Abir Mukherjee

Ten Years On ...

With the kind permission of my fellow writers, I’m making a departure from this week’s topic to talk about something else. This Friday I want to tell you a bit more about my journey to becoming a writer – not so much the practical side – we’ve discussed that in the past – but the emotional side. Why? Because this week marks a decade since one of the key milestones in that journey. 

Ten years ago this week I lost my job.

It came as a shock. I’d never been unemployed before. I’d gone from school to university, straight into my first job and then spent the next eighteen years working my way up a financially rewarding, if fantastically dull corporate ladder. 

For almost two decades I’d gotten up every morning, put on a suit and tie and gone to an office where the work I did interested me less and less. I put up with the corporate politics and the deep sense that my life was passing me by because, well I was earning a good six figure salary and the thought of giving it up and starting again seemed unthinkable. I’m tempted to say I was too comfortable to leave, but comfortable isn’t the right word. True, I was well paid, but with the salary went a hell of a lot of stress, a job which didn’t ever really end, late nights in the office and long trips overseas away from my wife and young son. Rather, I’d  say I’d reached an equilibrium – a steady state that was tolerable, and one that I expected would be the pattern of my life for the  decades to come.

At some point I expected we’d move out of London, to a house with a garden; we’d have another child and maybe get a dog, and I’d then catch the same train into town every morning. It didn’t fill me with excitement, but on balance, it wouldn’t have been a bad life. It was a safe life – one of certainty – but also one where I’d always answerable to someone – to my boss, or my boss’s boss, and where the dreams that I had for myself – of being a writer – would remain unfulfilled, subordinate to the requirements of work and bills and school fees – at least until I retired at sixty-five. 

I wasn’t particularly happy –  I knew that at the time – but what do you do when you’ve got bills to pay and a young family to provide for? You keep going because you think the risk of doing anything else is just too great.

And then it happened. One bright August morning in 2012, I got called into my boss’s office and told I was being made redundant.

I was thirty-eight, married, had a kid with special needs, a stupidly large mortgage and no idea what I was going to do next.

I remember walking out of his office feeling like I’d just been hit by a train. I remember passing his secretary who looked embarrassed and said some kind words to me, words that hardly registered, and then I remember leaving the building, into the sunshine of a scorching hot, central London day. The office was at the top of Piccadilly, opposite Green Park. I crossed the four lanes of traffic without really worrying about getting run over by a taxi or two and then just walked through the park – down to Buckingham Palace, through St James’s Park and then across the West End, just trying to work out what to do. At some point I found myself back on Piccadilly, walking past two of London’s biggest bookstores: Waterstones flagship branch and the famous and historic Hatchards bookshop. I’d spent many a lunchtime browsing in both, but that day I hardly noticed them. (Years later, I’d be signing books and doing events in both of them.)

I went through the beginnings of the classic seven stages of grief: the shock and the anger; and then I went home and told my wife. It was a difficult conversation – not because I didn’t think she could handle the news – we’d been through worse – but because of my own sense of shame. I was still imbued with the baggage we were all brought up with – the stereotypes. I was the man – the breadwinner supposedly – and if I wasn’t winning the bread, then what was I good for? My wife, I should point out, is a lawyer and is far smarter than me. 

She kissed me and told me it’d be ok, and that we’d get through it. 

I took a little time to think about what to do next. The natural decision was to start interviewing for another job. I dusted off my CV and sent it off to recruitment consultants, but in the weeks that followed, I had a change of heart. I realised I didn’t want to jump back into the same frying pan I’d just been thrown out of. When the opportunities for job interviews started to come through, I turned them down. My wife made me see that being made redundant wasn’t a catastrophe – it was an opportunity – a chance to do what I wanted to do – a time to take risks. 

Along with three friends from university: guys I’d known for twenty years, I started a business –  one which is still going today and  going from strength to strength (probably cos these days I have very little to do with it) – and ten years on, all four of us are still really good friends. 

And then came the writing. I was self-employed now; working with my mates. That gave me the opportunity to do other things. It was time to take a chance on my dream.  It was a gamble of course – when you’re self-employed, there’s no safety net. I started writing a book about a British detective who goes to India after the first world war. I got lucky. In 2014, I entered a competition for new crime writers and won and suddenly I had a book deal. It was the start of my writing journey, but what came next wasn’t easy. It was a tough time. I would work during the day, and write in the evenings and at weekends.  The business was young, we weren’t making much money, and as a family we were burning through our savings and I wasn’t spending nearly enough time with my wife and son. There were no guarantees that the book would be any good or that it would sell, and in the meantime my wife was having to work twice as hard in her job and in looking after our son…and also, in what was wonderfully ridiculous timing, we had another kid on the way.

That first book, A Rising Man, came out in 2016 and went on to be a bestseller. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to become a full-time writer, and I’m lucky to be doing the job I’ve always dreamed of. I am eternally thankful for that. The journey (so far) has been tough, but fulfilling, and I want to end this piece by setting out some of the (non writing) things I’ve learned along the way. They’re not meant to be a guide. I’m quite aware that I’ve been lucky, and that my circumstances won’t translate to anyone else’s life. It’s just my story. It might prove helpful in parts to others.

Surround yourself with good people

One of the abiding joys of my life has been the number of good, decent people I’ve met through my various jobs. For every bastard I’ve come across, I’ve been fortunate to meet five or ten wonderful folk, among them people who’ve become lifelong friends; people I’d trust with my life. These are the people you want in a crisis. People who will help you, not because they expect anything in return, but because it’s the right thing to do. In my hour of need there were so many  people who stepped up, whether it was with advice or offers of employment or just support.

Build a financial buffer 

Probably the best piece of advice my old dad ever gave me was, “Put cash away in the good times”. 

Try and save cash for that rainy day. If you have that, it gives you a degree of comfort. It’s easier to make decisions when you’ve got a bit of security. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s hard to do in practice when you think the good times will last forever.

It’s not the end of the world

Being made redundant – for eighteen years it had been the biggest fear of my life. The sword that hung over my head and motivated me to do a job that was slowly killing me. We all have bills to pay, obligations to fulfil, kids to raise. But when the unthinkable happens, you realise life doesn’t stop. You have skills. You can and will survive.

The love and support of family

I can’t tell you how important my wife has been to this whole process: from the initial support after the redundancy, through taking up so much of the burden of looking after our family while I was writing or travelling to book festivals and libraries; to the advice she’s given me on plots; to telling me that my writing is really, really not that bad. I couldn’t have made this journey without her.

Sometimes, you’ve got to take risks

What feels like a disaster can also sometimes be an opportunity. Redundancy turned my life upside down, but if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be a writer today. It forced me to take risks. It forced me to set up a business with my friends and it forced me to try and follow my writing dream – in hidsight, two of the best decisions I’ve ever made. 

It’s not been an easy road. The journey has been bumpy. At times I’ve wondered if I could ever do this. At others, I’ve felt so much guilt at putting my wife and kids through the struggle when I could just have just gone out and got another job. I’m fortunate that I can say it’s worked out well, so far – I’m eternally amazed and grateful that so many people have taken my characters to their hearts. There are no guarantees though, and as a writer you’re only as good as your last book. It’s a precarious career, and a gamble, but then life is always a gamble. 

Sometimes you get lucky.

12 August 2022