That’s my job title. Mentor. I mentor Malaysian primary school teachers as they struggle to implement a new English curriculum. Until I started this job last year, the word mentor didn’t mean much to me, but now that I’m tuned into the concept, mentors are everywhere. Jack Donaghy mentors Liz Lemon. Clint Eastwood mentors Justin Timberlake. Frank Lampard is the mentor to England’s Next Generation (apparently). And I realise I myself have had several inspiring mentors in the past, although I never called them that. Jen Scallan and Beattie Johnson at Pimlico School. Greg Starr at Kodansha International. And the late literary agent William Miller, who was the first person to tell me I should write a novel. It was about ten years ago; I’d approached him in the hope that he could help me find a publisher for my English translations of some Japanese short stories. He couldn’t, but he liked my writing. He challenged me to write my own short story, giving me strict parameters: two sides of A4, title Cherry Blossom, no cliché. I did, and he liked it (and I liked writing it). He then told me to write a novel. I wrote two chapters; he told me they were rubbish (or words to that effect). We didn’t have any contact for about a year after that, but during that year I rewrote those crappy two chapters and kept going until I had a completed novel. He liked it. He submitted sample chapters to several UK publishers. No one was interested. I wrote a second novel. He liked it. He submitted sample chapters to several UK publishers. We got two or three requests for a full manuscript, but no one took it in the end.
It’s been three years since William died and I miss his guidance and support. As the rejections pile up, it’s hard to know whether you are writing utter garbage or whether you are simply a victim of the massive changes that are taking place in the publishing industry. For now I’m mentoring myself. I’m pretty bad at it: I find it hard to judge the quality of my mentee’s writing, I’m overly critical of her, and I don’t always have faith that she’ll find a publisher. So if you hear of anyone who might be better suited to the job, let me know.