While I would not for one moment wish to compare writing a book to fighting a war (writing books requires much more bravery and self-sacrifice), I do keep thinking of that line about war being long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, and how it also applies to books.
Well, it is more panic than terror with books. You submit a manuscript and nothing much happens, then there are a few leisurely lunches with your editor over which you discuss tightening up those middle chapters. Loose deadlines come and go and roughs of the cover design are produced for you to mull over. About nine months pass in this dreamy way before you wake up one morning to find an urgent email in your inbox: the jacket has to be signed off that morning, and the proofs read and sent back to the typesetters by 5pm.
I exaggerate a little but that is what it feels like. The long gestation period, usually about a year, has a lot to do with the marketing cycle and the fight for space on bookshelves. But then you occasionally hear of books that are turned around almost overnight. Charles Moore was making corrections to the first volume of his excellent biography of Margaret Thatcher mere days away from it appearing in bookshops. Given that he had been working on it for more than a decade, no doubt with the requisite periods of boredom, he must have felt the panic of the deadline more keenly than most.
I’ve just finished proofreading my latest novel, which is published next month (by Doubleday) and takes its title, The Road Between Us, from the poem “No Road” by my favourite poet. Perhaps you know his name without having to Google it. A clue is that he was also Thatcher’s favourite poet, and when she met him for the first time and told him as much he replied rather frostily, “Quote me a line, then.” She did: “Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.” (And that’s your second clue.)
The version of my novel I was sent to proofread was the same version that was being proofread by two professional proofreaders, and once all our marks had been collated there wasn’t going to be time for me to read the final version. Or so they told me. The production editor nervously agreed that she would send me a PDF of it “for reference only”, clearly having had experience of some authors who just won’t let go. Tuh.
I tried to resist reading it, knowing it would be too late to correct any errors, but I couldn’t help myself. I did spot some – such as the name I had deliberately misspelled, for reasons too complicated to explain here, which the proofreaders had “corrected”. I grovelled and they kindly agreed to hold off printing for a few more hours so that my corrections could be taken in. Relief.
I’m not alone in this. I once did an interview with Clive James about a novel he had written and he asked if he could see my bound book proof. I wondered if he wanted to check I had read it, examine it for turned-down pages and marginalia. But no, he wanted to change a line in it that was driving him crazy: “A man with a beard called Stephen ... ” I thought it a bit neurotic at the time but now I understand. When you publish a novel you hold it up to the world for scrutiny and if you know there is even the most trivial mistake or ugly sentence, your confidence in it will wilt. That said, I think Stephen is a perfectly acceptable name for a beard.
. . .
I live on the Hampshire-Sussex border, which means I am constantly crossing the boundary between the two counties and taking unjustified pride in seeing the signs that read “Welcome to Jane Austen Country”. I grew up in another landscape associated with an author, the Yorkshire Dales. The signs there read “Welcome to James Herriot Country”. OK, he’s not in the same literary league as Austen but it could have been a lot worse. Imagine living near Grantchester in Cambridgeshire and thinking you live in “Rupert Brooke Country” only to be reminded by the signs you see every day that, in fact, you live in “Jeffrey Archer Country”.
It’s usually writers who get their own “country” but sometimes artists too, such as “Constable Country” on the border of Essex and Suffolk. Again, you could do a lot worse. It can only be a matter of time before people living near Ilfracombe in Devon find they are being welcomed to “Damien Hirst Country”.
. . .
I’ve never understood the urge to stuff dead animals. People, yes. Whenever I’m in Moscow, which isn’t that often, I have to give Lenin’s body a stare. My fascination may be morbid but it is no less real for that. Did you know his mausoleum was flooded with sewage in 1923? You stare all the more intently when you do.
But what is it with stuffing animals and birds? Are they supposed to be memento mori? We went to a friend’s house for lunch the other day and were intrigued to see all the stuffed birds in glass cases around her kitchen and sitting room. They were antiques, it should be explained in her defence, but still. Odd to want to surround yourself with dead things. Over lunch the conversation turned to what pose we would like to be stuffed in, if we were ever stuffed. One guest said he would like the taxidermist to take as his inspiration Rodin’s “The Thinker” but then we realised that it wouldn’t be the subject’s choice of pose but that of their widow or widower.
If you have annoyed your partner in life, he or she might have you preserved in death giving a Nazi salute, which would make future generations think ill of you. My wife said she would have me stuffed in a cowering pose, my hands melodramatically protecting my face. I wouldn’t mind that too much. I might have just seen an infantryman running towards me with a bayonet, or a publisher approaching with a book proof and an impossible deadline.