Bidisha is a journalist, author and broadcaster. She started out writing for NME, i-D and Dazed & Confused at 15 before publishing her first novel, Seahorses, at 18. Her most recent book is Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine, and she regularly appears on BBC Radio. She talks to Kirsty Logan about early success and the importance of getting paid...
You’ve worked as a professional writer since the age of 15. How did you get your big break?
At 14 I started my own music/art/film/fashion fanzine, and after a year I wanted to be involved with the mainstream publications I read so voraciously. I sent some samples to everyone I wanted to write for, and work for the NME, i-D, Dazed and Confused, Volume and a host of gorgeous but now-defunct magazines followed. It’s about being involved, not just with a publication, but with an entire scene and society, in a pleasant and organic way. The way to get work is to show up and be friendly.
Many people who’ve had early success don’t seem to sustain it, but you’ve kept working. What is the secret to a long career?
It’s a myth that I’ve been rich, famous and successful since I was 14. There have been instances of sheer bad luck, bad decisions, sudden saves at the last minute, and a grim dip between 2000 and 2005 in which, believe me, the phone barely rang. When things turned around, they often did so by chance.
After 20 years’ career experience I think the secret is to have a range of interests and to study beyond one’s own field, to not be complacent, to pursue anything that interests you, and to be unafraid of either success or failure.
Is there anything you wish you could say to that younger you?
Put half your money into an untouchable savings account. Don’t look a gift horse (read: agent, publisher, PR, deal) in the mouth, don’t get nervous or volatile, don’t burn your bridges and don’t bite the hand that feeds unless you’re willing to go out there alone and cultivate your own food.
Other than that: enjoy!
Is there anything you would do differently, if you had the chance?
I would have held steady instead of giving in to my own rampant commitment-phobia, which is both a blessing (because it enables me to stay light and do lots of different things) and a curse (because I haven’t built up strong relationships). I would have recognised which side my bread was buttered and stuck to it instead of going rogue all the time.
Generally speaking, though, I am aware of how wonderful and lucky it is to have always worked around or in the area that generally interests me. I love the freedom of being a journalist, the variety of the people you meet and the way you can become a part of many different worlds.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Keep at it, know what you want but be open to all breaks, get your name out there and back it up with quality work, don’t isolate yourself, be shrewd and calm but not pushy or desperate, try to get paid for your work wherever you can so that you have established yourself as a professional and not an amateur, keep half an eye on the long term, keep fallback options open, don’t sit at home and stew, be polite and professional at all times, don’t be shy about sending a speculative email to strangers. And TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. They want you to thrive and be happy.
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