Gambling on a child’s life

by David Robinson

Maybe everyone's life boils down to accidents, gambles and determination, but with Clare Sambrook they're just that bit clearer than most. And usually, they're all happening at the same time.

Take the moment she had the idea for her first novel. She was in a coach with the rest of her karate team (she's a black belt), coming back to London from a day's competition on the south coast. She'd dozed off, and as she woke up she heard the children in the seats in front of her talking excitedly about rescuing someone.

Gradually it dawned on her that they were talking about a five-year-old boy who had been on the coach on the way down to the coast but wasn't any longer. She'd had a feeling something bad was going to happen when they'd arrived and a flock of unsupervised young boys in their white karate kits had nonchalantly run off the coach towards some nearby woods. But that had just been a momentary fear. This was worse. Even the adults on the coach looked pale, alarmed. But no-one was doing anything about it, and the coach was speeding onwards into the night towards London.

Mercifully, it was a false alarm. The boy was safe, with his auntie on the coast, just as he'd told the karate club leader back in London, even though the message hadn't been passed on to colleagues on the coach. But just suppose, thought Sambrook, that the boy had been abducted. That he had a brother who was also on the coach. That he had parents whose comfortable middle-class lives their youngest son's disappearance would break.

She got out her notebook and started writing.

Hide & Seek tells the story of a four-year-old's disappearance and the jagged hole it leaves in his parents' marriage as seen through the eyes of his nine-year-old brother. As Harry Pickles imagines his brother's return and watches his mother stop coping, Sambrook keeps sentimentality at arm's length, never making him understand more than a child his age reasonably could. Although he doesn't know everything about the black holes of adult grief, Harry still knows enough that matters. He knows, for example, what it means when his father asks his mother for a little time apart. "It happened to Piggy. A Little Time Apart led to Trial Separations and, next thing you knew, your dad lived in Balham and some man with a beard and BO was humping your mother and making you eat All Bran for breakfast." The novel's child's-eye view of the world remains similarly sharply focussed throughout.

If it was an accident that gave Sambrook her subject, though, she wouldn't have got as far under the skin of a nine-year-old boy without industrial quantities of determination. For a start, this is a book that has been completely rewritten about six times, pared down until it was too bare, then bulked up with interior monologues, which were then ditched again. This is also a book that has, she says, gained hugely from constructive criticism: from Lynne Truss and Philip Hensher, who tutored a creative writing course and encouraged her to press ahead with it; from novelist John Murray, who persuaded her to take out those interior monologues, even though they'd taken months and months to write. All of this was a gamble, too. A freelance investigative journalist, Sambrook was now, for the first time in her career, working without any money coming in. And it wasn't as though she had too much to start off with.

When Sambrook was 17 she went to Cambridge for an interview. It was another of those determination-gamble-accident moments. Determination because no-one else from her comprehensive school in Lincolnshire had ever been to Oxbridge to take an arts degree. Accident because, first of all, the college admissions tutor, on hearing that her father had been a school caretaker, had drawled: "I think we can consider this interview over, don't you?" (Thankfully, her next interview was with the historian Richard Tuck, who saw her potential immediately.)

The next gamble was a career in journalism. "I overestimated the importance of a Cambridge degree," she says. "I thought it would mean I could walk into a national newspaper. Instead of which I walked into a job at John Lewis's Gazette." There wasn't anything wrong with that, or being a financial journalist, but her heart wasn't in it.

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM, THOUGH, THAT was altogether different. "There's so little of it around that it's almost like being the cooper or the village smith, and I was only a freelance, so you have to do everything on your own time and money with no guarantees that anyone will be interested." Sometimes, she says, she'd work for three months - as she did investigating policing in Middlesbrough - and she'd end up selling the story for about £400. "Our accountant said, 'You don't do this for money, do you, because there are lots of easier ways of making a living.' But it's good fun. It's mischievous." She grins.

Her partner, Andrew Jennings, is also an investigative journalist. Between bringing up their two young children in Cumbria and working on her own novel, she helped him on his books, and the two have made some powerful enemies. "We've gone after some very nasty fellows," is all she'll say on the subject. "Of course we've had legal threats, and we know people have managed - illegally - to get hold of our phone records."

She doesn't sound paranoid. Paranoid people, I imagine, don't have such a quick-witted sense of humour, nor are they as likeably self-deprecating. They also don't write novels as open to the imagination and ultimately as life-affirming, as Hide & Seek.

When I met Sambrook, I knew nothing of the deals swirling around her novel. I've since found out how it got taken up by Canongate, how the marketing manager took it home, not expecting it to be any good because it had a silly title ("Yabba Dabba Do"), how he stayed up all night reading it and told his colleagues the next day that they'd got a bestseller on their hands. I've found out about the ten translation deals, the BBC audio book, the great advance notices in the US, the film rights selling.

But because I knew none of this at the time, I asked Sambrook what she would do if her writing career didn't work out, first novels always being a gamble. "The approach I'd always had with journalism and as a footballer [I forgot to ask about that] is that if you train well and get into the right position, the ball will come to you and you will be able to do something with it."

An optimistic assumption, I said. Anyway, she'd already told me about working hard for three months for just £400. "But I got the story," she said. "I got the story I thought was worth getting out."

That - in fiction instead of non-fiction - is just what she's done here too. Prompted by a near-accident, written up with determination. And, from what I can see, not a bit of a gamble after all.

Interviewer: David Robinson, The Scotsman