This is a The Book That... post from award-winning Indigenous Australian writer Ellen van Neerven. You can check out her website here, ...Read More
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Sunil Badami, who won the game show Temptation.
Like lots of writers, I’ve had more jobs than I’ve had decent meals. From quitting my job as a CBD stockbroker to working in a Kings Cross sex shop, managing a pub on a mountain on the Isle of Man to training to be a clown, I’ve done any number of things to subsidise my writing.
Indeed, pretty much every job I’ve ever had—and been sacked from - I’ve done so I could keep writing, even if, stockbroking aside, they were necessarily menial and often badly paid, just so I didn’t have to think about work when I was really working, writing.
Still, I spent more time talking about writing than I actually did any, and my biggest excuse, like so many other wannabe writers, was that I’d finish the novel I’d been writing since I was 19 if I just had the time and money.
But after my computer was stolen and I’d lost everything I’d ever written - poems, stories, ideas, notes… and the novel, I didn’t think I’d ever write again.
Not just because I was so devastated by the loss of something I’d spent so much of my life writing that it had become my life. Nor because, with a baby on the way, as Cyril Connolly famously said, ‘a pram in the hallway is the death of a book’, but because I’d always promised myself I’d never deny my children a decent life for the sake of the Great Australian Novel (or, as I feared, now it was gone, a mediocre version of it).
I killed myself teaching English as a Foreign Language and ghost writing cookbooks, trying to write after work, or when I got up to feed the baby, at any moment I could spare. But it was only snatches, fragments.
As I wrote, people I knew would get published or win prizes and the old novel would snicker over my shoulder, whispering how much funnier and cleverer and better it was.
And I still didn’t know, week to week, whether we’d make next month’s rent.
I used to bottle feed that baby, our first daughter, while watching a quiz show on TV called Temptation. You might remember it as Sale of the Century, in which three contestants buzz answers to general knowledge questions, 'buying' goods in regular gift shops with their points and playing for cumulative prizes: holidays, paintings, jewellery, cars and cash. My wife told me to go on.
I approached it as a job: only hoping to win enough video recorders in the gift shop to pay the rent so that I might just might be able to start writing again.
Just as I hoped I might be able to re-write the novel I’d lost, I’d been on Sale of the Century years before. Although I’d assumed I’d collect the fortune I’d need to write my masterpiece in a Tuscan villa, I’d come home empty-handed, apart from a board game, a pin and some plastic tumblers.
The audition was packed. We were given a test of 50 questions, a score of 27 or more sending us through to the next stage. I barely scraped in.
After the audition, the producer told us we’d be put in a database that might take two years to get round to us and to forget it ever happened.
A week later, I got the call. They were filming in Melbourne the following week. With the ghost-writing deadlines, I wasn’t sure I had the time. Could they call back in September? No, they replied. It was now or never. If I didn’t go now, they wouldn’t call back. I emailed my editors for an extension and flew down.
All that week, I tried not to think about it, lest my hopes and fears overwhelmed me. One afternoon, though, I couldn’t help it. If I won the car, the major prize before winning the lot, should I take it, or keep going?
‘Well,’ replied my wife, ‘it’s not our money you’re gambling. What have you got to lose? Just go for it.’
I got to the studios at 7.30am the following Monday. They filmed the week’s five shows in a day, from 9am until 4pm. In the green room, the producer offered some advice:
‘Today will be one of the most exciting and surreal days of your life: in front of a cheering audience, under incredibly bright lights, surrounded by thousands of dollars of prizes and all the cameras. It’s easy to get distracted. But don’t dwell on any question: if you get it wrong, empty your head and just keep going. Because if you keep thinking about it, the host will have already asked the next three questions, and you’ll be left behind.’
As a writer, everything I do is an articulation of regret, refracted through the past tense and a fictional character.
I’m neurotic, over-sensitive, self-critical, and obsessive. It sometimes makes for good writing but it doesn’t always make for carefree living.
But, recalling my wife’s words, I figured I might as well go for it. Just as I hope to be the kind of writer I’d like to read, I’d be the kind of contestant I’d like to watch: have some fun, take some risks, and buy as many video recorders as I can.
People still say to me ‘you must have so much in your head.’ But the truth is, as the producer reminded us, there’s no way to know what question they might ask. And you cannot know that you’ll have the answer anyway. Answering the question risks getting it wrong and losing 5 points, but you cannot get a question right without answering.
‘One other thing,’ the producer tells us as we head into the studio. ‘Don’t focus on what anyone else is doing, or you’ll get thrown. If you try to check your scores in the monitor, you’ll get too distracted to answer.’
So I empty my mind, breathe deeply and spend what seems at once an eternity and a moment focused on the host’s nose. I see nothing else, answer as many questions as I can, neither worrying about the answers to come, nor the answers I’ve gotten wrong, and somehow, before I know it, I’ve won five shows and a car.
When I first started writing, I told everyone I was writing a novel. Big mistake. All of a sudden, everyone was full of advice on how to finish it.
So I don’t tell anyone about what’s happened (apart from my wife), partly because I don’t want to jinx it like I did my novel, and besides, I’ve signed a confidentiality agreement.
