Money

Socialite Elizaveta Stackenschneider was a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky, a frequenter of her Peterburg salon, but in her diary after his death she called him “a petit bourgeois … the most profound thinker and a writer of genius … he will always regard 6,000 rubles as a vast amount of money.” At the time 6,000 rubles was enough to buy a year of decent living in Peterburg.
Based on what it bought for me, the most money I ever earned from writing was the £100 advance I earned on the British edition of Aubade, less 10% agent’s commission. Five years later I earned more for a few days’ part-time work on the pieces I wrote for the London Sunday Times Magazine, and it was never enough. But everything in my life followed from, depended on, that first £90. Without it I would probably have gone mad.
I once mentioned to a university lecturer friend how that first advance had bought me sanity. He didn’t approve of the way my writing had evolved or of the superficial man he judged I’d become, and thought my contribution to literature would have been greater if I’d stayed in Northern Ireland. (I doubt if misery and lack of insight would have been an easy sell.) “I can see nothing of Aubade in you,” he sniffed. I told him I’d take sanity any day.
I can see why an 18-year-old equated success with money: with, for example, enough to eat. And I can see now why I had no hope of achieving the modest financial success of British authors who managed on a book club sale here, a BBC adaptation there, once in a blue moon maybe even (a house!) film rights! The best bet was a staff job on a newspaper with novel writing on the side. Nobody spelled out to me the basis for my limited financial prospects, why I wasn’t going to sell book club or film or foreign rights in Catholic countries: I’d written a book about a subject that was too disgusting for the mass public to even mention, that described a relationship that was illegal, feelings you should be ashamed of even if you admitted to yourself that you had them. And how could anyone get their head around the book being written by a 16-year-old boy? What were the publishers thinking?
Very few of my readers were primarily seeking literary fiction (even those a small group then as now). My readers were closeted queer men desperate to have their feelings and identity validated or their existence at least acknowledged. I heard from only a handful who dared to write me carefully worded letters. The sad thing to me now is that I wasn’t able to think this through, to feel validated myself because I’d given a gift that meant a lot to strangers. I was too busy scraping a living.

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