Publishing a book is a wonderful thing, but what’s even better is the knock-on effect of being able to speak with – or write to – those who have read and enjoyed your work. Is this self-gratification? I suppose so, a little bit. But my debut novel, The Wedding Cake Tree, has, on every page, a little piece of my soul, and so it is the ultimate in job satisfaction when a complete stranger takes the time to say, ‘I loved it, thank you’.
And yet, despite my excitement at being published by Choc Lit, and despite the fact that I find immense pleasure in writing fiction, I can’t pretend that I always had a burning desire to write novels (in my 20s and 30s I never sat down long enough to pen anything longer than a quick email!). So how was it that a 40 year old military woman decided to throw caution to the wind and become a novelist? Read on … *Cue wiggly lined vision and fade out to the past…*
First, I’ll take you back to the late 70s/early 80s and ask you to imagine a typical South Yorkshire mining village (during the striking years) and a scraggy little tom-boy whose only ambition in life was to emulate her brother, just so she could please her dad. Every year, the brother and the dad would go on their pilgrimage to the RAF Finningly Air Show, and every year the gangly girl was left at home.
Fast forward a few years – past the girl’s awkward university years/blur – and you’ll see the same gangly girl walk through the gates of RAF Cranwell (the home of officer training), look up at the bell tower, smile, take a deep breath, stride through the doors, and finally get see what all the excitement surrounding the RAF was about. Her ensuing career would take her into two wars zones, three warships, see her married twice, have a child, and mould her personality.
The girl in question was, of course, me. I joined the Royal Air Force as an air traffic control officer in 1994, and it was the best decision of my life. Everything about life in the RAF suited me. I loved my new-found social life and loved living on a busy, exciting air station. But it is only now in my 40s – living life as a civilian again – that I realise one of the best aspects of my military career was that sense of belonging, of unwavering camaraderie – of security.
Air traffic control, however, was a funny old game. Sometimes I loved it (working on radar sequencing umpteen fast jets through dense cloud to land on one runway a minute apart gave a great buzz). But it can be a tiring job, and I realise now that I spent a great deal of my controlling career utterly stressed out.
By late 2002 I was knackered. At breakneck speed I had experienced all that military ATC had to offer. I had also worked for NATO at the Croatian ATC centre (nipping in and out of Bosnia during the Kosovo Crisis) and I had trained ATC students during an instructor tour. It was during my time as an instructor that I became disenchanted – not with the RAF – but with air traffic control in general. I knocked on the boss’s door one day and asked him for a complete change of scenery, which is when the adage, ‘be careful what you wish for’ came into play, because I was indeed given a change of scenery: I was sent to work with the army (cripes!).
In January 2003 I was instructed to pack my rucksack, sign a pistol and thirty rounds of ammunition out of stores, dust off my respirator, get my NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suit out of the loft, and catch a flight to Kuwait where I was to report to Headquarters 1st (UK) Armoured Division. My new job was as an Air Liaison Officer to Major General Robin Brims’. Basically, I was going to war, and despite my initial naïve bravado, I can tell you that being issued with anti-nerve agent tablets and an atropine pen focusses the mind. I had absolutely no idea what the job entailed other than that it had nothing whatsoever to do with air traffic control. I received no training, but once in theatre I quickly realised that my job (and the job of four other RAF personnel) was to act as a conduit between the Army, the RAF and US forces to provide the British Army with the air power they would need to help fight the war.
The war started on the 20th March 2003 (a date I shall never forget) and if a target needed bombing, we arranged it; if our soldiers were in bother and needed support from the air, we called in the bombers. To explain all of the intricacies of my job in Iraq would take a very long time, but let’s just say that in my experience war is a horrible, frightening and yet (sadly) an exhilarating business.
War has a tendency to focus the mind, and on leaving Iraq I felt misplaced and had a burning desire to settle down and start a family. My partner was in the Royal Navy (based in the UK) but I was living in Germany. We realised that if we were ever to settle down together something would have to give. I gave up my career in the RAF (just short of promotion), transferred to the ATC branch in the Navy and, after a stint working on HMS Invincible (which was brilliant), I returned to air traffic control and moved to Somerset to live with my partner who became my husband. I don’t think I ever really felt that I belonged in the Navy (it wasn’t my own dream), but we built a house together and had a baby (my wonderful son) and I left the RN at the end of my commission in 2010.
I still haven’t told you how I started writing, have I?
Well, I’m not the first person to say that readers are often writers, and I have always been a prolific reader (especially as a child). So when we upped-sticks and moved to Dubai (on a bit of a whim) in 2010 and I became a full-time mum, I suddenly felt an unstoppable desire to write a novel (and finally had the time to do so). Once I started writing it became addictive (and I haven’t stopped since). Perhaps I like the challenge of writing a novel because it’s a little bit like air traffic control – having lots of pieces of a jigsaw scattered about and trying to find the best way to put them into some semblance of order fairly quickly; in other words, having to plan things out while at the same time flying by the seat of your pants!
And that’s it – that’s how I started to write (which sounds much more simple than the endless hours of hard toil and tears it really equates to). I suppose the only aspect of writing I need to be wary of in the long term is this … it’s a lonely business (which, to a certain extent, I like). I have always been an adventurous little soul and there are lots more exciting adventures sitting out there just waiting to be gobbled up. And so I must make sure that I maintain a balance between my fictional life, and my real one – after all, to write about life, we surely have to live it a little, first.
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