Three things. I've started working for UNHCR, I've been to Sarajevo and I've read a lot of Nick Hornby. He is the man right now. I've been frazzled starting work. Two days a week turned into 3+ days a week, I've not finished my book or found an agent and I have a 2 year old not in childcare. I shouldn't complain because this job flew my way and I have my Ma and Kris taking Caz a day each but the opening run was hard. Then Kris had to give a day's conference in Sarajevo, making him busier than usual, and when he's stressed he focuses on the single thing that's stressing him and when I'm stressed I focus on everything all at once. This is not a fruity union but damned if I was going to miss seeing Sarajevo.
So I packed Caz and Nick Hornby and the hundred things I hadn't time to think about and we took 2 planes. There's no direct flight from London but as soon as there is, that city is going to get flocked. Beautiful cobbled streets and coffee shops spilling onto them, mosques and cathedrals and mountains and people who tell you if there's dirt on your dress. I loved it. Caz went crazy for the street musicians and not so crazy for the gunshot playground and we didn't get very far very fast but it felt a special place that had rebuilt a great deal. I've started reading my grandparents' letters from World War II and that seemed to bring it closer - what war does to people and how long it takes to recover... Now I've been in Geneva, learning about refugees and what makes UNHCR stand out, and I feel a little useless. I don't have many powers and the world is so vast and flawed.
But the point is - Nick Hornby's '31 Songs'. There I was, anxious because there's never enough time and because toddlers are exhausting, and there he was being so light and breezy and funny about stuff that could just as readily be heavy and hard (eg. having a severely autistic son) and he really turned me around. He makes it seem very easy to talk straight about what matters, no matter who you are and what you've lived through, and in the space of one Caz-nap he helped me get hold of what I want my next book to be about. That's a very exciting thing to have happened. I'd like to buy it some time as a present (or perhaps buy Nick Hornby a present, such as the small digger I bought Caz in Sarajevo that fed him happiness for hours). But for a while it will have to go hungry and unspoiled unless I stop this now and give it 10 late-night minutes from the window of an out-of-season jazz hotel in Montreux, at the end of a very grey and foggy day.
I changed one fact, just one small thing in the plot and the whole story is falling apart at the seams. The mother has a different reason for taking a cargo ship to England and instead of altering the one chapter in which this information is revealed I have about twenty chapters to re-write. It changes the reason the captain disintegrates, it changes the mother's relationship with her sister, it changes the breaking point with her daughter and it's all a shagging mess and I hate writing.
I also changed one word, just one word in the opening chapter. I changed 'all' to 'what' and it was brilliant. 'This is is all I have' sounds clingy and needy and sobbing. 'This is what I have' sounds strong and certain and aware. One tiny word and the tone is transformed and I love writing again.
I'm disheartened. Last time I looked for an agent I did well. I short-listed 7, sent my opening chapters and synopsis, 2 of them requested the full manuscript and one of them took me on. Statistically, this rocks. A medium-sized agency receives around 5,000 submissions a year, from which they take on 1-2 new authors. It's extremely rare even for anyone to want to read the whole manuscript. I did good.
This time around I've contacted 18, had my full manuscript requested by 2, and been rejected by 8 (so far). Still good but I no longer feel sure the remaining 8 are going to want this book. It's a better book than the last one. It's stronger and bolder and more tightly plotted. It was a terrible book when I first sent it to the agent who took on my first and I blew that badly, but now I know it's better. I really know it's better but the thing that seems to be throwing it is my main character is a bony little tart and nobody loves her. I love her and a handful of people who've read it love her but out there where it gets professional she's not warming anyone. I respect feedback. I can take feedback and I've been re-writing and adding layers to her but I do not want to compromise who she is. Maybe no one will want to publish her. Maybe it's not a good enough book, regardless of her. Or maybe the publishing industry is sinking into a big doughy pile of feel-good books like 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peeling Society', in which case I'd be better off publishing the thing myself. I don't want to do that because I want someone out there in the profession to tell me my book is worth something. I respect agenting and publishing, but in a few years writers will probably go the way of musicians and self-publish for the sake of 70% of the profits instead of the 6% they get going the traditional route. But it's not there yet and while the traditional routes exist I think it should be taking more risks, shaking things up and taking on writers who have more bite. This book isn't even that much of a risk. She's not that hard. She's not the mother in 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', she's not John Self in 'Money', Patrick Bateman or Hannibal Flipping Lecter. Maybe she needs to be. Extremes are good. But I think there's room for a story about someone less extremely damaged, someone hard-edged but still looking. I'm bored of books about endearing people overcoming evil odds. I want to read about people we think are too shallow or unfulfilled to be worth spending time with, and be surprised to discover they've seen things too.
