At fifty years old, my debut novel, Love & Other Dramas, is about to be published and I still can’t quite believe it. I almost didn’t get here. Ten years ago, my life wasn’t my own. I was a wife, mother and daughter, my whole self dedicated to the people I loved. Thank goodness for my midlife crisis.

Ronali Collings, Love and Other Dramas

Ronali Collings, Love and Other Dramas

Turning forty brought the usual platitudes about ‘life beginning’ and ‘looking fabulous’, but it certainly didn’t feel like that. I’d only recently learned to cook through Annabel Karmel baby recipe books and now I planned weekly menus; I worked my way through mountains of laundry in between shifts as the family taxi driver. My body had stubborn stretch marks and saggy skin. And since I’d been made redundant from my job in a large accountancy firm three years earlier, my brain was beginning to atrophy.

Cue midlife crisis.

No, I didn’t buy a sports car, or have an affair with someone half my age (or anyone). But I did start going to the gym and even ran a 10km race (although I’m not sure that walking for half of it counts). I was restless.

And my friends had disappeared. Infertility caused by my polycystic ovarian syndrome wreaked havoc on my friendships. I was only twenty-eight when I discovered that I might not have children, and the knowledge that it might never happen made my biological clock clang with desperate need. I plunged my husband and I into fertility treatments for the next four years and our friends were unable to understand the constant cycle of hope and grief. Invitations to dinner or quick coffees began to dry up and they slowly faded out of our lives.

Once we were blessed with our children, I tried to bond with the school mums, most of whom found the direct, no-nonsense approach that had served me so well in my professional life, abrasive and unpalatable. And no one tells you how hard it is to form friendships later in life. The roots are fragile, shallow and easy to break. There were some people I could go out to dinner with, but they didn’t really know me. I could never be my true self.

I was lonely. The main conversationalists in my life were two children under ten, and a husband who preferred to vegetate in front of the television each evening after a day spent talking at work. I had no one to talk to about how I felt.

So, I continued with my domestic life while my husband’s career thrived, and he began travelling regularly for work and even going on solo skiing and golfing holidays in pursuit of his ‘passions’. And I was just grateful that his ‘passions’ didn’t include a replacement for me.

It all came to a head one Sunday afternoon as I peered at the contents of the refrigerator, trying to plan meals for the week ahead, and asked my husband what he fancied eating. He told me that he wouldn’t need anything because he was off to New York in the morning. He’d forgotten to tell me. And somewhere subconsciously, he knew that it wouldn’t matter because he was always able to do what he wanted, safe in the knowledge that I had nothing else to do but support him.

Every drop of bitterness that I’d been bottling up inside me erupted at once. How had I let this happen? I used to have a life, ambitions, dreams, and here I was facilitating everyone’s lives except my own. Once my rage had subsided, my husband sat me down and calmly told me that if there was anything I wanted to do, he’d support it.

I had no idea what I wanted. I had spent well over a decade living my life for my family and I hadn’t spared a thought for what I might want.

I had lost myself in them.

The only thing in my life that I had just for myself was my love of reading. I’ve been a voracious reader since the age of three. As an only child in a sometimes-stormy household, books were a refuge. I could lose myself in different lives and worlds, and my troubles would recede into the background.

I was so wrapped up in my books that I often didn’t want them to end, so I used to scribble continuations of my favourite stories on scraps of paper, graduating to my mum’s old Remington typewriter where I tapped out my ‘Dempsey & Makepeace’ fan fiction, then the Amstrad word processor I used throughout my pretentious university days. I wondered, could I still write?

Maybe it was time to be a little bit selfish, so I applied for a part time Masters degree in Creative Writing at Brunel University, sending in a sample of writing, and was absolutely shocked to be accepted.

Well, someone up there must have been smiling on me because my Masters dissertation was supervised by Bernardine Evaristo (pre-Booker fame), and she asked me to continue with a PhD. I learned so much from her about language and characterisation. But as a relatively tyro writer, I was still struggling to find my authorial voice. And the first two attempts at writing this book were too personal. I was still in the midst of my midlife crisis, trying to find a place for myself, and I wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t write it.

So, I stopped.

I decided I would be a reader and not a writer. I’d tried and I didn’t have it in me. I needed to work on my life and my marriage, so I took almost eighteen months off. But then I looked around at all my colleagues from my MA and PhD. They were winning competitions, being accepted onto mentorship schemes, publishing anthologies and novels and I thought, ‘what about me?’.

At this point, I gave myself a firm talking-to. Something along the lines of ‘For God’s sake, Ronali, you aren’t getting any of this because you aren’t writing anything.’

Then Bernardine published Girl, Woman, Other, and it was the first time that I’d seen anything even remotely resembling my experience as a brown English person in a book. The breadth of characters meant that when my mum read the book, she identified with the mother of the character I had most in common with. It made me realise that people like my mum and

I are rarely, if ever, represented in the books I love, and that perhaps I should be the person to rectify that. I wanted to write about our lives as we pursue love, happiness and fulfilment, with our culture and skin colour firmly in the background (as it is most days unless someone else draws attention to it).

As I sat down in front of my laptop without having to write for someone or something else, the words flowed. And suddenly, there was my authorial voice on the page. That element that had eluded me all this time. The only way I can describe it is when you listen to a song on the radio, and you instantly know who the artist is because they have a distinctive voice. It’s the same for writers. I think it emerged because I was finally writing for me and no one else, and it was liberating.

In 2020, just as the pandemic got underway and we were in lockdown, I saw a tweet about a mentorship scheme being run by the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency. There were six places available and for the first time for one of these things, they didn’t require a completed manuscript, only twenty thousand words. It was a sign. I only had twenty thousand words. I had to try, didn’t I? What was the worst that could happen? Lord knows, I was used to rejection. I looked at their website and found my dream agent, then put together my submission package and sent it in.

The deadline came and went, and I consoled myself that I had at least tried. Almost a month later, I received an email to say that Hayley Steed (the dream agent) liked my manuscript and wanted to mentor and represent me. The deadline had been pushed back because of the sheer number of entries: approximately 1,500. If I’m honest, I’m still in shock almost two years later.

I’m not sure that Hayley knows how much she’s changed my life, but I’ll forever be grateful to her for picking me. Not only did she help me to shape my novel and make it into something she could sell to editors, but her honest, clear feedback and constant support gave me hope and purpose. She’s helped make my dream of a career as a writer a reality, but she’s also helped me to find my second life, my next self.

And my husband now cooks at least half of the meals in our house. Thanks to the pandemic, the business trips have stopped. He still does his solo holidays, but I no longer resent them because I have a ‘passion’ too, and he’s proud of me, as are my children, who see their mother has a purpose beyond them.

My life didn’t begin at forty, but that midlife crisis was a painful, cathartic process that led me to my second life. The one where I’m an author as well as a wife, mother and daughter.

And it’s fabulous.