What do you do when adversity strikes unexpectedly and the comfortable life you have taken for granted is suddenly in turmoil? Thirty years ago, I was dealt a double blow when my then wife Rosalie was diagnosed with cancer and a few months later, our family furniture business ran into financial difficulties, and I found myself without a job.
My charmed childhood, growing up in the leafy suburbs of North West London, left me woefully ill-equipped to deal with those devastating events. When I was young, the worst thing that happened was when the dog ran off – or the time when, on the day after passing my test at the age of seventeen, I drove into the back of an old boy in a Morris Minor who’d never had an accident in all of his sixty years on the road.
My first reaction was to escape by immersing myself in a new commercial venture. The family still needed to be supported, and working from a room in our Hampstead home enabled me to lend a hand looking after our young son, David. Gradually, we got used to our new circumstances. Rosalie was in remission, David had started kindergarten, and I’d achieved some early success in the mergers and acquisitions business that I had formed. For a time, it seemed that we had turned the corner, but we were living under a false sense of security. Fourteen months later, the cancer had spread. After a short illness, at the age of thirty-six, my wife passed away.
Becoming a single parent to our four-year-old son was yet another challenge, but somehow we managed to muddle through. Maybe if I had gone for counselling, instead of carrying on as if nothing was wrong, I would have ended up taking a different path. The fact that I didn’t, meant that I stored up these traumatic experiences and would subconsciously call on them in the future, in yet another change of career.
In the meantime, I had managed to get my life back together, and at the end of the following year, I got married to Tracylena, after a whirlwind romance lasting all of ten weeks and leading to years of happiness. New business opportunities presented themselves, eventually enabling us to move to a larger house in the area to cater for our expanding family, Max, our second son, had been born a year before and Florence, our third child, a few years later. Life was on an even keel once again.
As time went by, that dark period dimmed in my memory but was accompanied by changes in personality that I found out only recently were inexorably linked to the traumas I had suffered.
My OCD had, according to my family, got progressively worse but since it offered what I believed to be a degree of comfort, I was reluctant to part with it. At the same time, however, I had also begun to develop my own brand of self-deprecating humour that enabled me to feel better about myself since it wasn’t the real me that was being laughed at . . . but this probably only masked the problems with which I still hadn’t fully come to terms.
Though where the ability to write came from is still a mystery. There was nothing in my school years to indicate that I showed any promise in that department, having just scraped through my English GCSE. Nor did I have a particularly fertile imagination – at least, not one that went beyond dreaming up wild excuses to get out of cadet exercises in the school playground on Monday afternoons.
It took a prod, twelve years ago, from a friend also called John, encouraging me to add to the half-a-dozen or so original quips I had come up with, to start the process off. Unfortunately, the range of greetings cards that I had created in my spare time were considered by people in the know to be far too caustic (possibly because they bore too close a resemblance to my own sense of humour), and were neither sufficiently endearing or lewd enough to become best-sellers.
Unwilling to be deterred, my next project was a film idea I had developed about a failed clothing manufacturer and part-time crooner who ends up becoming President of the United States. In a desperate attempt by my accountants to salvage fees from two of their least profitable clients, I was introduced to a chap named Ray Kilby, a film director by profession, who thought the piece had potential as a comedy for the stage. Immediately hitting it off, we set about writing a script – not that I had the slightest notion what this entailed. Learning on the job about how to write dialogue and stage directions, six months later a play emerged, entitled In the Balance.Apparently, I was the producer, which meant that I was responsible for finding a theatre prepared to put on a new piece by two unknown writers, as well as having to hire the cast – and pay for the six-week production!
In November 2008, the show opened at the New End Theatre in Hampstead. Being present at most of the performances probably wasn’t a good idea since I spent most of the first half with one eye peeled on the entrance for latecomers, willing them to take up the rows of empty seats. The result of this escapade was some good press, but I had lost a fair amount of money in the process and was unable to recoup my investment since the play wasn’t considered a sufficiently elaborate production for a tour or for transfer to a larger West End stage.
