The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation. Robert McCrum talks to award-winning authors who are struggling to make ends meet.
Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007. His most recent novel, Secrecy, was hailed as “chillingly brilliant” (Financial Times) and “bewitching” (Daily Mail). According to the Independent, “No one else writes quite like this in Britain today.” Thomson has also been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka. In short, he’s an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name.
After working seven days a week without holidays, and now approaching 60, Thomson, you might think, must be looking forward to a measure of comfort and security as the shadows of old age crowd in. But no. For some years he has rented an office in Black Prince Road, on London’s South Bank, and commuted to work. Now this studio life, so essential to his work, is under threat. Lately, having done his sums and calculated his likely earnings for the coming year, he has commissioned a builder to create a tiny office (4ft 9in x 9ft 11in) at home in his attic, what he calls “my garret”.
The space is so cramped that Thomson, who is just over 6ft, will only be able to stand upright in the doorway, but he seems to derive a certain grim satisfaction from confronting his predicament. “All I want is enough money to carry on writing full time. And it’s not a huge amount of money. I suppose you could say that I’ve been lucky to survive as long as I have, to develop a certain way of working. Sadly, longevity is no longer a sign of staying power.”
Thomson is not yet broke, but he’s up against it.