Grant Gillespie recalls being gripped by Animal Farm on Spanish childhood holiday – and almost missing the meeting that changed his life.
MY FIRST BOOK
Grant Gillespie is a novelist, screenwriter and actor. His debut novel, The Cuckoo Boy, was published in 2010. Here, he recalls his father reading Orwell to him on a family holiday and arriving late – and unwashed – to the meeting that changed his life.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
“The first book that really knocked my school socks off was Animal Farm. I know that makes me sound preposterously precocious, but in my defence, strictly speaking I didn’t read it. It was my father who read it to me.
“The memory is very vivid… I was between eight and 10 and my mother, father and I were in Spain – we spent most of my school holidays there because my parents spoke the language and loved the culture. Every day, they’d insist that if I was to be permitted to stay up late then I had to take an afternoon siesta.
“Naturally, I resented this with every atom of my being as the sun was still shining and all the other children seemed to be free to splash about in the sea unfettered, but that was ‘the rule’. In order to settle me off to sleep, my father would read to me and, that particular year, the book on hand was George Orwell’s classic.
“From the moment it began, I was gripped. I remember laughing heartily when the pigeons crapped on the farmers’ heads (though my father had to explain ‘shat’ to me) and weeping when poor Boxer worked until he collapsed and was sent away for slaughter (my father also had to explain ‘knacker’s yard’).
“Of course, all the Political – with a capital P nuances were lost on me, but I had already begun to grasp hierarchical politics – after all, I’d been forced to my bed by my overlord parents. Perhaps it would be true to say that it was from Animal Farm, read to me piecemeal, pre-siesta on a Spanish coast, that I learnt all about ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’. It’s certainly always been a recurrent theme in my own writing and especially in my novel The Cuckoo Boy.“
“Someone once said to me, ‘write three novels and the third one will get published’. I didn’t believe them. I didn’t want to believe them. I knew all I had to do was write one novel. It would then be ripped from my hands by Bloomsbury, Faber or Penguin and delivered up to the eagerly awaiting hands of an erudite, international elite readership.
“While at university, I began what turned out to be a profoundly pretentious novel. Then, on graduating, I wrote a profoundly superficial novel. I followed these with my third novel, The Cuckoo Boy, and that’s the one that was published.
“A publisher, Lucy Owen, invited me to meet her for a coffee. I knew that the publishing house created journals and I assumed Lucy was going to ask me to contribute to one of them in the form of a short story. There was some muddle over what time we were to meet – my fault, of course.
“When I received a call from Lucy saying, ‘Hi, are you lost?’ I had to reply, ‘Not at all, I’m in bed.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, without any discernible judgement, ‘it’s just we were meant to meet an hour ago…’
“Without even contemplating washing, I threw on a crumpled velvet jacket, and half-ran (I never fully run) to Bloomsbury, while licking my hand and trying to flatten my hedge-backwards hair. Lucy was very magnanimous. She told me to ‘breathe’ and ordered me a coffee. I asked if I could breathe outside for a moment – through a cigarette – and she said I could.
“When I finally sat down, Lucy said the unexpected words: ‘I hope you don’t mind but someone passed us your novel and we’d like to publish it.’ Without exaggeration, I practically fell from my chair. I then immediately asked if I could have another cigarette, a wish I was granted. As I paced Woburn Walk, I was dizzy with nicotine and excitement in equal measures.
“It was a real ‘this never happens to me, but it has happened to me’ moment and I’ll never forget it. The months that followed were a dream literally – and literarily – come true. I held the book in my hands, just for a few seconds, the first time, but I was nearly sick in my mouth with joy.
“I had a fabulous launch party where I read alongside my heroes Hanif Kureishi and DBC Pierre. I saw my book in Waterstones, but didn’t linger because it would have felt too pompous. Then I had a flurry of amazing reviews.
“Of course, when the party dies down, you’re left thinking ‘that was it, that was the book, I’ll never be able to write again, I’m a one-trick, one-hit-wonder-pony.’ Then of course that dies down too and you sit down, stare out of the window and start novel number two (aka number four).”
Follow @GrantMGillespie on Twitter
Follow @thememorystore on Twitter