When my mum was 18 she went on a student exchange. Spain was still living under Franco’s shadow and its newfound democracy hung in the balance but my mum had simply made friends with a Spanish girl the summer before, my aunt. Now, a year later, she was waiting for her at the airport. But that was the day of the car crash. My aunt survived but it fell to my father to pick my mum up.
Over the course of that summer she fell in love with him, with Madrid itself: its little bars in belle époque neighbourhoods, its ancient, fragrant bakeries, my father’s weird cast of friends, pausing just long enough from trying to pull women at protests to chuck bricks at the police. Then my mum got pregnant. As she wasn’t married, her parents essentially disowned her.
The first house I can remember was the emergency unit in Swiss Cottage. We lived with an Irish woman who’d had a baby with an abusive Egyptian. I still remember the sound of him, standing outside late at night, screaming. I grew up between Madrid and London, back and forth, new start after new start.
Growing up between two cultures and languages gives you so very much.
But being from two places also means you’re from no places.
When my parents finally couldn’t make it work, my mum took me to live in a council flat in Camden. We survived on John Major’s child benefits, eating rice, tinned tuna, tinned veg. My mum cried a lot. It was all I knew, but looking back I can see how hard it must have been for her: young, alone, raising a kid on just a few quid a week.
As I got older, being poor felt like something I had to hide, an embarrassment I didn’t want to inflict on others.
But our council flat was full of gold. Namely, love and books.
As a shy, quiet kid, I’d retreat into the world my mum cultivated for me: sorcerers, pharaohs, hardboiled detectives. Life in Kiln Place soon taught you why the man down the way turned the TV volume all the way up. Why his wife would be wearing sunglasses the next day, even in winter. Why the older brother downstairs, kicked out by his parents, would mug his younger brother for lunch money. My book world felt like a nicer place to be sometimes.
Course, it wasn’t all bad. The Bengali family next door always shared chapatis and smiles.
In the summer, the local pub would play Boy George and Kate Bush on the jukebox, the music mixing in with the rattle of the Silverlink Train above.
And nearby Hampstead Heath was always a green dreamworld to get lost in, especially with a book. I would sit alone in the Hollow Tree, planning Choose Your Own Adventure books. By Year 7, I was writing short stories about detectives: in space, in the future, in video games.
I loved writing, always had, but it was never something I considered viable after school.
Dropping out of uni, I ended up at a temp agency. Skills? the man asked. Writing, I replied. He shrugged. Somehow, I ended up as an intern at a travel magazine. A few months later there was an opening and I was soon being sent abroad to produce destination reports. That meant I was being sent to the south of France and Venice and being paid to write about it! The job itself wasn’t quite the same as the 007 image it conjures but
seeing my own words in print felt like winning the lottery.
For the first time I realised that being published was as much situational as it was a birthright.
I moved into legal publishing, working my way up to become deputy editor. Editing other people’s work really sharpened my own writing skills, helped me to learn economy of language. On my 30th birthday, I went to Japan. While travelling on a bullet train, I had an idea for a story. I started writing and, for the first time, didn’t give up. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. Like doors bursting open, I finally felt ready. I looked up agents and told myself that if none replied, I’d suck it up and quit my dream. Least I’d know I’d had a go. Incredibly, one of the agents took me on and it led to book deals across the UK, US, EU, and beyond.
Now I live in Los Angeles and write full-time. I also mentor in youth incarceration trying to champion writing and creative pursuits as a career path.
I haven’t reached the end of my rainbow and being a full-time author isn’t always a picnic but it’s certainly changed my life and most days I have to pinch myself. There are no absolute truths but I do know this:
nobody will knock on your door and ask you if you want to write.
Nobody is going to give you permission. People will try and discourage you from writing, tell you it won’t lead anywhere, remind you it’s a one in a million. Or, even worse, they will encourage you, even though deep down, you feel they don’t really believe you’ve got a chance in hell. But I want to remind working class writers something: you’ve probably had to be defiant in your life at some point to get where you are today.
Well stay defiant! Bollocks to the doubt.
Doubt is natural but also don’t be afraid of optimism. Feed that hope every day. Listen to advice you get from trusted people but ignore what you need to ignore. Always be yourself, even if you’re not sure you should be. Remember, there isn’t one set path. Above all, never give up. Ever.
If a shit-scared Spanish kid with a cockney accent from Kiln Place can get his name on bookshelves, anyone with a few ideas and some elbow grease can. Write!
Bio: Nicolás is a Londoner, a Madrileño, and an internationally-published author. His first novel, Blue Light Yokohama, was released around the world in 2017 through Penguin Random House, Minotaur/Macmillan, Calmann-Lévy, and Goldmann, among others. The sequel, Sins as Scarlet, will be released in late July 2018 and was declared by New York Times bestselling heavyweight, Jeffery Deaver, as ‘a masterpiece’. He lives in Los Angeles, supports Arsenal (for his sins), and hates writing about himself in the third person.