The character House is the best I've ever seen on TV. He's compelling because he's funny and tragic and observant, and he treads agonisingly close to unforgivable but just manages to hold you on side. This evening I watched Caz playing with my belt on the floor of our local restaurant - twisting it and investigating it and chuckling to himself - and I thought he was the most incredible and curious human being I've ever seen. I can't wait to keep on knowing him.
It's made me think about the point of fiction, which I think about a lot anyway, but in particular why I bother when reality can be equally stimulating. It's nothing to do with escaping, it's to do with seeing and putting what you see somewhere where it matters. I was very quiet at school, bordering on painfully shy but generally pleasant enough to go unnoticed. And if anything dramatic happened I'd either be reading a book or writing it down and people tended to think I didn't react. I didn't mind. I liked being in the box in my head. But writing about your own stuff - unless it's a lot wilder than mine - is a sure way of cleaning yourself till there's nothing left but the taste of baby wipes.
It's writing fiction that has toughened me up. Partly because of feedback - you can't be told the words you've written don't work without either shriveling and giving up or toughening up and learning to re-write. But also because the tougher stuff has nowhere else to go. I'm no longer nearly as shy but I'm still nice and I function in most social environments as long as I'm not expected to join in any forced fun. I house the hard and critical stuff. House puts out the hard and critical stuff and reveals the soft stuff sparingly. So maybe I redress the balance the other way around. But I don't really spend my time comparing my son's love/need for me to that of a dog, though the point remains partly true. I've had a difficult few weeks with bugs and teething, and the relentlessness of looking after a small child full-time for over a year has assassinated some of my favourite brain cells (though it has ignited others, love is all around - and so is tension, extreme tension and anxiety that if you aren't watching because you're bored of watching, they'll climb onto the windowsill and escape this world by means of a skull-smashing death).
So I write fiction because it fires my brain in ways nothing else ever has, but most of all I write it because I feel overlooked and I think that makes me pay attention to things that are overlooked. I want to show someone - anyone, everyone - what there is to look at, because looking at things makes life bigger and when life is bigger, it's easier to tackle whatever it throws at you. I heard an interviewer ask Doris Lessing what made her see black people in Rhodesia differently to how society conditioned her to see them, and she said - "Because I read books. I read a lot of books."
I think the automatic title is about right for this one. I'm done with words. I finished In Her Wake a couple of weeks ago and sent the opening to a handful of agents. 1 rejection and 2 requests for the full manuscript and I'm sitting here waiting for more news. Caz still sleeps a couple of hours a day and I'm trying to push on with the next book but the idea I have is daunting in its infancy. The hardest part is the number of decisions I have to make. I thought that was tough three years into a book, but a couple of weeks into this one and I could take it ANYWHERE. The options are endless. I haven't yet found the guts of the thing I want to commit to for the next 3-4 years. It has to be a bit like falling in love. I've never been very good at that and tended to dump someone if he wears a bad shirt one day, and beg for him back if he's well-dressed the next. It takes a while to reach the point where I can buy the clothes for him and trust he'll stick around. I'm not good at making decisions - except when it comes to clothes. I bought a new pair of boots last week to fill the large empty hole where my novel used to sit. They are very fine boots but a touch over what anyone decently unemployed should have spent. Now I need to justify their existence and go for long walks through the streets of London and see what catches my attention. I went into town on my own on Saturday and savoured every buggy-free step, the freedom to look at people I wasn't responsible for and read a whole chapter of a book on the train. I met friends for brunch off Carnaby Street and walked around Liberty's and saw things that made me feel I could be someone else. Material things. It's curious how even at a very small age we get attached to them. I don't think other animals do. I don't think liking clothes is shallow though, I think it's expression - more indulgent than words (which come free) but not much more than oil paint.
I'd like to do something new but every time I list the things I'm interested in, I run out after five minutes and start thinking about books. I want writing to be my job. I want to get the next book running because it makes the world bigger again. I get to carry the characters around and notice things I need to notice for them. The world has shrunk a little lately. I spend my days pressing the buttons on the washing machine, letting Caz empty my purse, the bookshelves, the vase of pebbles, the mug cupboard - and tidying up the mess. The mess drives me crazy. Feeding him drives me crazy. Having him cling to me drives me crazy. There are dog people and cat people and I'm a cat person. A dog's love always seems to be unconditional and independent of mood. Caz needs me that way and I know it will progress into something more meaningful (and no doubt more hurtful) but right now he loves me without any idea of who I am or what matters to me apart from him. Happy Valentines. Of course I love him and I love watching him, but in contemplating having another baby and starting another novel, I'm left with a mild feeling of terror in both directions: This time I know what I'm in for.
