I’ve worked at the House of Commons for sixteen years. I took the job because the long recesses that we used to get (but, sadly, don’t any more) allowed me time to write. However, it took me seven years to realise that my workplace would be a brilliant setting for a novel. I started writing The Threat Level Remains Severe in 2008. It took five years to write and five years to get published.
I’ve never read Harry Potter – My creative writing students are always amazed by this. No disrespect to JK Rowling, but I feel I need to read War and Peace first, as well as all the other classics I haven’t yet got round to.
I feared publishing this novel might get me sacked – but, so far, I’m still in my job and, as far as I can tell, my colleagues don’t hate me and those that have read my novel all say they liked it.
Working at the House of Commons has taught me that you get pleasant and unpleasant people across the whole political spectrum. I have to be politically neutral in my job. The ability to see other viewpoints and understand people I don’t agree with politically has also been useful in my writing career, in terms of creating characters.
I originally trained as a journalist and worked on the Sussex Express, a local paper based in Lewes – but gave up journalism to become a writer, as journalism took up too much of the same energy. I knew I couldn’t do both.
I decided I wanted to be a writer after winning a short story competition just after leaving university. My story was entitled One Bottle of Stolichnaya and was inspired by my summer job working as a delivery driver for Oddbins in Brighton. A single bottle of Stolichnaya vodka was the weekly order of an old lady who lived near the seafront. Being an Oddbins driver was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I loved driving around the Sussex countryside and I got to see inside a lot of posh houses, which, being incorrigibly nosy, I really enjoyed.
I worry about what my family will think about my work. Especially my mum and aunt. Publishing a novel is unnervingly exposing. Especially the sex scenes. Not that I’ve ever had sex in a stationery cupboard.
After giving up journalism,I lived in Montreal for a year – and worked cash-in-hand as a waitress, bar-tender and life model. This experience fed into Smoked Meat (Flambard Press), an interlinked collection of short stories all set in Montreal, published in 2011, which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize.
I’m currently in treatment for bowel cancer – I was diagnosed in February this year. It was a horrible shock and incredibly bad timing as Threat Level was about to come out and I’ve got a two-year-old daughter, but I’ve been receiving fantastic treatment at Barts Hospital and I’ve been told I’ll be cured, so I feel relatively lucky, all things considering. I’m hoping to be done with treatment by January next year.
So far, having cancer is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me – it’s not as bad as some relationship break-ups I’ve been through and it’s certainly not as bad as depression, which I’ve also suffered from. However, if you ask me in six months’ time, after I’ve been through the rest of my treatment, I may have changed my mind about this.
The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena Macdonald is published on 10th July by Aardvark Bureau (£8.99 paperback)