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My Sixteenth Novel

I had hoped that by now, Spring 2017, I would be posting a blog about the launch of my latest novel, ‘Good Girls’.  It has been finished for many months.  Indeed, I am already well into that enjoyable early phase of my next work-in-progress, when everything still feels possible as opposed to flailing out of control and needing pinning down.

The dispiriting truth about ‘Good Girls’ however, is that it has yet to find a publisher.  With fifteen titles under my belt – averaging a novel every two years over a thirty year career – not to mention many hundreds of thousands of sales, this has come as a shock.  ‘Good Girls’ is a fine book.  I chose not to sign a contract to write it because I wanted more time than a contract would have allowed in order to make it as good as it could be.  It is far better, I must reluctantly admit, than several books I have had published in the past.  My agent (Agent of The Year, no less, and widely respected) loves it.  Between us we have been working hard to find a willing home. But so far to no avail.

My agent, digging for consolation, has pointed out that I am fortunate not to have suffered rejection before.  And yes, I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.  Er…of course I HAVE suffered rejection in my life – some of it truly terrible – but never in terms of getting novels published.  Every book I have written has been greeted by an editor with open arms.

So this hurts.  I mean it REALLY hurts.  In fact, it is something of a body-blow to my intrinsically fragile artistic confidence.  On top of which, I feel bad to be letting down all the readers who DO like my stuff – many of whom have written to me in bafflement asking why there is still no new Amanda Brookfield on the shelves four years after the publication of ‘The Love Child’.

Self-publishing of course remains an option.  But after 30 years of mainstream publishing houses – Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Hodder & Stoughton, Penguin – with all the attendant marketing support, branding assistance and publicity strategy that such places provide – I am not yet ready to go down what will be a much narrower, personally highly arduous road in an already extremely overcrowded arena, when all I really want to do is focus my energies on writing my next novel.

Whenever something goes wrong in my life my instinct is always to try to understand why.  Understanding may not provide solutions, but it can offer a certain solace.  So here are my thoughts on why no one has yet stepped forward to publish my sixteenth novel:

1. When reading a work to which they hold no contractual obligation, bombarded editors at publishing houses are predisposed to look for reasons NOT to take a manuscript rather than the other way round.  (This is why a lot of poor books make it onto the shelves).

2. ‘Good Girls’ will not be a Global Bestseller and make them squillions.  (No, it won’t).

3.  Each publisher probably thinks that because ‘Good Girls’ is a strong, well-written story, “somewhere else” is bound to accept it for publication.  (No, by definition, that is not the case)

4. My clutch of extremely – maddeningly – complimentary rejection letters tells me that Literary Houses judge ‘Good Girls’ to be too “commercial”, while Commercial Houses think it too “literary.” i.e. It is a novel that does not fit neatly into an easy marketing ‘box’.

4. The story in ‘Good Girls’ unfurls gradually, taking the reader to some unforseeable, very dark, as well as richly rewarding places.  In other words it is a novel – like all my novels – that requires a certain immersion and commitment for its power to be felt.  But we live in a world that is increasingly about the Quick-Hit: Quick fame, Quick money, Quick thrills, Quick Entertainment.

All of the above notwithstanding, and despite my battered confidence, I remain certain that the many thousands of readers who have enjoyed my previous 15 books will like ‘Good Girls’.  Some may even love it.  But because I am not (yet) a global bestseller they remain a minority; and the harsh truth is that as our world sweeps on in its noisy, mighty, unstoppable way, it is always the minorities – the smaller quieter voices – who are the first to be drowned out.

There.  I have fixed my glare upon my problem and I am comforted.