Bring it on.
This is how the day goes. I wake up to find Caz excited that it's Thursday and while he has milk, Kris boils water in the saucepan to make tea because yesterday a small, British tragedy occurred and the kettle broke. Breakfast, nap, shower and somehow the timing gets off whack and we're running late for swimming again so I put Caz in the wetsuit at home, thinking it will make changing faster at the pool, but his nappy fails to work and the wetsuit is soaked so I debate whether to change him back into his clothes or get out the hairdryer. I opt for the hairdryer, causing a whole new sensation that no one is entirely sure about. On the bus he's hungry so I get him out of the buggy but he won't eat with all these people to look at so I let him stare at the people and the people stare back because he looks silly in a wetsuit under a snowsuit and every time he cries we have to shift position to give him a new view and by the time we get off the bus he's starving so I pitch up on a bench on Holland Park to feed him and now we're really late for swimming and just before we get there he falls into a deep sleep, the kind that nobody is happy to be woken from and yet I must wake him. We last five minutes in the pool and that's £10 down the tube so I make sure I rescue the pound from the locker, which goes 80% of the way towards making up for the wasted bus ticket as I get on the 94 and have to get off again because there's only space for 2 buggies and mine is No.3.
At last we make it back to Chiswick and he's sleeping. All week (or is it month?) I've been trying to finish a short story and if he'll just stay asleep for another hour... I get into a cafe and order a coffee and sit with the half-finished pages and amazingly fifteen minutes turns into half an hour, turns into an hour and another fifteen minutes and it's a small miracle because the story is going somewhere and I can see the finish line and it feels good. I read through it again and it's a scrawling mess but it's made it. I'm buzzing and it's time to buy a kettle. Achievement. The sun is shining, I have a new story and I am high. Caz wakes and we go into Starbucks to celebrate with another round of milk and yoghurt and he goes at me like a maniac while I sit with my hair falling over my face and my head at a contorted angle because his latest eating habit is to claw at my mouth with his free hand as if auditioning for the part of surviving limb in a horror film. Whatever gets him through. He fills the nappy again and we stare out at the sun on the green. I can't face another fusty, disabled toilet so I wheel him out onto the grass and after changing him we stay there wincing and giggling in the wind, watching the sun go behind the clouds until Papa K walks past on his way home from work and we all travel back via the off licence and stock up on booze booze booze, which we will drink tonight with mange-tout and pickle because Kris over-ordered online and we have enough to last us an air raid. The End.
OK, finding 10 hours a week for writing was a bit ambitious. I've managed maybe 5. I watched this talk about why work doesn't happen at work and I can testify to the fact that snatching at 15-30 intervals minutes throughout the day does not add up to any meaningful progress. Apart from needing to use most of those intervals to shower and eat, there's this dope hormone released by breastfeeding that puts me in a pleasant but murky fog. Mix that with a couple of glasses of wine most evenings and RSI so bad I can barely hold a pen and I'm not exactly at my most prolific. I'm very happy - I'm not writing this to complain - but it is extraordinary how many hours of the day disappear. Caz is amazing. He's smiling a lot more and is completely fascinated by faces and conversation. His happiest thing is to watch my mouth move and grin and make noises in response, so much so I can't get him to eat unless he's allowed to pause for discussion on Bret Easton Ellis's ability to fictionalise autobiography (or autobiographalise fiction), how men can bond with lions or the current situation in Egypt. All these things he finds highly amusing until they make him cry and we try hard to re-focus on the milk. If that's too traumatic, we tango.
My best chance of getting any time on the book is to take Caz in the buggy to a cafe in the afternoon. The walk wakes me up, puts him to sleep, I drink coffee and get one hour with my notebook before we roll on home for the next feed. I've managed to rework the first couple of chapters (again) this way and that's a start. He's not yet 3 months old. I was always going to give myself the first 3 months to get used to this, but what I hadn't counted on was that I wouldn't be any different to whoever I was before. I can't let up. I feel frustrated if I waste free time enjoying a coffee, staring out at the street. And so it's like it always was: Not writing is just a fraction harder than writing. I guess I'm stuck with that.
Happy 2011! It's time to get back to that book I was working on in Life Before Caz. He's 7 weeks old now and utterly gorgeous. I'm also hoping he's reasonably independent (while completely dependent) - enough for me to snatch a few hours a week to edit the draft I finished of In Her Wake. I started reading over it last week and wasn't too thrilled. But I have a good idea of what I need to do to it; I just need the time and energy. Nothing prepared me for how physically demanding a baby is. Apart from the shock of labour and recovery, breastfeeding has taken over my body. I spend 7-8 hours a day hunched over trying to get him to latch on properly again and again till he's had enough. Then there's holding him and rocking him to sleep. My shoulders ache, my arms ache, my fingers ache. Every morning I wake up and it feels as if I've been in a fight and given porn star implants. By the end of the day, my nipples have been dragged across tarmac at top speed and every time he cries for food it's as if someone's attached 10 pairs of tweezers to each side and is twisting them hard.
