Today, we are delighted to welcome Hannah Begbie, the winner of this year’s Joan Hessayon award, to the RNA Blog. Those of us who were able to listen to Hannah’s speech on the night know that it was both powerful and poignant. The blog post that follows is equally moving, and I think you’ll agree that Hannah is a very deserving winner.
Last week my book, Mother, won the RNA’s Joan Hessayon Award. I was overwhelmed as I collected my trophy. I stuttered out a few words of thanks but, reflecting afterwards, I realised that a casual viewer might have thought that a silver trophy in my hands represented an individual achievement.
That’s not how it felt to me. To me, the award celebrates the RNA’s generosity towards new writers, offering support and fellowship to would-be novelists who are still finding their way.
Indeed, were it not for the advice, encouragement and kindness offered to me by RNA members at crucial points, I might never even have finished my manuscript.
The first RNA annual conference I attended was held in Greenwich. I arrived at the Old Royal Naval College holding on to two things that were precious to me that year: an idea for a new romantic comedy, and an early pregnancy. Both, as it turned out, were too fragile to survive beyond the weekend. But I will always remember two things from that conference: the kindness of Roger Sanderson and Jan Jones as they put me in a taxi to Lewisham Hospital and Joanna Trollope’s advice in her keynote speech: Above all, you must have hope.
I took her advice to heart. I set myself to the task of developing another new idea for a novel. I wrote a draft and sent it to the NWS. I re-drafted it, based on their excellent notes, and resubmitted it the following year, the same year that I gave birth to my first child.
Soon I was sleep deprived and disorientated. I wanted so much to write but found myself unable to find a rhythm amongst the shattered hours. One day, when the baby was four months old, I managed to stagger to an RNA meeting in Cavendish Square. There, JoJo Moyes handed me a copy of her new book and told me, with compassion: Make time whenever you can. And then let that be enough.
My sleep improved and I duly worked on my draft whenever I could. I cut up chapters, re-built and re-wrote them, again and again. With the help of further notes from the RNA readers I was beginning to learn how to write a novel. But I still had very little faith in myself.
In the run-up to the next RNA conference I decided to submit an entry to the Elizabeth Goudge Award. I ran to the post office the day before the deadline but discovered that the sole pound I’d taken with me wasn’t enough to guarantee next-day delivery. Well, never mind, I won’t place anyway, I thought.
As expected, I didn’t place. But at the end of the conference, Eileen Ramsay (then Chair), handed my entry back to me in its original envelope. On it she had written: Would have been a contender. She told me that my work would have been in with a chance if only it had turned up on time. Your job now is to believe in yourself. And finish that book, she said. That envelope is framed on my study wall, her words a gentle admonishment on those days when doubts threaten to blossom into dejection and apathy.
Eventually I all-but-finished my manuscript. I was midway through doing a final polish, planning to then submit it to agents, when my second son was born. A month later he was diagnosed with a life-limiting illness.
I was devastated. I stepped back from RNA meetings and conferences; I stepped back from the world. My manuscript sat there, inert in its half-polished state. But I never doubted that I’d somehow find my way back to writing. Sadness had not devoured that part of me. Somewhere deep down I had internalised the advice of Joanna, Jojo and Eileen. And I knew that, when I felt able, I would write again. I would work to feel hopeful. And I would try my best to let that be enough.
When, finally, I sat down at my desk, I found I couldn’t connect with the romantic comedy I had once worked so hard on. Instead there was a new idea forming. Something much darker. Something that felt urgent.
It was an idea for a story about motherhood and grief and identity. It was about the love between family members and between mother and child. At the heart of it was a dysfunctional romance between two people unable to face their respective agonies. That story became Mother. It will be published by Harper Collins in August.
I feel barely past the beginning of what I hope will be a long journey in writing, but I would be profoundly pleased if, some day, I found myself able to offer advice to a new writer; somebody struggling to believe that their efforts might ever amount to anything.
There would be no need for invention, because the advice I was given remains evergreen:
Hope. Believe in yourself. Let that be enough. And finish your book.
Hannah’s début novel will be published by Harper Collins on 9 August, 2018:
Her love for her daughter is everything.
Her love for him is deadly.
Cath had twenty-five perfect days with her newborn daughter before Mia’s deadly illness was diagnosed.
As her life implodes, Cath’s despair drives her to a parental support group where she meets a father in a similar situation, the dangerously attractive Richard – charming, handsome and adamant that a cure for their children lies just over the horizon: everything Cath wants to believe.
Their affair – and the chance to escape reality – is unavoidable, but carries catastrophic consequences: the nature of Mia’s illness means that Cath’s betrayal endangers not just her marriage but the life of her baby.
Can she stop herself before it’s too late?