For me there are very distinct cycles in the production of a novel: the thinking bit, the scribbling a few notes bit, the grab-it-by-the-throat-and-start bit, the press-on-even-though-it-feels-impossible bit, then the final strait, when you know the end is in sight but try not to look at it too hard for fear of rushing, or losing your nerve or indeed doing anything to undermine all the hard graft that has got you thus far. I am in that final strait now. I am working so many hours at my desk that my sons are starting to give me funny looks. They have also, unbidden, begun to do uncharacteristically useful things like clear up after themselves and empty the dishwasher. Yesterday my eldest told me that he had cleaned the mirror in the upstairs bathroom. I hugged him hard, even though there are about a thousand things I would have chosen ahead of such a domestic detail. Like buying food, or cleaning the loo, or taking the boxes of stuff for recycling. I am not on top of things, you see, and it’s starting to show.
It is when I get to this stage of the proceedings that I realise I am an obsessive. For the truth is in my current frame of mind I do not want to do ANYTHING but write. Until my book is as good as it can be. That is ALL I want to do. Everything else – social discourse, shopping, cooking, conversation, sleep – feelings like an irksome interruption to the fulfilment of that goal; even going to Northern Spain for a week at the end of August, a trip organised by my husband, felt like a wrench. ‘Go on your own,’ I wanted to say. ‘Leave me alone. I need to finish this thing so that I can stop thinking about it.’ The holiday was good, but I could barely conceal my relief to get home. I am now back into seven hour stints at my desk. Friends and near-strangers alike, daring to ask how I am, are likely to be subjected to a detailed outpouring about that day’s travails with my work, instead of receiving the brief response of ‘fine’ that they had expected. I am not proud of this. It is embarrassing. And dull. And soon I shall have no friends left, let alone family. Next weekend we have a big milestone birthday party to attend in a far-flung place that will involve being away overnight. It is a fancy dress party and I have elected to go as Miss Scarlet. I need to go hunting for a blonde wig and a red dress, which I don’t want to do. Red shoes and a red handbag would be good too, but I don’t want to look for those either. I don’t want to go to the party. I want to be left alone. I want to close my study door and work.
A very bright light in this self-obsessive tunnel has been the new Alan Hollinghurst novel, ‘The Stranger’s Child’. I cannot believe he has not made it onto the Booker shortlist. Except yes, I can, because the craft and drift of the book is so beautifully subtle I expect the judges got scared that it would not appeal to a mass audience. It should appeal to a mass audience. It is a stunning achievement, each sentence breathtakingly honed and perfectly poised. I loved every moment. Embroiled in my own, much more mediocre labours, I do my best to it from my mind…labours, to which of course I must now return.