Bernardine Evaristo's advice for anyone comparing their success

Bernardine Evaristo
·4-min read
Photo credit: TOLGA AKMEN - Getty Images
Photo credit: TOLGA AKMEN - Getty Images

From Red Online

She won the Booker Prize at 60, but author Bernardine Evaristo knew she was building to it all along...

As clichéd as it sounds, when I won the Booker Prize in 2019, aged 60, it was a dream come true. I’d visualised it for decades, creating a powerful image in my mind of the joy I would feel. So when I did win, I was ready, although the shock still made me swear more than I thought I would!

I became an overnight success and my novel Girl, Woman, Other was translated
into 35 languages, staying on bestseller lists for more than 10 months. Some people ask whether the success was bittersweet or whether it came too late, as I’d been writing for nearly 40 years. My answer is that, for me, it came at exactly the right time.

There are all kinds of pressures on younger writers who become instant stars and many struggle to cope. They worry so much about writing a brilliant second book that they never actually produce one. Other writers feel depressed when their second book doesn’t do as well. Breaking through at the age I did has been a validation of decades of dedication. Plus, while I’ve had a heady time since winning, I haven’t been swayed off course.

My first two books were published by tiny presses and received no mainstream attention, and no advances. But it was never about the money. I write because I find it fulfilling. I love losing myself in the characters I create.I feel stretched, I feel creative, I feel complete. I began by writing for theatre, conjuring up strong characters with unique voices who came alive on stage. When I moved into fiction, I found I could create even richer, deeper and more complex stories.

So while friends got ‘proper jobs’ and acquired mortgages and cars, I had neither and took poorly paid freelance work to free up time to write. I didn’t get a ‘proper’ salary until I was 51 and joined the faculty of Brunel University London, where I’m professor of creative writing. By then, I’d published six books and seen other, much younger, authors succeed, where I had not.

Of course, I occasionally felt resentment – I’m only human. But even though I was always ambitious, I didn’t let jealousy get the better of me. I worked hard at not comparing myself to them and focused my attention on forging my own path. My books weren’t a commercial success and some took more than five years to write, but I never once entertained the idea of giving up. I simply believed that one day my fortunes would change.

My secret was to write down affirmations and I thoroughly recommend doing this. You
note down your goal as if you’ve already achieved it, and it needs to be personal, positive
and in the present tense. Let’s say you’re working on a novel and you want to eventually get
it published, then your affirmation might read: ‘I am so happy that my novel is now successfully published.’ You are imagining the reality you want even before you’ve completed the book. If you write: ‘I am desperate to get published’, it won’t work because you’re focusing on your frustration.It’s all about developing a positive mental attitude. With one, you’re better equipped to ride out life’s disappointments and focus on the next challenge.

I’ll never regret not winning the Booker sooner. I’m deeply appreciative of my good fortune because it was a long time coming and I was prepared for the attention that followed. The journey I’ve been on to reach this point has been hard, but it’s also the reason I’ve reached it. Over the decades, I’ve developed my craft and had space to keep doing my own thing. Girl, Woman, Other is most definitely its own thing and I’m looking forward to spending another 40 years writing.

Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin) by Bernardine Evaristo is out now. This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Red.

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