When I first realised I wanted to write I started looking at author biographies at the back of books.
I come from a working class background – I still see myself as working class now. I grew up on a military estate. My father wasn’t a senior officer, so we didn’t have much money. We had second hand clothes and third hand toys. We holidayed at the seaside, if we were careful with money. Charities would arrange outings for us.
Books and libraries showed me the world.
Discovering the Brontes was a revelation for me – not only was Jane Eyre a working woman, but her author had been a working woman too. But the other authors and characters I liked had mysterious incomes and never worked. None of them (apart from the heroines of Agatha Christie books) knew what it was to work for other people all day, then be so tired when you came you could barely move, let alone write.
I was lucky. I did actually go to university, because in those days you could qualify for a full grant, but afterwards, all my jobs were low-paid office jobs.
The people on the back of the books weren’t like that. They had posh jobs. They were lecturers, officials, executives. They lived in leafy suburbs in large houses with a special room for writing, and a partner and a cleaner and a dog. If they had grown up poor, they’d pulled themselves up by the bootstraps long ago. I wasn’t like that at all. I looked at them and I thought;
I’m not like them. I can’t be a writer. I’m not good enough.
I did write. I’m stubborn and obstinate, and I needed it so badly. I wanted it so much. I still do. Writing is a burning urge that overrides all my fears. But sooner or later, the pen has to be put down, and reality rushes in. I don’t fit in.
Being a writer costs money – and doesn’t actually earn much. That grinding, dull, badly paid day job was still necessary.
It was suggested I go on a writing retreat, where I could meet other writers and get some lessons. It cost more than I earn in a month. I didn’t have money to enter competitions. I couldn’t take time off work to go on research trips. I couldn’t take six months off work to write. I couldn’t even afford to print out my work to send out to people. When I was published, I couldn’t afford to take leave to do tours to promote my books. I couldn’t afford the subscriptions to societies and magazines and libraries I was told I ought to join. Every time I took a day off to do a talk, I lost a day’s pay, and had to borrow to meet the rent.
But it’s not just the money. It’s the assurance that comes with being a different class. As a working class child, I was always outside the party, looking in.
We didn’t have a wide circle of friends in influential roles. I never had the chance to meet other people in the publishing industry, through a friend of a friend, or at a party. I only met people who worked in jobs like mine. I didn’t even know where to start. Even if I’d made it to the right places, I wouldn’t have known how to behave. What do I do? Where do I stand? Who do I talk to? What do I talk about? What do I wear? People bought up in that kind of life have a certainty in the way they behave. They know they are saying and doing the right thing. They were taught poise and grace and charm as a child. They didn’t spend their childhood scraping together pennies found on the street for sweeties, or avoiding knife fights. They were taught how to walk across a crowded room in the certain knowledge they are meant to be there. I was taught to keep my head down, be quiet, don’t get in anyone’s way.
I went to an award ceremony. I had been nominated, and I was very proud. But when I got there, I looked around at these people all in their expensive evening clothes, chatting with friends. They were all comfortable and relaxed. This was an unbelievable luxury for me, for them it was their everyday life.
I stood at the doorway in my scuffed supermarket shoes, and my best dress, five years old and held together with safety pins, and I felt shabby. I looked around at these perfect middle and upper class people, and though I could have won an award that night, I felt like I had no place here. I didn’t fit in. I just wanted to go home. All I had to recommend me was my voice, and in that place, my voice was silent.
So in my writing, I have tried to give voice to the silent.
In the books I read, people like me are either cleaners or criminals. So I try to give a voice to the historical women, the people of colour, the poor. The ones that have been overlooked. The ones that are kept silent.
There aren’t that many working class writers, especially women. She lingers on the sidelines, watching those glittering confident others, knowing she does not belong.
We are in danger of losing those silent voices forever, not out of cruelty, but out of ignorance.
We are excluded from the writer’s world, so I use my pain at not fitting in to give a place to all those others that have felt they have never fitted in, either because of class, gender, colour, religion, orientation or just being plain different. My voice may be silent in the room, but on the page I can speak for so many others who are neglected.
Michelle Birkby has always loved crime stories, and read her first Sherlock Holmes book when she was thirteen. She was given a beautiful collection of all the short stories and has been hooked with the wonderful, gas-lit, atmospheric world of crime and adventure ever since. A few years ago Michelle was re-reading The Empty House and a blurred figure in the background suddenly came into focus. It became clear to her that Mrs Hudson was much more than a housekeeper to 221b and she’d always been fascinated by Mary Watson’s character. So she set about giving the women of Baker Street a voice and adventures of their own.