As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm a big fan of the Sliding Doors principle, made famous by the Gwyneth Paltrow movie of the same name. Regardless of what you think of that movie (I wouldn't put it in my Top 50, but it wasn't awful) I think its premise is an interesting one: that if one moment in our life goes differently, everything can change thereafter.
OK, so that seems like an obvious statement. You get run over on a pedestrian crossing, and of course you'll be thinking 'What if I hadn't had that extra piece of toast for breakfast? I'd have been here five minutes earlier, and I wouldn't have been run over.'
But I'm thinking about this in the context of writing. I wanted to be a writer from the age of about eleven or twelve, and whilst I lost focus for a while through uni and my early working life, it remained something I really wanted to do. A dream, for want of a better cliche.
Here's how it went: I finished reading a particular book, and was so moved by its ending that I sat down and wrote the first 3,000 words of my first novel. I sent them off to an agent, and the person at that agency who opened my envelope first - Laura - really liked what she read. She rang me, asked me to finish it, and I said it would take me eight weeks. It took me nine, but I had to drop pretty much everything else to achieve that. Laura sent my manuscript to one publisher, who rejected it, then sent it to Leonie at UQP. Leonie loved it, and hey presto, a dream was about to come true. And it did, and it has. Wonderful, ain't it?
Now, backtrack a little. Imagine, just for fun, that I hadn't borrowed that particular book from Hornsby Library. Imagine I hadn't closed it, stood up, gone into my study and started writing. Imagine that I'd lost my nerve as I walked up to the post-box with my envelope in hand. Imagine someone other than Laura had opened the envelope, someone who didn't like the way I wrote. Imagine she'd told me she couldn't wait eight weeks, or I'd been unable to find the time to finish the book. Imagine if she hadn't sent it to UQP, or that Leonie had, that very morning, closed her schedule for the year. Or was having an off day. Or, upon speaking to me, decided I was too hard to work with. Or the budget was too stretched to take on a new author.
I know, some of those factors were within my control, while many others weren't. But at least some of the the dice had to fall my way.
And it's not always what it seems. Around the same time my first book was coming out, I went for a medical writer's job in North Sydney. Out of the 75 applicants, two of us got interviews. And I missed out. I was gutted. Heartbroken. But looking back, I'm glad I didn't get that job. I was deluding myself if I believed I could work at a PC all day writing technical articles, then catch the train home ready for an evening of creative writing. So sometimes even what looks like the wrong sliding door can be the right one.
Again, if at least some of the factors are beyond our control, why get so worked up about it?
This is all I'm saying: that any published author who thinks that their success is some kind of birthright - some kind of destiny - is kidding themselves. Of course, events in the past can contribute (me being raised as a missionary kid almost certainly contributed to my eventual choice of career path) but really, any author who believes that they are sitting on some writers panel rather in the audience simply because they deserve it more, or are more talented, or have worked harder than anyone else, should remind themselves that if they'd taken the wrong sliding door, even by sheer accident or misfortune, they could be sitting in the audience, hanging off every word, taking notes, and wishing it was them up there with the microphone.
So, is this a rant against cocky authors? Partly, but not only. I really believe that to reach what we dream of reaching, we need to make every post a winner. Tick off every box. We need to be bold enough to approach the right people, and to be gracious with the criticism they offer, and considerate of and prudent with the advice they give. And when success comes, we should enjoy it, whilst quietly reminding ourselves that no matter how much talent any of us might possess, no matter how many times we've redrafted our masterpiece or kissed arse, it could just as easily have been so different.
I think Rudyard Kipling summed it up really well in his poem If, part of which is above the door leading onto Centre Court at Wimbledon: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same..."
James Roy was born in western New South Wales in 1968 and spent much of his childhood in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, adventuring by day and reading books at night. Then one day, tired of reading books by dead people, he decided to start writing his own. Since his first novel was released in 1996, James has written a number of critically acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction for young people, including the CBCA Honour Books CAPTAIN MACK and BILLY MACK’S WAR, and six CBCA Notable Books. In 2008, TOWN also won the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, following which he wrote HUNTING ELEPHANTS, his first novel for Woolshed Press. James lives with his family in the Blue Mountains. He enjoys trying to make music and art, doesn’t like olives very much, and hasn’t entirely abandoned his dream of sailing around the world.