Once, I was someone who had never been published and who only knew authors through breathless, wide-eyed moments at author events. Books took on a sort of spiritual, magical quality. I’d spend hours in bookshops – in libraries – brushing my fingers across covers and feeling a profound sense of calm, even when other areas of my life were going through phases of drama and difficulty. I’d read interviews about creative process and author habits with a sort of reverence. I’d toyed on the edge of the industry – studying creative writing, entering awards, going to workshops and author talks and interning at a little publishing house – but I mostly drew comfort from writing and reading in isolation. It was my quiet time, my space, after spending my days working very closely with other people.
Publishing a novel is an incredible and exhilarating experience (and one that I never really thought would happen to me). It was always a dream I never thought very deeply about; it was something crazy and unattainable. When it happened, I was surprised at the complexity of something that had, at a distance, seemed light filled and simple. But with it, comes a sort of shattering, a loss of something. Books become more than something pleasurable and thought provoking – they suddenly represent an industry you’re trying very hard to thrive in.
Awards ceremonies are something I thought nothing about. When a good friend said that ‘there’s two full-on years after your book comes out – the year of publicity and then the year of awards,’ I was utterly perplexed. I’d been entering short story awards for over ten years by the time I signed my contract, so I thought I was prepared. However, book awards are very public – your listings and your absences. And I was not prepared for the sting (or the unexpected elation) that these incredibly subjective events were able to conjure in me. And, as if in response to this, my reading of others’ books has become more exacting. I notice their themes, their structure, marvel at their language and characters, in a way I never did when I was reading purely for enjoyment.
Reading is still my greatest joy, but the process of it has become less transporting.
The process of creating a book had seemed magical; unknowable. But now I wonder how many drafts a particular novel has gone through; whether it was heavily or lightly edited. How long the author took to write it and whether it was a gruelling or gratifying process. I wonder what parts of the book the author is most proud of and which parts surfaced unexpectedly. I wonder whether the authors clicked with their editors; whether the book being out in the world has thrilled them or terrified them. And then there are the pragmatic wonderings – whether a novel fits into the commercial or literary markets; how many reviews a work has received; how many copies it has sold and what sort of advance it elicited. Reading is still my greatest joy, but the process of it has become less transporting. These wonderings anchor me to the book – each line, each word – in a way that makes it difficult to disappear into the story.
There’s a kind of sadness when writers you’ve always loved turn out to be difficult in person. A sadness, too, when books you have always adored turn out to be little known in an industry you always assumed loved them as you did. You begin to notice the publishers’ logos on the spines of books. You begin to recognise the names of different editors and publishers in people’s acknowledgements. I was baffled when a writer I had always admired penned an article about being jealous of my publishing deal. Similarly, I was advised to try and be less starry-eyed and advised, also, to just be myself. I have struggled with reading books I did not enjoy, written by people I deeply admire – finding myself suddenly straddling the line between friendship and authenticity. There is so much of the unexpected that needs to be so carefully negotiated.
My debut novel has been out for nearly a year now, and every day I see the copies of it on my bookshelf and I get a rush of warmth, of disbelief. I consider myself extremely lucky. My publishers have been remarkable and my book has done better than I dared hope it might. I’ve had a steady stream of emails and messages from people who have lost a parent or child and have been touched by my novel. And I can’t think of the words to describe those moments. But sometimes, I do quietly mourn the simplicity of my relationships to books – to authors – before I crossed the line. It’s a simplicity and joy that I won’t be able to recapture. And one I didn’t realise, at the time, that I was losing.