 

Getting A Dog

Once upon a time, a million years ago, in answer to the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’, I would always reply – without hesitation, and certainly no trace of irony – “a kennel maid”.  As a child I could conjure no better employment prospect than working with animals as wonderful as my grandparents’ lab, Kim.  Not even getting bitten on the nose by Kim put me off.  The poor dog had his mouth in his dinner bowl at the time and I had decided it would be fun to pretend to eat his food with him – on hands and knees, growling, as one does, aged 8. Kim snapped and drew blood.  I cried but got little sympathy.  Dinner time was the highlight of Kim’s day, explained the adults dabbing at my nose, all 10 seconds of it, and Kim should allowed to relish those seconds in peace. It all made perfect sense to me.

By my teenage years my career ambitions had broadened somewhat (not much!), while my passion for dogs found partial satisfaction thanks to my parents at last getting a family hound: Moojik, a dear and un-trainable Tibetan terrier who ruled the roost and stole all our hearts until his dying day thirteen years later.

I think it was having children that finally saw off the last of the kennel-maid urges.  The Commitment.  The Responsibility.  The Hard Work.  Not Just For Christmas etc.  And that was just the kids.  They begged for a puppy, as children do, but I held firm and got two cats instead, one for each son.  Both animals lived to a ripe age and could not have been more loved or loving.  Job done.

Then I found myself divorced and my youngest re-started his Get A Dog campaign.  One day I found this propped on my desk:   

AGAINST: Time, Flexibility probs, Long term, Need to reinforce garden

FOR: Happy for 12 years, Healthy (prolong life), May make dog friends, New idea for book/blogs, Puppy tweets, Facebook pictures, May eat Tiger Lily (problem rescue-cat, now a sweetheart), Companion in empty house, Incentive for people to visit, You may actually love it, New Chapter in life, If not now it won’t be before you are 60 – poor dog!                                                                                           

I quote the list to show a. What a battle that child fought  and b. What a clever, prescient chap he was/is!

But still I resisted, because, while the arguments were powerful – and TRUE – I did not yet feel ready in my own heart to take the leap.  I wanted to get a dog when………..I really WANTED TO GET A DOG.  The point being that, as with having children, the only way of enjoying the commitment is to decide to buy into it 100%.  No resentment.  No regret.  Nothing but throwing oneself at the duties and the pleasures that go hand-in-hand.

And so here we are.  Five years on and I have, for 3 weeks now, been the proud owner of Mabel, a golden retriever poodle cross.  She is very fluffy.  Indeed, the dog-keen son worries that she is 99% poodle and 1% retriever.  Time will tell.  But she has gangly legs, and a bit of a John Wayne swagger when she walks, and big floppy apricot ears, so I think lots of the golden retriever will push through.  Not that I give a damn.  I have fallen, you see, the proverbial hook, line and sinker, exactly as I hoped I would.  She is Mabel.  She needs attention, and clearing up after, and taking out in the mud and the rain, and playing with, and feeding, and training, and health check-ups, and watching like a hawk because her preferred choice of snack is pebbles and/or dead slugs/snails who may/may not have met their maker thanks to lethal slug pellets.

Looking at that ‘Against’ points now, I would move ‘long term’ to the other side.  I want Mabel to be long term, you see, as long term as possible.  What’s more, the garden has indeed been ‘reinforced’ which means Mabel can not only call it a play-pen but the zillions of foxes fouling it for the last ten years have disappeared.  That leaves the ‘time’ and ‘flexibility’ drawbacks, but set against the benefits of sheer joy, and entertainment, and health (mental as well as physical), they pale into insignificance.

And so far Tiger Lily remains uneaten.

Human Endeavour

So.  We are in the thick of the Olympics, and no, I didn’t think I would get sucked in, because how could I ever care as much as I did four years ago, and besides, I am having a busy summer – places to go, people to see, stuff to write……….

But somehow the sucking in has happened anyway.  Reader, I have been glued to:

The riders with the double-barreled names who were too slow or knocked down too many fences.

Those women rowers who weren’t supposed to get anywhere because one of them had come out of retirement aged 40 (!!!)

That skinny lad who got bronze flipping into impossible positions in the gymnastics

Those divers, not just Tom Daley, but that pair who got gold who share a house together in Harrogate…or somewhere…..one of whom was in a coma four years ago, not expected to walk again let alone dive.

