A Phoenix Rising

 A firefighter from the age of 18, Clifford Thomspon (MA Narrative Non-Fiction Writing, 2012) has dealt with his fair share of disasters, now he writes about them. Here Clifford talks about his debut memoir Falling Through Fire.

 Can you tell me about your time at City?

I was at City from 2010 to 2012. I studied part-time on the MA Creative Writing (Narrative Non-fiction), led by Julie Wheelwright. The course was brilliant.

The object of the course is to write a complete book in two years – a daunting challenge. I had originally made the decision to do the course back in 2009, and so had given myself a year to prepare. The course was really well organised but there was lots of reading – twenty books in the first year for one module which made me anxious. I actually made a start on it before the course began.

What happened after you graduated?

As part of the course we all gave a presentation to agents and publishers, including reading a sample of our books. The course really was a jumping-off point for me to go into the industry and I got two calls from agents, and two more from those who had read excerpts in our anthology which was sent out to them as we graduated. The publishing industry takes the course very seriously – the course is consistently producing writers who are ready to be published. My book is pretty much the same book as I wrote on the course.

Tell us about the publishing process?

After I graduated I had several meetings with agents, and some second meetings – this process took well over a year as it takes time to submit sample chapters, for them to be read, and then discussed at meetings that may – or may not lead to representation.

I also pitched to new agents – but only ever two or three at a time, and making sure I submitted my manuscript in accordance with their requirements. I had a rolling series of pitches, meetings and feedback – and I also met another four agents at events who agreed to look at my work after a brief chat. I never pressed them – but I always mentioned City, and that led to a business card being offered to me which in itself was a real confidence booster.

I met Kate Johnson the UK agent with Wolf Literary Services in New York at a function for London Book Fair in 2015. But I didn’t submit my manuscript until October 2016 and shortly after she decided to represent me.

In 2014 I was awarded a short scholarship by the Norman Mailer Center in the US and spent time at the University of Utah to develop my writing with Lawrence Schiller, Mailer’s collaborator and Beverly Donofrio the author of Riding in Cars With Boys. I started a new project and I had another round of submissions to new agents. I continued going to London Book Fair every year. The seminars aimed at writers are excellent, and there’s also the opportunity to meet publishers from smaller and independent companies.

About the same time I pitched to Kate, I also sent my manuscript to Mirror Books whose editor invited me to a meeting and said she was going to recommend my book to her sales director on the strength of seeing only three chapters. Then everything fell into place: I had an agent and early in 2017 was offered a traditional publishing deal. It was five years since I finished the course and then suddenly it all came together.

When did you realise you wanted to be a writer:

I think I was one of those people who thought I wanted to have a go. Working for the BBC and having my name on the by-line of online stories helped me massively. I thought ‘could I do this?’ So I went along to an open evening and met Julie for the first time. I read one of the stories from the anthology and it just fell into place. I went home and that night wrote what was to become the prologue of the book that is now on the shelves.

Where did you get the idea for Falling Through Fire?

In the early part of my career I worked as a firefighter. I was 18 years old when I started. Then in 1991 something happened that changed my world and I didn’t go back to work for a few years. When I did, it was as a TV Journalist for the BBC. I covered the Paddington train crash and other disasters and noticed the similarities between my two carers.

In my book my two careers came together in a way I never really expected. That’s the good thing about Julie’s course and the creative writing department. You don’t go and write a biographical account, you are compelled to write narrative non-fiction. On the course you’re encouraged to think and write in a literary way and that’s a lot more colourful. I realised I had a lot of experience of being directly involved in disasters both as a firefighter and as a journalist, but I was also able to reflect on growing up and becoming a man.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Getting the book published is still the biggest challenge. The industry is shrinking and genres go in and out of favour. Keeping your belief that you’ve done the right thing is hard. You start to think ‘should I discard this and rewrite the whole thing?’ You have to have the confidence that what you have written is worth being published.

What has been the most rewarding experience?

I think it has to be being published. I can walk into Tesco near to my house and see my book on the shelves. It is weird when you see your own book, especially being able to go and buy it in a supermarket but it’s a huge sense of achievement. It validates everything I’ve done for the past seven years.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?

In terms of the MA – think really seriously about whether or not you want to be a writer and be prepared for it to happen. Stick at it and just assume the first words you write could go on to be in your book when it appears on the shelf – albeit after much editing.

In terms of pursuing a full-time career as a writer – it’s still early for me. I’d say have a plan b. Have an insurance policy to fall back on – just in case.

Falling Through Fire is now available at Waterstones, WH Smith, major branches of Tesco and Asda and online. 

 You can listen to Clifford talking about his book and the issues it raises on BBC Radio 4’s PM: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05j7z40

Contact Clifford on Twitter: @Cliff_Thompson1