Ben Masters on Writing Noughties

Having my novel appear in the U.S. was a real thrill for someone brought up on U.S. television, music, and books.

I began writing Noughties in Oxford in the summer of 2009, immediately after I had completed my master’s degree in nineteenth-century literature at the university there.

I knew that I wanted to try my hand at a novel, so I purposefully stayed behind in the city for an extra two months, working in my ex-college’s buttery and kitchen as a waiter, silver polisher, and general food-disposal system in order to pay my way while I got started.

Every summer the college becomes a summer school for undergraduates from the U.S., and I was on hand to serve them their food and point them in the direction of the bar, all the while thinking about my idea for a student comedy and where it might go. With the morning shift out of the way, I would head over to the café in Blackwell’s bookstore and get a couple of hours writing in before the afternoon shift.

Those early weeks of a project are the most exciting. You write with little calculation or sense of pragmatics, instead just finding a voice and dreaming up a handful of scenarios within which you can test its limits. There is still so much to be discovered during this stage that it becomes a compulsion, an imperative even, to get to a desk every day and add some more words to the page.

Once the American students had all left for home, I moved down to London where I was due to start a postgraduate course in the journalism school at City University. This was my halfhearted attempt at securing a “legitimate” career, but truthfully all I wanted to do was keep writing.

In the fortnight building up to the start of the course, when I should have been getting through a disheartening list of dry journalism textbooks, I found myself buried in the British Library, obsessing over what was fast becoming Noughties, and planning hypothetical English literature theses that I knew would probably never get written.

It was there that I received an intriguing call from the BBC. An application I had made several months previous for a nonpaid placement on a forthcoming literary series had been successful. They needed me to start straightaway and, impulsively, I said yes, which meant never enrolling for the journalism course. The series was called Faulks on Fiction – a four-part study of the English novel and a selection of its most famous characters, presented by British novelist Sebastian Faulks.

Some of the more glamorous jobs I carried out while at the BBC included running around Knightsbridge in search of a teapot and a very specific kind of exotic tea bag sold only, it transpired, at Harrods; collecting Sebastian’s coat from lost property at Waterloo station; spending cold nights alone on various bridges filming sunsets on a camera I didn’t know how to operate; and following the ongoing saga of Sebastian’s beard, ascertaining that it was kept at a consistent density between shoots.

A personal highlight was a day’s filming with Sebastian and Zoë Heller, author of Notes on a Scandal. At last I would get to rub shoulders with real living authors – successful writers, just like I wanted to be. Instead, however, I spent the day on my own sitting in the cameraman’s van at the bottom of Hampstead Heath while they filmed, in case a traffic warden showed up. But, as it turned out, being alone in smelly confined spaces was a highly productive part of the placement for me. In fact, I would frequently disappear to the toilets at Television Centre, lock myself away, and sit reading through whatever I had written for Noughties the night before.

Following on from the BBC placement, Sebastian asked me to carry out research for the show’s accompanying book. It was during this time that I finished the first draft of Noughties, raided the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for literary agents’ contact details, and sent the manuscript (unsolicited) to my eventual agent.

Writing the novel had been a quick but intense process. This seemed necessary – not only did the narrative demand a certain amount of speed and reckless energy, but I could also feel myself as a first-time writer outgrowing it and becoming distracted by other newly forming ideas.

By the time Noughties appeared between covers, two years after finishing that first draft, the prose no longer seemed quite my own and I was intensely preoccupied with the writing of my second novel. Nonetheless, it was an immense fillip to hold my first book, and it spurred me on to go even harder at my next attempt.

Six months later it appeared in the U.S. – a real thrill for someone brought up on U.S. television, music, and books. All of that waiting, cleaning, and polishing in college finally seemed very worthwhile.