Not to mention the cyclists, Frome worn to a skeleton, and those three young lads (I never understand the cycling races) who beat the New Zealanders to gold by a slither of a second………

And on it goes.  And the reason I mention it is because every time – EVERY.TIME – I watch this striving I find myself getting choked up.  I cry.  I cry if they lose and I cry if they win.  And though some might say that is because I am turning into a sentimental old bat, I would refute that accusation and say instead that the older I get the more I am awestruck by the sheer ENDEAVOUR of which humans are capable.  To TRY that hard at something over years and years, with all the manifold possibilities of failure staring you in the face – either through bad luck, or error, or simply not being good enough! – this to me is the essence of everyday heroism and it moves me deeply.

 

Ernest Hemingway: Genius has its drawbacks

What does it take to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for heaven’s sake. I mean, to WIN THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE!!!!!! It makes the Man Booker, or the Orange, or the Costa Award – or indeed anything else – look like…peanuts.

To be honest, and with some shame, I must admit that, while being aware that Ernest Hemingway knew a thing or two about the craft of writing and had churned out some cracking novels (several of which I had read), I had actually FORGOTTEN (if I ever knew) that he actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It was in 1954, since you ask.  And the only reason I was ‘reminded’ of it was because the other day I plucked one of the hundreds of original penguin paperbacks from the packed book shelves lining my late mother’s home and found myself staring at this fact, emblazoned in glorious old-fashioned font, on the jacket of his novel ‘To Have and Have Not’.

As it turns out, the award was not for any particular book, but, as the President of the Swedish Nobel Academy put it:

For his mastery of the art of modern narration.  Hemingway is one of the great authors of our time, one of those who honestly and undauntedly, reproduces the genuine features of the hard countenance of the age.

So far so good. What a great reason to win the Nobel Prize. Yay!

But Hemingway was also a depressive drunk who just seven years later, at the age of 62, put a bullet through his own brain.

And that got me thinking.  Geniuses often suffer, it is true.  But Hemingway had such heightened powers of wisdom and self -awareness that it seems all the more shocking that he should simply give up on the business of being alive.  To win the greatest prize for literature in the world should have been the pinnacle of his career, shouldn’t it?  Something to rejoice, in.  Something to cherish….

At which point it occurred to me (the audacity of implied self-comparison with  a literary giant notwithstanding) that NOTHING would be more potentially damaging to my own, notoriously fragile creative muse than waking up to the fact, every day, of having won the bloomin Nobel Prize for Literature! Where can one possibly go from such an achievement, other than down?  How could one ever write another word that felt good enough? Just the sound of the critics sharpening their knives, ready to lay into whatever was produced next, would  be sufficient to send me scurrying into a dark cave, or reaching for the bottle.  Typically, Hemingway knew this.  Already an alcoholic, and suffering from additional poor health, he famously did not attend the award ceremony, declaring:

Writing at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

Oh my word, the sadness.  The prescience.  The genius.

I can thoroughly recommend ‘To Have and Have Not’.  It offers all that you would hope to find in a Hemingway novel.  It also contains a harrowing paragraph praising the handiness of guns for the purposes of self-annihilation:

Those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up.

That was written 24 years before he shot himself.  His fourth wife had the pleasure of doing the cleaning up.

I think I’m saying I’m glad I’m not a genius.  I think I’m saying I’m glad I’m never going to win a Nobel Prize.

The New Year

“Time” is a man-made construct.  As far back as the Neolithic period apparently, our ancestors were looking at the moon and devising ‘calendars’ to mark the phases of the periods they were living through.  Sometimes I like to imagine what it would be like if they (and later, the Gregorians) hadn’t bothered: No seconds or minutes or hours or days or weeks or months or years.   No regular markers for our physical passage through life. Christmas, Valentines, Easter, Summer, Halloween, Birthdays… there would be nothing but the constant passing of time.  It would be like floating in space – chaotically unstructured, discombobulating.  Every life would be in a permanent state of existential crisis.  Why bother with anything, when there is nothing to aim for, no hills to climb or corners to turn.

