I really wish there was a lightning-bolt moment where I realised I wanted to be a writer. Perhaps striding across some desolate moor in the milky dawn and seeing something so desperately poetic that I felt compelled to describe it – and the human experience – to the world. Sadly, the only point that comes close was immediately after I’d written an all-company email.
Whenever I was tasked with emailing the whole company, usually about something mundane, I couldn’t resist the urge to throw in as many jokes and quirky turns of phrase as I could. On one occasion I realised that I’d spent a solid two hours working on something that would at best raise a chuckle, at worst not even be opened or read, and I realised it might be an idea to try writing about something more interesting than meeting room changes.
I’d always loved reading, of course. My mum would take me to our local Warwickshire library every week, and I’d be allowed to pick two books. Some of my strongest childhood memories involve my first forages into the world of books. A particularly vivid one involves me being so immersed in James and the Giant Peach that when my mum called up the stairs to tell me it was dinner time it felt like a voice coming from another universe.
At school, English was the only thing I was good at, so I went off to study it at Sheffield university. I still had no real aspirations to write, although I do remember lazily dashing off something to the university creative writing magazine that involved a character assessing his own farts like a sommelier. Tragically, it went unpublished.
After uni I landed a job in publishing as an editorial assistant at Transworld, and then as a non-fiction editor at Headline. Despite working on the non-fiction side, I got to attend editorial meetings where the brilliant fiction editors discussed books they’d had in on submission. It was inspiring and invigorating. So, after dabbling with a few short stories, I finally decided to just pick an idea and run with it. Over the next three years I wrote sporadically until eventually I had 80,000 words of a tragicomic novel ready to send out to agents. I sent sample chapters to three. One rejected me immediately. One I never heard from again. But one wanted to see more, and then took me on.
And so came the submission process. This is indicative of what an easy life I’ve had, but those few weeks were the most stressful and disheartening of my life. Rejections dribbled in. I had one meeting with an enthusiastic editor, but ultimately they passed.
Having read as many articles as I could find about the submission process, I’d learnt that it was vital to just keep writing. And it was true. Diving into a new project was the only way I could get over the disappointment. A year later I had the first draft of my second novel. I was pleased to have got that far, but there was just something about it that wasn’t quite right. It just didn’t feel like ‘the one’. Somewhat despondent, I shelved the book, and wondered if that was that.
A few days later, two things happened. Firstly, I discovered John Yorke’s Into the Woods, a book about stories and structure and everything in between. Reading that was an absolute game-changer. I knew I had it in me to sit down and grind out 80,000 words, but now I felt I knew how to make those words work. Secondly, I stumbled across an article following the day in the life of council workers who investigate when someone dies alone. I was struck by what an unusual way to make a living that was – searching for someone’s next of kin, searching through their possessions. The workers in the article were painted as stoic and matter-of-fact – even though, heartbreakingly, they’d often attend funerals of the deceased just to make sure someone was there. I couldn’t help but wonder what their lives must be like. That’s when I had the idea for Something to Live For.
This time, I planned. Things changed along the way, of course, but I had all the main beats nailed down. I also stuck to a writing routine – hitting my word count every day. That meant I had a first draft in three months. After letting that draft ‘incubate’ for a few weeks, I came back to it and spent the rest of the year redrafting until I was ready to send it to a new agent – the brilliant Laura Williams, who now represents me at Greene & Heaton. Laura gave me some invaluable editorial guidance and tasked me with reshaping and polishing the novel before she sent it to publishers. I had no real sense of how likely it was that a publisher would go for it. All I knew was that I had tried my absolute best this time, and the rest was out of my hands. The book went out on submission on a Thursday. By the following day, remarkably, we’d accepted an offer from a German publisher. A week later, we accepted a pre-emptive offer from Orion in the UK and Putnam in the US on the same day – the latter coming to me as I sat watching Friends and eating pizza. It was surreal, to put it mildly.
Writing this just over a year later, now a published author, with the book set to come out in 19 languages, it hasn’t got any less weird. People keep asking me whether it’s sunk in yet. To be honest, I don’t think it has, and maybe it never will. For now, I’m just enjoying the ride.
(c) Richard Roper
Richard Roper was inspired by an article he read about the council workers who deal with situations when someone dies alone. Their days are spent sifting through the ephemera of those who’ve slipped through the cracks, searching for clues to a next of kin. Council workers are under no obligation to attend the funerals. Yet they do, sometimes dozens of them a year, just to make sure at least someone is there.
Richard Roper lives in London. Something to Live For is his first novel.
About Something to Live For:
Sometimes you have to risk everything to find your something…
All Andrew wants is to be normal. He has the perfect wife and 2.4 children waiting at home for him after a long day. At least, that’s what he’s told people.
The truth is, his life isn’t exactly as people think and his little white lie is about to catch up with him.
Because in all Andrew’s efforts to fit in, he’s forgotten one important thing: how to really live. And maybe, it’s about time for him to start.
Order your copy online here.