When I’m asked about books that changed my life, I always feel a terrible burden to come up with something profound, a recognisable classic that everyone agrees with, intellectual enough to possess a ‘subliminal message’ – whatever that is. Or at least something by Jane Austen.
But the book that really changed the way I think about writing is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I read it at a time when my own novel about school gate snobbery – The Class Ceiling - was suffering more rejection than the last Brussels sprout on Boxing Day. One agent turned it down because it was ‘too real for a funny book’.
When I read The Help, I realised that ‘real’ didn’t have to be a negative. A skilful author could deal with a serious subject without killing the comic element. Racism. Prejudice. Difficult to get more real than that and not funny at all. But the humour in The Help was a brilliant conduit for showing how ridiculous the white women were in their treatment of their black maids. The funny scenes didn’t undermine, rather they underlined, the serious message. Stockett doesn’t shy away from showing the worst human emotions in their rawest state. Up until then, I’d always felt embarrassed to write characters with socially unacceptable opinions, as though by writing them, readers might judge them as my own.
I fell in love with The Help all over again when I saw Kathryn Stockett speak at Guildford Library. I asked her how many rejections she’d had before she had a breakthrough with The Help. ‘Sixty over five years,’ came the answer. ‘But I’m feeling a bit better now because Spielberg’s just bought the film rights.’
The book taught me humour can work for any subject. The author taught me not to give up.
And I didn’t.
The Class Ceiling will be published as The School Gate Survival Guide by Avon in August 2014. Available now on Amazon Kindle. Visit Kerry Fisher’s website to find out more.