Crafting a Rich, Creative (Debt-Free) Life: An Interview with Novelist P.C. Dettman


Last week we discussed how to pursue creative passions while paying the bills. The best way to truly tackle this topic, though, is to hear from someone who is actively doing it. Enter today's interview!P.C. Dettman is a thirtysomething UK-based fiction writer, software consultant and trainer, blogger, and owner of a business that invests in and advises entertainment industry experts. Not to mention a family man.

In other words, P.C. knows a thing or two about putting food on the table while staying in touch with the creative writing that "found him" when he was 9.

What were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome in your 20s? 

My 20s were a total nightmare, even though I had a good job [as a software consultant based in London] and all that sort of stuff ironed out early.

The nightmare came within a year of starting work, and it was simple really: I didn't want any of this stuff. I mean that I wanted nothing of what had been planned out for me, and it hit me so suddenly, like within 6 months or so, that the whole consultancy model was basically evil, it was flawed, and it wasn't right for me.

But the thing was, and the reason this was a total nightmare, is that I had already decided I was never going to do a standard office job. I worked my summers, and I seriously could only do 12 weeks of that before I was bored and demotivated and almost ill actually. It made me really quite low to think of doing 40 years of that.

So I hit the consultancy thing straight out of college, I have all the grades and friends and money and I'm in London and flying around the world every week and getting paid to do that, and I physically hated it. I really did. My body rejected the hours and the exhaustion, and my mind rejected the whole thing. And I had no idea how I could live another year, by which I mean I had no idea how to earn my living if not like that. I just felt there was nothing available to me that would pay the kind of salary that would impress my friends and family. Crazy!

So how are you paying the bills these days?

I've realised that there is no money in writing novels.

Even people I know who have 'real' book deals with 'proper' publishers can't earn enough to do that full time. Realising this would be a hobby and not a job has taken lots of years. That industry is just so hard to get into, even if you put in the legwork and build up some contacts, that a rational person would not become a full-time author.

Right now, I am trying out a few different things to see what works. The good news is that I have a bit of money put aside if times get really tough. Everything I read about saving money I agree with and happily pass on. You can never save enough money. However much money sounds like a lot to you, it isn't. This is the biggest secret in life: there are no rich people. What do I mean by that? I mean however much you have, you can always spend more, and the more you have, the more you run up outgoings like fancy cars and boats and palaces and that stuff - the more you make, the more you need. So nobody is actually rich. I believe this.

I'm dabbling in some theatre investments in the West End (that's our Broadway) and doing some freelance writing, but that doesn't pay too well either.

My main income in future is likely to be from consulting and training people in the various software tools I've become expert at. For me, training is specifically the thing that manages to combine my writing and talking with computers, and at the same time makes some good money. That gives me time and space to pursue the kind of fun things like novels too.

It is a constant juggling act, I never feel that I totally have it down, and I think that's also good. Challenge and uncertainty keep you fresh, as does adversity. You need to face adversity and come through it, and you will no longer be afraid.

Can you tell us more about how you balance creative writing with making money?

In the early part of my career I totally went towards making money at the expense of my creative work. I saw doing a job as the easy option, the easy short-term money option, and it was, and is. The hard part is stepping back, realising it's not working for you, and then figuring out what to do instead. All of that took around 15 years, believe it or not.

Sometimes having kids is when people realise it's time to get a steady job and settle down, but I did it the other way around. I settled down at 18 to do the safe thing and now I feel it's time to do the right thing, the creative thing, and properly give that a try. I want my daughter to know who I am, and know that it's okay not to do the safe thing.

I'm reading Morrissey's book right now. He says something like a safe life is not living. I agree.

What's your advice for 20-somethings as they pursue meaningful, self-driven work?

Whenever you read advice like this, and it's from someone older than 35, I think you get one of two answers. It's sort of along the lines of well, I did the right things and you should follow me and do your time and get promoted and work in an office and have a pension and paid holidays and you'll be comfortable and happy. That's one type of answer, but it's not mine.

My advice is that people need the courage, and it really is courage, to follow their dreams. If you don't do that, you may get through the next five or ten years and have a nice life with a big house and that stuff, but you won't ever be happy. You'll be comfortable, you won't starve or lose your house, but you won't be alive. Your family and friends will think you're awesome and you'll all feel awesome together, but it's a giant lie.

You need even more courage for this if you had an expensive education and you have a professional family, because the unspoken pressure to conform will be gigantic. The second you take a step off the expected path, you'll face criticism either spoken or not, and the further you stray, the greater the pressure from friends and family. Especially if those people are all doing dull office work! Boy, you're going to need nerves of steel but that's what it takes.

Worst case scenario, you end up following the herd, but you won't starve. Best case scenario is that you'll be happier than your old friends from the days when you just did what other people wanted. To me, that's worth taking a chance.

Any closing thoughts?

If I die knowing that I always held myself to certain standards, no matter what else happened, I will have done the right thing, and I'll hopefully be happier that way. You have to be able to look yourself in the eye, when you look in a mirror. I'm my harshest critic, and you need that skill, but you shouldn't dwell on mistakes. Just roll with them and you'll be fine.

As a writer, people always say everything bad or good is just material, and there is truth in that. Your 20s are about finding out who you are, so that you can become a great person, whether that be a parent or a great leader of business or some political thing.

Whatever it is you're aiming for, you need to know yourself before you can do any of it.

Have a question for P.C.? Pop it in the comments below!