A ‘New’ Year is crucial to this construct. (I know, I know, many of us spend the first day of it nursing hangovers and staring gloomily at the mounting pile of pine needles under the Christmas tree without being able to summon the wherewithal to put the kettle on, let alone anticipate the mountain of months ahead of us). But AFTER that – when January is in mid-flow – a wonderful feeling can kick in…that uplifting sense of being presented with A(nother) Clean Sheet.  The year stretches ahead, as inviting as a fall of fresh snow.  Life, more than at any other time, feels full of possibilities.  The scent of change is in the air.  The resolutions haven’t (yet) been broken.  Plans are (yet) to be made.  Hope springs eternally. As it did the year before, and the one before that.

Which is why, though we live in a digital age and I do lots of digital things…er….digitally, I still have a diary.  Two, in fact.  One on my desk and one by my mainline phone downstairs.  They are the old-fashioned kind of diaries, big, with ribbons to mark the day and two pages for each week.  The diaries reinforce for me all the things I love about this time of year.  The thickness of their pages, the whiteness of the paper…just like that fresh fall of snow.  Finger-scrolling across a screen does not begin to offer the same pleasure, the same sense of hope.  And writing new engagements and commitments onto those pristine pages still feels special too; the effort to be neat is still in place – the pencil is sharp, the words level and evenly spaced.

It all goes to pot of course.  The plans, the neat writing, the hopes.  Like life, it will all get jumbled and mangled; crossed out and re-written.  Tea-spills and muddy cat-paws.  The pages will take their usual bashing, as do we all.

But not yet.  Not while the year is still new.

Why I Write

As many people know by now, I have finished my novel.  My 16th.  It is called ‘The Distance Between Us’ and has taken THREE YEARS to write, FOUR if you count the year before that when I was ‘charging my batteries’, or ‘filling the well’, or whatever euphemism you want for the business of living life for a bit instead of trying to write about it.  The length of time has many possible reasons: I have been getting divorced; my mother suddenly died.  Then a year ago I suffered a shoulder injury (it is impossible to write – with a pen or a keyboard – when you have a shoulder injury), which has still not fully healed.  But those excuses aside (they are good ones, you have to admit!), the plain fact is that writing novels is HARD and the more I write the HARDER THEY GET.

All of which has caused me to stop and consider why on earth I do it.  This is how the cycle goes, beginning with where I am now:

1. Finish novel.  Punch the air, but feel a touch desolate (you get attached to your novel).  Main emotion however is: I AM NEVER PUTTING MYSELF THROUGH THAT AGAIN. (Think Steve Redgrave, standing up in his boat after his 4th gold medal, not that I am comparing myself to the mighty SR, but you get the gist).  Set about telling friends and family that, though happy, you are NEVER PUTTING YOURSELF THROUGH THAT AGAIN.

2. Tinker with ms of completed novel in run-up to publication.  This can be quite fun.  The horrible bit is done.  The tinkering is fine-tuning.  The novel starts to feel  more separate – a completed object that happened to emerge from you rather than being painstakingly agonised over and crafted.  It starts, dare I say, to feel…………inevitable.  Like it pre-existed and all you had to do was jot it down!  This is a dangerous and INCORRECT feeling.  You try to fight it, but you can’t.

3.  Your life has entered a new phase.  You feel great!  Your bank account goes down more rapidly (because you have time to shop) but you are sleeping well a)Because you don’t feel guilty that you are sleeping instead of writing b) Unworkable solutions for plot-glitches don’t keeping pinging into your subconscious in the small hours.

4.  Then, one terrible day, you have an IDEA.  This may be triggered by reading……er………Dostoevsky…but it is more likely to happen while browsing through ‘Hello’ or staring into space at a bus stop.

