving. It was of a much slower pace and I had new and very different neighbours and I decided to have a go at my version. In actual fact it was probably the easiest to write out of all my books because you had definite seasons and celebration times like Easter and Christmas to work with. I really enjoyed writing this book. It was also my quickest book and was complete in a year.
I’m sometimes inspired by what I read and I get an idea of subjects I can deal with.
And onto your most recently published work, Always you Edina.
I started writing the book eight or nine years ago and it came out of short stories which were originally quite strange and bitter. But as my life seemed to improve my mood bettered also. It’s set in Birmingham and I went back to where I had grown up and revisited all my old childhood spots. It’s based on an aunt who is a cruel but charming person and I did have an aunt who was cruel but charming and it’s loosely based on her. A lot of my memories from the 1960s came flooding back. It was a jumble for many years and I have to say thank you to Sarah Walters who went through all the stories, twice, and gave me a good steer on how to pull them together and finally it got published. And I love the book.
I think it’s really interesting that you started writing it so long ago, set it aside, and came back to it. You didn’t feel the need to push on to the bitter end once you’d started?
Absolutely not. I do this continually. If my mood changes or I’m feeling a bit lacklustre or have something else calling me then I give into the call. It does possibly mean I take a long time to get finished but I have a large body of work with lots of in progress pieces.
Do you have any favourite characters from your books?
I have Mrs Botolph from The Comedienne, who was the main character’s mother’s best friend. From Woman in Beige I like Mr Edwards the neighbour who had the giant albino rabbit. I love Deidre in Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, and she is based on an ex friend who is in a number of my stories. Interestingly I don’t have a favourite character in Always you Edina.
So when you were in your 40s and just getting into writing, did you sit down one day and think I’m going to give up my job and write four books?
No. I was working as a self-employed commercial artist doing large signs and murals and I couldn’t give up. I actually have two books which were never published. I used to finish work at 6pm and start writing at 8pm and I would work every evening until 11.30pm, and as I said earlier, I didn’t have friends to distract me and I just worked at it. In actual fact that book never got published but I still love it. I probably spent three years on it 8-11.30pm five or six evenings a week. It was a commitment but I just wanted to write.
At that time how far forward did you plan or dream?
I’ve never planned. I was so enthused to find something that I was good at later in life. I would still like to be famous and have a lot of money but I wouldn’t like to lose what I have.
Some seem to think that it’s a quick process, knocking out short stories in a day or novels in a month. What do you think about that?
I would say a very structured short story could be written in a day and possibly a novel in a month, but I’m just not confident that it would be as good as it could be. It has taken me between one and twenty years but I don’t think I could do anything in a month. The first short story that is in my collection was not finished until the collection was put together. I put the last line in just before it was sent off for the publishers to look at, because I hadn’t come up with that last line, and I knew the story wasn’t quite right.
It takes as long as it takes and all you get is a first draft if you do it quickly.
Do you title pieces and name characters as you go or wait for inspiration?
I most certainly wait for inspiration.
How do you write? Is there a certain ambience that has to be present?
I write at my best in the mornings and sometimes get a good 3-4 hours in but then when I’m writing something new I will go over it the following day. I prefer to write longhand and then I transfer it onto my computer when I’m happier with it. I do like a fountain pen but I don’t always have enough ink cartridges and I have to revert to a cheap Bic biro. Everywhere in my house are little notebooks where I can jot ideas.
With so many tools at our fingertips: self publication, creative writing courses, an instant society, what advice would you give to new potential writers, me included, who are in their early forties and looking to do something a little different and how to succeed?
I’d certainly recommend a creative writing course. I’m not mad on the MAs as they seem to turn people out very similarly although that is just my opinion. There are fine shorter courses which have been going for around twenty years. In London Morley College, Birkbeck and City Lit all do good courses and a real variety at that. A writing group is also good because your writing friends will move on and up too and you all help each other. And if you are good I do believe you’ll get picked up. A good original voice shines out. You might not be world famous or make loads of money but you will be published.
Finally any regrets from changing your life course at 42?
No. It has been fantastic. Best opportunity I ever took.
As the interview drew to a close I popped the last bite of the mini Battenberg we relished as we spoke.
It was a beautifully sunny January afternoon and we wrapped up and took a turn around the West Hill, loitered in the Old Town, had a revitalising glass of Sherry and traditional seaside fare at the aptly named Fagin’s.
I have learnt so much from Val during our acquaintance and hope to learn more and continue sharing our love of Sherry and Battenberg.
Val can be found at:
Facebook: Vg Lee
Or in person at the following upcoming events:
Tuesday 11th February – Have a Word at Latest Music Bar, 14-7 Manchester Street, Brighton, BN21TF – doors open at 7pm
Friday 28th February – Polari at the Southbank ‘Headliner VG Lee offers her unique take on life after sixty.’ Tickets and information www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/polari-280214-80292