Writing fiction for the good of my health

18th Nov, 2022

It’s fair to say that writing novels saved my liver – perhaps my life.

And it got me through two close encounters with cancer, twenty years apart.   

I started writing fiction on a psychiatrist’s advice at the end of a long and painful battle against alcohol addiction.

The idea was simple: replace a destructive habit with a constructive one.

Of course this was easier said than done. Because when you quit drinking, it’s not just the booze you leave behind – it’s also the enormous amounts of time and energy you once devoted to getting your daily fix.

Take this away and big empty holes start to appear in your life. And the more at-a-loose-end you get, the more likely you are to fall off the wagon.

The opening scene of Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie Trainspotting illustrates perfectly just how hard it is to sustain substance abuse. 

In this iconic ‘Choose life’ sequence, we see Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton being pursued through the streets of Edinburgh after a scam has gone sideways. And we soon learn that ‘Rent Boy’ and his mates are 24/7 scammers because they have to pay for a 24/7 heroin habit.  

Even in winter Spain’s Mediterranean coast is a warm and sunny retreat for working writers

It’s the same with alcohol. Even if you’re working, it’s incredibly difficult to keep your system topped up from the moment you wake up to the moment you crash out – or black out. You have to find the money – whatever you earn is never enough. You need to buy and carry large volumes of booze from various retailers – even more of a problem if you get banned from driving, as I was. And you have to find time to drink it – often inventing reasons to disappear for thirty minutes, or even thirty seconds – all I needed to neck a vodka miniature.  

Nonetheless, I loved what I did for a living. I uncovered an exclusive story that put me on board a Falklands War destroyer. I went on a bender with Screaming Lord Sutch, the leopard-skin tuxedo-clad founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. And I got a front-page splash when the father of a convicted killer told me, ‘I’d hang my own son’ – only to have to go back and repeat the interview because the newsdesk ‘lost’ the copy.

But by the end of the decade my lifestyle as a hard-drinking hack had caught up with me. Even I was embarrassed by me. I decided to stop. Sure, I’d done this many times before and it always ended badly. So no one took my final announcement seriously. Which made it easier – no pressure, no expectations, no hopes to be dashed.

I succeeded because I was lucky – I have a cast of mind that is somewhat binary. For me, drinking meant getting out of my tree every day, or not drinking at all. Similarly, smoking cigarettes was twenty-a-day, or never again. Arriving at these big decisions was tough, but after thirty years I have to say I never looked back.

After quitting drinking and smoking, I also started working out, sailing dinghies, skiing and fell-walking. This is me at the summit of Place Fell in the English Lake District, with Ullswater below and the majestic Helvellyn range behind

Even when I got cancer in 1991 and 2012, I wasn’t tempted to drink or smoke.

I was, though, able to rely utterly on the substitute I’d found – writing novels. With the possible exception of morphine, nothing takes you to a better place than writing fiction.

Each time my future was uncertain I made a deal with myself: ‘You take eighteen months to write a novel and if you’re still here when you’ve finished this one, you’ll be of out the woods, at least for now.’

As a therapy, a distraction, a positive motivation, it worked.