5.  You try to ignore the idea because it is so small and pointless and obvious – eg one sister nicks another sister’s boyfriend.  But it niggles.

6.  Then the idea starts to grow tentacles.  One sister could be ugly, the other beautiful.  The boyfriend could be an old flame, getting in touch after years and years.  The sisters could have had a difficult childhood….

7.  You reach for your notebook, just to jot down the idea – get the tentacles out of your system.  But they start to get worse, more prolific, more complicated.

8.  Meanwhile, your last novel gets packaged and launched.  It looks nice!  You feel pleased and proud!  Fatally, you think, ‘Well, that wasn’t so hard, was it?’  Next time your agent calls you let slip that you are working on a new book.

And so it begins…   A bit like childbirth (bear with me) in that the actual sensation of PAIN is fogged over by the passage of time (not to mention the joys of parenthood) reducing it to something remembered rather than actually FELT. This is why women have second babies.

But I am in the Steve Redgrave phase!  If you see me so much as open my notebooks again, please feel free to shoot me!  In the meanwhile I shall be sleeping, eating, seeing friends, shopping, reading, travelling…LIVING.

Milestones Matter

My son is leaving home.  Cue a chorus of jeers and “about-time-toos”.  Forgive me if I don’t join in.

They take their time to go, this lot, not like us oldsters, who packed our bags for a first job or uni and never looked back, apart from intermittent phone calls and the occasional festive visit.  No, this generation, for a variety of socio-economic reasons that I don’t propose to go into here, have taken more time to flee the nest; and even when they do ‘flee’ they come back for prolonged spells, keeping in touch in between with emails and texts and instagrams and other more general demands upon one’s time.  There are aspects of this that are not ideal.  But there are other, far more numerous aspects that are wonderful.  Like children and parents getting to know one another as adults, like getting extra help about the place, like having many many laughs that one wouldn’t otherwise have had.  But then there comes a time when they really really leave, when, for all the conversations and connections ahead, an era has well and truly passed.

It is my youngest son who is going, so I have some ‘previous’ in the process, a fact that seems only to be adding to the intensity of the experience.  And when I say ‘intensity’ I do not mean that I am weeping and wailing and feeling abandoned (which I sort of am, but only in private – some things are not for subjection to anyone).  No, it is the vast milestone of what is taking place that strikes me hardest.  At whatever age it occurs, this is the equivalent of the bird toppling off the edge of the nest, to fall or fly depending on its own abilities.  The parent can shout /tweet (???) advice but the wee birdie must flap its own wings and if parents do too much interfering with this stage then nothing good transpires.

If I sound sad, it is because I am, a bit; but I am also excited for the son and rather proud.  I-would-say-this-wouldn’t-I, but he is a fine young man.  Lots of important elements are in place.  He has a warm personality, a tremendous brain and a glorious sense of humour.  Best of all, he likes and reads other people with compassion and intelligence.  With luck – you always need luck – he will do well in life, and by that I refer not to money-making (which I think he will manage acceptably enough) but to the far more important and harder challenge of finding a path to happiness.  All I can do now is wait and watch and help if called upon to do so.

So.  A milestone indeed.  Just as much as turning twenty-one is a milestone, or getting married, or producing a child.  I wanted to tell the youngest all of this, especially the proud-parent-sentiments (he knows them, but it is still important sometimes to hear what you know), but not to overburden our farewell with the tears and general ‘heaviness’ that expressing such thoughts would inevitably generate.

So I have written him a letter.  A REAL letter.  On paper with ink, from a real fountain pen.  In it I have said everything I want to say.  He can read it in his own good time, without the burden of managing my response.  A letter has a weight to it, literally, more than any text or murmured words, half forgotten in weeks to come.  A letter goes into a drawer and continues to exist.  From time to time it gets found, dusted off, read again, re-treasured.

Yes, for some matters, still, only a letter will do.