The problem was, I had now got the writing bug and was determined to carry on. Against both our better judgements, a second play was written by Ray and myself about a banker who lost all his money in the Financial Crisis at that time: it had the evocative title of W forBanker. Once more I had the role of producer, but knew I had to become cannier about the economics of a production if I didn’t want a repeat of the previous debacle. This meant a shorter run, limited to four weeks, and a cast of three. Although losses were considerably reduced, getting into the black was still a long way off. Unless, of course, we could come up with a monologue with either one of us in the leading part, working for free!
Another comedy was written that got as far as a few readings in the West End, but unable to attract another producer with deeper pockets than either of ours, Ray and I decided to go our own ways – he finally coming to the conclusion that I was no longer able to provide the finance to re-launch his career, and me needing to find out whether I was capable of writing on my own. You see, at this point, although I hadn’t informed my family, I really couldn’t envisage doing anything else. With a little capital behind us from selling our house and moving into a rented property, I calculated there was enough to keep us going – at least for a while . . .
A chance introduction to a publisher, shortly afterwards, led me to a change of direction. Although I had never written anything that came close to a novel, one of my plays about a gladiator who became a famous sage was, I thought, a good place to start. It had, I considered, some reasonable dialogue; it just needed expanding – easier said than done when a book had to be at least three times the length!
I set about my new task enthusiastically, having naively underestimated the amount of work involved, and unprepared for the first major set-back when the initial few chapters that I had submitted were returned to me with more red lines through them than my worst essays at school. The odd thing was, I went straight back to the drawing board, making the amendments required to turn my work into a decent piece of prose, as if there were an outside force driving me on. A year later, I had completed the first draft, which to my delight didn’t need anything like the same number of changes as before. As we proceeded to the final edit, however, I experienced a genuine sense of loss, since the work I had immersed myself in for the last year was coming to end. The prospect that the characters I had created – and who had become like a second family to me – were no longer exclusively mine, left a vacuum that needed to be filled.
Shimon, my first novel, was published in 2014. I had a website designed under the name of Steinberg Storiesand went about aggressively promoting the book to newspapers and social media with the intention of being taken seriously as an author. Apart from some reasonable reviews and the usual encouraging response from friends and family, the results of my fulltime endeavour were not quite what I had in mind. I rationalised that the Pulitzer Prize might have been a little too much to hope for at my first attempt, so I needed to keep going. Determined to succeed next time around, I started on a second novel.
Fortunately, Shimonhad received a positive response from another publisher, and this gave me the confidence to proceed with my story about a young German woman’s journey of conscience in the aftermath of World War Two. Blue Skies Over Berlinwas published in October 2016 by Silvertail Books and again achieved some decent reviews without setting the world alight. A third novel, Nadineabout a failing theatre producer, was published in May, and is waiting patiently in the wings for the breakthrough that has to be long over-due! At the moment, I’ve started on a fifth novel, a sequel to Blue Skies whilst polishing my fourth – a semi-autobiographical novel that will give the reader the clearest insight, so far, into an author who hopefully still has a lot to say.
I find mornings the most conducive for writing. By 8 a.m., I can’t wait to get going on the next chapter. Some days the creative juices flow easier than others but the secret, I’ve learnt, is to get something down on paper, which often entails editing the previous day’s work just to get in the right frame of mind for writing.
At present, the remainder of the day is taken up doing everything I can to get Nadine the exposure it needs. That means repeated phone calls, back-up emails and frequent visits to the post office to send out copies of the book to anyone who can potentially make a difference. I’m hopeful that, being very visual, the novel could well lend itself to film or television. Great news! That means extra people to contact – but in turn, inevitably more polite rejections. Never mind, I’ve got used to them.
In any case, it just makes me more determined – or maybe I’m just too stupid to give up!