A new year often prompts us to think about what we really want from life. Award-winning author Andrew Norriss remembers the very special moment he realised he wanted to be a writer – and how it inspired his new book, Mike.
About twenty years ago, I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about Tim Henman. In case you don’t remember, Tim Henman was the first male Brit with a credible shot at winning Wimbledon that this country had seen in several decades (sadly, he didn’t) and the fans, many of them young women, went wild for him. They called it Henmania.
The programme interviewed a lot of people who knew him, including – and this was the bit that caught my ear – a man called Gavin, who had frequently played against Tim when they were both teenagers. ‘And was he good, even then?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Quite good,’ was the answer, ‘but when I played him I usually won.’
Gavin did not say this boastfully, but you could hear the slight puzzlement in his voice. Tim Henman was now rich, successful and famous, and the guy who had, six years before, regularly beaten him on the tennis court… wasn’t. He said he could remember how various coaches had urged him to take up tennis professionally but… he just hadn’t been interested.
It stuck in my mind because it tied in with something that had happened to me some years before. The question of ‘what I wanted to do with my life’ was something that baffled me until I was in my thirties. When I came home from university, and eventually got a job serving on the cheese counter in Woolworths, it baffled my parents too. In exasperation, my mother found an advert in The Lady for a tutoring job and badgered me into applying. Which led to my becoming a teacher.
I taught for ten years. It’s an honourable profession and I had – and still have – the deepest admiration for those that can do it the way we know it should be done. But for me there was always something missing – a nagging feeling that there was something else I should be doing, though for the life of me I could not think what it was.
It was a trip to a hypnotist to give up smoking that changed that. At one of the sessions, Dr Watson asked me what it was that I really wanted to do, and I heard myself say that I wanted to be a writer. I say ‘heard myself’ because that’s how it felt. The voice came from way, way down and had such an obvious authority that I could not deny its truth. However unlikely, apparently that really was what I wanted to do.
So I went home and started writing. Six months later I had sold a pilot sitcom to ITV (it ran for three series and starred Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn) and I have been earning my living as a writer for the forty years since.
It wasn’t quite as simple as that of course. Knowing what you want to do in life is, unfortunately, no guarantee that you will succeed, and freelance writing when you have a wife, small children and a mortgage can be a hairy business. I was, frequently, terrified. But I never again had that ‘lost’ feeling of not knowing where my life was going. The awful fear that I wasn’t doing what I should be doing was gone and the relief was more wonderful than I can say.
Hearing that voice – and acting on it – was a watershed moment for me. Understandably, I thought a good deal about it afterwards. How could something ‘inside’ know what I should be doing and then tell me? It was odd, but I quickly discovered I wasn’t the first person this had happened to. Asking around, more and more people would tell me about this ‘knowing’ they had had of the direction and the career they should follow.
I have since discovered that the ‘voice’ is in fact such a common phenomenon that people have written books about it. A lot of people. A great many books. They have wildly varied theories about what the voice is, and where it comes from, and how best to listen to it, but most of them agree that it can do more than just tell you what career to take up. It can talk to you about anything. And any time you’re feeling lost and uncertain, they say, if you stop, get quiet, and listen to the voice, it will have an answer…
And if you think I’m getting a bit woo-woo here, you’re right. But the bit that matters is that, as far as I’m concerned, it works.
A part of me has often wanted to contact the tennis player who regularly beat Tim Henman and find out what happened to him. What did he do, once he’d decided not to follow a sporting career, and how did it turn out? But of course I don’t know who he is, or where he lives. I’m not even sure that’s his name’s Gavin.
So I wrote Mike instead. It’s the story of a fifteen year old who is really good at tennis but then hears a voice – he’s not sure where it comes from at first – which says, with an authority he cannot deny, This isn’t the way for you. You need to be going in that direction instead.
I wonder if anything like that was what happened to the guy I heard on the radio.
If it is, I think he’ll be okay.
Andrew Norriss is the Whitbread (now Costa) Award-winning author of Aquila and his books include Jessica’s Ghost, which was also shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award. Mike is published by David Fickling Books, 978-1788450102, £7.99 pbk.