Skip to main content

The day my life changed - 5 novels rejected by 33 agents over 20 years ... then I was on the Booker shortlist!

I still find it strange telling people I'm a writer. I feel a bit of an impostor - for years, I had just been someone with a strange little hobby.

I was writing for about 20 years before I got a publisher. I had written five complete novels and had rejections from 33 agents. I learnt that you didn't talk to people about writing because they would just think "Failure! Failure!" when nothing happened.

But I didn't think about giving up. The thing is, I like writing. I had ideas whizzing through my mind and I didn't want to leave them there.

So I would complete a novel and start sending it out. But by that point my mind would be on the next novel. When a rejection letter comes back, you just think "ugh" and keep going.

I teach violin, piano and group theory classes at Blue Coat, a preparatory school in Birmingham.

I also used to do a lot of teaching in the evenings to get by.

It was very difficult to fit in writing: I was lucky if I found maybe one afternoon a week to write. It took me five years to complete my fifth novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour.

When I sent that novel out, a small local publisher called Tindal Street Press said yes. They said they would publish about 2,000 copies and gave me a #163;2,000 advance. It seemed very generous at the time. I bought a new carpet with it.

But I didn't think anyone would notice the book. I just thought maybe the parents at school would buy it. That's about 200 sales. I imagined by the time I got round to my next novel, interest might have grown.

I was at my mother's house in Devon when my daughter called me. She had been pottering around on the internet and found that I was on the longlist for the Man Booker prize. My mother didn't have internet access, so we went over the road to a neighbour who did. I was there, with authors such as Martin Amis. I spent the whole night wide awake, thinking: "I cannot believe it. This can't be true. How extraordinary."

Then I was waiting for the shortlist to come out. I just thought: "Is somebody going to tell me if I have made it? How will I know?" I wasn't sure how it worked.

I was actually at school, teaching piano to an eight-year-old boy called Angus when Tindal Street called and said: "Congratulations, Clare. You're on the shortlist." I think they were as astonished as I was. Angus congratulated me, too.

I was high as a kite. It was all so unexpected. I didn't have anything to wear to the dinner: I had never been to anything like that. I never thought I would win - it didn't cross my mind. But, at the dinner, my publishers were shocked when I didn't win, which surprised me.

I had five offers from publishers for my next novel. It was surreal.

I didn't give up teaching. Teaching is steady. The book world is very unsteady. These things come in dips: you don't maintain those levels of sales unless you are someone like John Grisham.

I tend not to talk about my books with colleagues. I don't want to ask if they like them because they may not. I don't want to embarrass people.

Success meant I could reduce my teaching hours. I teach from midday to 6pm now, which means I can get some writing done most mornings.

Before, I would sometimes fall asleep on my only afternoon off. Now I'm not so tired. It means I can enjoy the teaching more, too.

l Clare Morrall was talking to Adi Bloom. Her latest novel, 'The Man Who Disappeared,' is published by Sceptre. Do you have an experience to share? Email

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you