I spend two weeks catching up on my deferred deadlines trying not to think about it. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter if I win or lose: what can I do about it? There are so many circumstances beyond my control: the questions, the other contestants, sheer luck.
And then, somehow too soon, I’m back, pressing the buzzer.
It’s funny how life-changing events can at once feel so slow, every detail perfectly clear, and yet you cannot quite remember what happened afterwards. My wedding day. The birth of our daughter. When I was hit by a truck. When I lost my novel.
I remember one thing, right at the end, a mantra that thrums through my head: I got the lot. I want to tell my wife those very words. I got the lot.
Marriage is a vague promise that you’ll not only care for but look after your loved ones. Marrying a writer makes that promise much more uncertain. My wife has foregone the comforts of a reliable income for so long for my - for the novel’s - sake. I have to do it, to say those words to her.
But I’m so tired! My arms and neck scream with tension. I’m delirious. My voice croaks, I can barely see. I’ve answered over 400 questions, bought or won countless ovens, patio heaters, mobile phones, dinner sets and more - so much stuff! - I don’t know if I can go on. I’m exhausted. But I want to tell my wife those words. Just as I think I can’t go on...
...the siren sounds, and the audience starts applauding, and I’m covered in confetti and I’m guided by smiling faces through a swell of cheers and confetti and handed a bottle of champagne and an enormous bouquet and the host lists all the prizes I’ve won, and then I tell my wife those magical words. We both cry with relief and disbelief.
My mother (who’d once sat me down as asked as kindly as she could, ‘I don’t know why you live this writer’s cliché of drunkenness, dissolution and debauchery, only to become famous 100 years after you die’) is, for once, lost for words. ‘To think I was so worried you’d never become a dermatologist,’ she keeps saying over and over.
For weeks after, people would call out to me in the street. ‘How many Ps in the Philippines?’ And I’d answer. I’d become aware of the way they looked at me or of them talking about me as I went to the shops. I had to keep smiling as strangers asked me how much I’d won, what I’d do with the money or to take a photo with them. I was a fictional character who’d become real because they’d seen me on the TV. For months, I was “Sunil off the telly.”
I hated it. Of course I’d started writing with dreams of fame and fortune but now that I had a kind of each I realised how unbearable they were.
I obsessed about money: where once, if a cheque had come in, we’d buy a bottle of wine to celebrate, now I had to deal with financial planners, accountants, insurance for all the prizes being delivered to a secret storage unit. I spent months selling stuff on eBay, getting more and more irritated by people who, recognising I’d won it, thought they could bid virtually nothing for it: on the day I sold the car and the painting I’d won, I lost more than I’d earned in the previous three years. Of course, I got more from the sale than I’d earned in the previous five, but still.
And I’d wonder: what if I’d answered more jackpot questions correctly? Would that have won us another hundred grand?
And for months, I felt incredibly guilty. Guilty for winning something in a few days’ work while my wife’s grandfather had slaved for years in a factory. Guilty that I’d crushed the dreams of everyone else who’d played against me. Guilty that, where I’d once reassured my wife that worrying about money wouldn’t make it more likely to appear, I was worried about money at all, now we had more than I could have ever imagined only a few weeks before.
And guilty most of all that I hadn’t started writing again: that although I’d always said I’d finish my novel if I had the time or money, now that I had both, I just couldn’t. I’d sit at my desk and nothing would come.
I found the answer, as so many answers in my life, in a book. Reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita I discovered that the Master, having lost his book, won 100,000 roubles in the State lottery.
And realising that Bulgakov, too, had lost his novel (just as Gogol had before him), it dawned on me that money and time weren’t the most essential parts of writing a novel: the writing was.
So I started writing again. Money and time didn’t make it any easier, but they did make it happen.
Where I once wrote when I could, between jobs - or worse, when inspiration struck me - now I wrote every day: when I was tired, hung-over, sad, excited, whether I had anything to write or not, long after I felt too tired to go on. I didn’t obsess over the old novel, nor over finishing this one. I only concentrated on each sentence, then each paragraph, then each chapter. I didn’t worry about what my contemporaries were doing, getting published or winning prizes. I just wrote and kept looking at the page in front of me.
And eventually, something came, something I hope is better than before. Not because of what I lost or what I won, but what I did, what I wrote.
I don’t re-read much of what I’ve written, but every year on the anniversary of the day I got the lot, I sit down and watch my run on the show, to remind me how lucky I was.
I’m struck - in the same way I am whenever I do happen to re-read something I’ve written - by how the person on the screen (like the person on the page) isn’t me, but someone fictional: funnier, more confident, more focused, more interesting, risking everything, and winning because of it.
I know what it’s like not to have the time or money, and how insurmountable the obstacles of not having either can be. But having had more than enough of both too, it’s funny to think it took winning a quiz show, of all things, to discover that neither of them make any real difference, if you really want to write. Nor does anyone else’s successes, nor any of your past failures.
Nothing does, except the writing.
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Sunil Badami is a writer, performer and broadcaster. His work has appeared in Australia and overseas, including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Good Weekend, The Monthly, The Guardian, The New Daily, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Seizure, Island, Meanjin, Best Australian Stories and Essays. He’s still re-writing that novel.
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