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  • (c) Paula Tranströmer, shot on the island of Runmarö in the Baltic Sea last spring.

    With the spring deadline for applications to the Authors' Foundation almost upon us, Karin Altenberg reflects on how the grant she received bought her time to write.

    For so many of us, these days, it seems almost impossible to live by the pen. Teaching creative writing, freelancing in journalism or taking any other part- or full-time job is often necessary to finance the writing of books.

    For the last few years I have been commuting between a civil-service job in Stockholm and my 'life' and home in London, writing during holidays and early mornings, whenever I have been able to find enough solitude.

    There have been times when I have been trying to forget about writing, to give myself a break, but mostly I cannot help obsessing about the days I waste away from the book I’m trying to write. I’m afraid that the long gaps will mean that I will never be able to write again.

    For this reason I cannot imagine a gift more precious to me than the award I received from the Authors’ Foundation just before Christmas last year. It allowed me to take time off work to write but, perhaps even more importantly, it gave me some confidence, because this is an award endowed by authors; the thought of their commitment, and the good faith of the award assessors offered me moral support at a time when I was overcome by doubt.

    The Authors’ Foundation was set up thirty years ago by writers who came together in a great act of altruism in support of their colleagues. The original trustees, Sir Michael Holroyd and Lady Antonia Fraser, worked tirelessly to raise money from the 'literary lions' of the day.

    In 1984 they sent about fifty letters to successful authors asking for original donations to the fund – and forty agreed to contribute. Soon, other writers, often less wealthy, sent in cheques and donations, gifts of as little as a few pounds to promises of large legacies. The first awards were presented in the autumn of 1985 and, since then, hundreds of authors have benefitted from the extraordinary generosity of their colleagues.

    For over a year I have been researching my third novel, circling around it like a cat around a plate of hot milk. Every time when I thought I would start writing I would suddenly remember some other source, some other letter or diary that I must read before putting pen to paper. But with my Authors’ Foundation time I finally began writing the book – and, rather surprisingly to me, I started writing in the first person, in the voice of a young black man in the early 19th century on the banks of the Missouri River. Very far from home.

    Last month the poet Tomas Tranströmer died in Stockholm. When people ask me about why I became a writer I usually fail to offer an eloquent response. But somewhere in that mangled answer Tomas will appear along with his poems, which I read as a teenager and where I recognised a world that was familiar to me.

    Later, in my twenties, I wrote Tomas a letter and he and his wife Monica replied and invited me around for a coffee. This was the beginning of a friendship that has been immensely important to me. With Tomas, Monica and their family, I found support and warmth, and on their Baltic island of Runmarö I rediscovered that world which I had recognised in his poetry as a teenager. Tomas, too, worked as a civil servant (although not always full-time), and he helped me to believe in myself as a writer.

    As I write this, my creative sabbatical is about to come to an end. The grant money has run out and I have to emerge from the solitude and return to the office. This fills me with a vague sense of panic, or guilt perhaps, as I know I will not be able to give my manuscript the attention it deserves. It will be pushed aside and only tinkered with between five and seven in the morning before I go into the office. But there would not have been a manuscript at all, I think, had it not been for the Authors’ Foundation.

    Somebody from the office emailed recently to welcome me 'back to reality'. This was meant as a kindness, I’m sure, but I was appalled; writing, for me, is a way into reality – this is where I can explore and make sense of the complexity of the world.

    This is why I wanted to express my gratitude to those writers who had the grace, energy and generosity to set up the Authors’ Foundation thirty years ago, and to the assessors who showed faith in me.

    About Karin

    Karin Altenberg was born in Sweden and moved to Britain to study in 1996. She holds a PhD in Archaeology. Her bestselling first novel Island of Wings, was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award and the Scottish Book of the Year Award and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her most recent book, Breaking Light, was published by Quercus in 2014. Find out more >>

    Read an interview with Karin about Breaking Light >>

    Read an article by Karin about landscape and writing >> 

    Buy Breaking Light >>

    About the Authors' Foundation

    Grants to assist writers with research costs or to 'buy time' are awarded twice a year through the Authors' Foundation and the K Blundell Trust. The spring deadline for applications is 30 April 2015. 

    Download the application guidelines >>

    Find out more >>

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