Former English language teacher Liz Huntley tells EL Gazette how ‘chance meetings and serendipity’ led her to an unusual literary collaboration with a French student she taught in the 1980s
Back in the 1980s I was teaching English in one of the many language schools that occupied the upper floors of the buildings in and around Oxford Street in central London.
Mine was above a bookshop in a side-street and specialised in one-to-one short courses for overseas business people.
Hundreds of managers, executives, entrepreneurs and engineers passed through that warren of tiny rooms, clutching their copies of The World of Business or Financial English.
There were plenty of nice people, clever people, people who could easily have become friends in other circumstances, but as is the way with students on short courses, I had forgotten most of them before they had boarded the plane home.
At the time, like many other EFL teachers I knew, I harboured ambitions to be a writer.
But the road to becoming a successful novelist was just as rocky then as it is now and it seemed very much an unattainable dream.
However, I was always on the look-out for opportunities, and one day I spotted a competition in – of all places – the EFL Gazette (as the EL Gazette was then known).
They were looking for short stories specially written for learners of English. I entered – and what do you know? – I won!
The prize was, to my mind, astonishing: an all-expenses-paid trip to Texas to attend the Tesol Conference in San Antonio. I remember the Gazette’s editor Melanie Butler asking me at the time, ‘Do you think it will change your life?’
It certainly did change my life, but not in quite the way I expected.
While at the conference, I met a few people from Longman (now Pearson Education) who told me about opportunities in their company for people with an ELT background – not as a writer or as editor, as I would have expected, but in sales.
Sales, I asked myself? That had certainly not been part of my plan.
But I was young and very happy to consider a new direction.
I took the job – and I took to sales like a duck to water.
I spent nineteen years at Longman/Pearson moving up through the ranks, from UK sales rep to a managerial role specialising in central Europe.
I then moved to National Geographic Learning, where I am lucky enough to do a job that I love – and one that takes me all around the world on a regular basis.
In fact, my ambitions to become a writer were a distant memory when, quite out of the blue, I was contacted through LinkedIn by a Frenchman, Christian Dubois, who I had taught at the business English school back in the 1980s.
He asked if I remembered him – and actually I did. He had left his job in the oil industry, he told me, and, having always written for pleasure during his business career, in retirement had been able to devote more time to it and was now a successful published writer in his native France.
He had, he told me, just written a novella called Le Pneu, which he was keen to get translated into English with a view to getting it published.
Could I help him? He asked me to read what he had done so far and offer an opinion. The story captivated me immediately: a charming tale, almost a fable, about a poor man, Ranji, in India, living at the very bottom level of society and struggling to make a meagre living gathering wood at the side of the road.
When a huge brand-new tyre falls from a passing truck Ranji realises that if he can only sell it he could change his life.
Certainly it was an appealing story, but I had to be brutally honest: I knew there would be no market in the UK for a novella.
For some reason, the Brits just don’t read that kind of thing. To even be considered for publication the story needed to be much longer.
We met up and talked it though and the project started to grow.
We discussed how we might re-structure the story. We speculated about what might have happened in the past to bring the characters to this point. Some new characters emerged, new sub-plots too.
Passages were cut and new ones added. I was fortunate that Christian was so open to new ideas, to my additions and to these changes to his original story.
And slowly a French novella morphed into an English novel.
Both of us were thrilled with the result and even more delighted when Thistle Publishing, a small independent company, agreed to publish it.
The launch party was held at Daunt Books in Chelsea at the end of June.
And so the next part of the story begins. Getting a novel published in the first place was hard enough but turning it into a successful one is perhaps even more of a challenge.
With thousands of novels published every year, I’ve quickly learnt that it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd.
There have been some encouraging signs – the reviewers have all been very kind so far – but it is still too early to say what will happen.
But one thing I do know: just as in The Tyre, those chance meetings, those little moments of serendipity, those twists and turns of fate, really can change your life. But perhaps we never know quite how, until a long time later.
The Tyre (an extract)
Ranji has encountered a sadhu (a holy sage) who has told him how much his tyre could be worth. However he also gives him a warning:
The scrawny figure rose, outlined by the brightness of the moon, and started to speak:
“Don’t dream too much! Do not believe, my friend, that doing without material things is any obstacle to joy! My pleasure to have met you is great, and yet I possess even less than you! The wisdom of Buddha led him to encourage his followers to walk without thinking about anything, as you did until today, letting your mind wander and simply enjoying the pleasure of having good legs to walk upon. I see your excitement at the prospect of being able to afford possessions. But what you do not see, because you are already imagining how the sale of the tyre can change your life, is that this could be the start of problems for you. You will be afraid that it will be stolen. You will strive constantly to find a buyer, you will feel acrimony and disillusionment. Until now you were content with your life, but now your contentment will be overturned and upset. Maybe one day you will regret having stumbled upon this heavy lump of rubber!”
The Tyre, by C J Dubois and E C Huntley (pictured right) is available from Amazon or can be ordered from bookshops (ISBN: 9781786080646)