It is getting easier. Luckily he sleeps pretty well so I'm getting more kip than I did in the worst days of insomnia and I'm so grateful for that. And he is completely fascinating and gorgeous (even if I've said gorgeous already) - more so now he's alert and starting to smile. My book is not so gorgeous. I want to punch it. It has potential but it's saggy and dribbling and won't sit up straight. I'm sure I can sort it out over the next few months if I can grab maybe 10 hours a week. Is that possible? I've no idea. It means fighting the urge to sleep in the breaks and leaving the flat a mess. It also means bringing up a child happy to amuse himself some of the time. So far he seems able to and I'm ever so proud. I don't feel clingy. I don't even feel all that motherly despite a whole new wave of love. Then every so often a line in a song makes me cry, like 'I will follow you with my whole life.' That one got to me last night.
People sometimes compare having a baby to writing a novel or whatever creative endeavour and I used to wonder which would be harder. I don't yet have years of comparative data but so far I'd say writing a novel is more difficult. Less physically tough but the decisions aren't as instinctive and it's harder to go on believing in it and still impossible to let go. Caz is easily more awesome - in the true sense of the word. I look at him and can hardly believe he's real. I look at my novel and think, Shit. Not that fiction can't be truly awesome. Others have achieved it. I want this book to punch readers and leave them bruised and battered but more alive, the way having a baby has left me. I want it to be that strong.
Friday 12th November, I wrote the last chapter of my book, sent the whole thing to Kris to print off, met him in the pub to celebrate, came home and went into labour. How do these babes do it? Another writer friend of mine had the same thing happen - reached THE END and went into labour the very next day.
One week early, Cazabon Paul Jenkins was born on 13th November at 22:03, weighing 5lbs12. Labour was the most howlingly painful experience ever - beyond anything I could have imagined, but I made it through on gas and air and a packet of fruit pastels. Caz provided absolutely no motivation whatsoever until the very last seconds. I didn't care, I only wanted to quit being pregnant and this insane idea of pushing out a child. Only when his head was out did I feel any desire to meet him. Then I saw his feet underneath me and he was passed to me and everything changed.
I was hoping he'd allow me another couple of weeks for editing but now he's here I don't want it any other way. The bulk of the rewrite has been done, I'll leave it alone for a couple of months and see how it reads in the new year. In the meantime, we have a small and immense distraction. Kris goes back to work tomorrow and I'm very sad about that. He's been incredible. I love him more than ever and can't believe we made this alien creature who's trying so hard to communicate in our inferior ways. I'm still spooked by his timing and proud of it too. He's all-consuming but I've not changed as much as I thought I might. Already I know I'm going to be able to keep writing with him around. He's more awesome than any novel I can ever write but I'm not done yet.
Often I read books that will help with whatever I'm writing at the time and the other day I was deliberating between picking up a thriller and re-reading Life of Pi - the thriller because I could use some ideas on keeping the action moving and Life of Pi because I was getting a bit lost on religious themes and the bigger reason for the ship and the journey (stuff Life of Pi does very well). I opted for the thriller because I figured a change is good and bought a Lee Child called The Visitor. I've not read him before but from browsing a few in the bookshop, the prose looked sharp and atmospheric enough. But I am so un-gripped. At the very least I would have imagined wanting to know what happened next but I could happily throw this off a bridge at any point and not feel bereft. It has all the ingredients of something that's meant to be full of suspense - serial killer, threatened girlfriend, tough-good-guy the FBI have to entice to get on the case, but it uses the same weak character motivations again and again and the chapter endings that are supposed to hook you over to the next scene are as enthralling as this: Then he lay down on the bed, thinking and hoping. And waiting. Above all, waiting. Waiting for the morning. See what I mean? It's suspense-shaped but holds absolutely no suspense. It's worth noting that at this particular juncture in the story, he has little to think about and there's no reference to what the 'hoping' might be related to. Nor does the morning hold any significance (yes, I did read on).
I can't claim to do any better. I'm lame at plot, but this makes me think some of those best-selling authors out there aren't geniuses at it either. Plenty of people complain literary stuff disappears up its own arse and doesn't move a story forward (and I agree in some cases) but plenty of literary fiction does a better job of keeping me hooked just on character and observation. Plot is not everything. Though I respect anyone who masters it.
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