November 2014: Holland House Books offered me a contract for The Storyteller. June 2015: I accepted that contract. Seven months of indecision over an offer that should have been a dream come true. One simple reason: I didn’t believe in the novel or myself.
There were other, smaller, reasons as well that I could use as an excuse for procrastination. Aspects of the book were too personal to share openly. I worried I would hurt someone else. I couldn’t explain it at work. Perhaps I should be completely rewriting the text as the Penguin editor so charmingly suggested.
And maybe, too, that contract came too easily. The manuscript was sent to my publisher by a friend, on my behalf, and the ‘yes’, via that same friend, came within 36 hours. I didn’t understand then how unusual that was for a weird, second-person, literary novel by a completely unknown writer. If I’d known that, maybe I’d have grasped the opportunity instantly and with both sweating hands.
But those were minor reasons. Most of all, it wasn’t good enough. It couldn’t be; because I had written it. Caught up in my perception of myself, I overlooked what the manuscript did have and focussed only on what it didn’t.
I signed the contract, in the end, not out of excitement, not with dreams of bestselling glory, but to prove a point to myself. I signed it to give myself confidence that I can be a writer; I needed that confidence to write the next book.
I expected so little from that contract. I was the direct opposite of the debut author convinced of an instant bestseller. I mentioned to almost no-one that I was going to be published. I brushed the subject away when it did come up. It wasn’t false modesty; it was a belief that the book was worthless, that I had achieved nothing, that the forthcoming publication wasn’t something anyone would be interested to know. I expected so little, and I have received so much.
It is the best thing I could possibly have done. My life has changed. I am not rich. (It is selling well; but that doesn’t mean money for anyone involved.) I am not famous, which frankly may be just as well. But my perspective has been transformed.
The moment I signed the contract the book became a joint enterprise. My publisher had a stake (all the financial stake) on what happened next. I had an obligation to him to stop telling people the book wasn’t any good. I had an obligation to stop mumbling that ‘I do some creative writing’ and acknowledge instead that there was a book coming, and would whoever it was like to come to the launch.
Initially it was purely that duty to Holland House kicking in that began to change life-long patterns of behaviour. In time it became a duty to the book as well. Eventually it will become a duty to myself.
In the last year I have done so many things I believed would cause the sky to fall in. I have Twittered and Facebooked at people I didn’t know. I have contacted authors to say I have enjoyed their books and would they be interested in mine. I have written blogs that tell some truths about who I am. I have told my colleagues about my depression and about the book. (I am less conscious of my scars being visible as a result.) I have erased my stark dividing line between my professional and my personal lives, and between those and my new ‘literary’ life. I have listened to people say ‘congratulations’, and I have said ‘thank you. Thank you. Please buy it and read it.’
My automatic reaction as I stepped into every single one of these situations was to assume that the worst would happen. Each time I made one of these outward moves, each time I invited someone into the book’s life, my body and mind told me I would be rejected and laughed at, that some terrible physical calamity would befall me. I assumed after my intranet article on depression that there would be whispering in the corridors at work. The day of my launch, with over a hundred people having accepted the invitation, I knew viscerally that no-one would come. I turned up anyway in a Leading Lady Dress that could not but draw attention to me. I arrived fully ready to hide in a corner and survey the empty room from behind a pillar, pretending if my phone rang asking where I was that I’d forgotten to turn up. Over a hundred people were there. There was a cake with the cover on it, because a friend had wanted to do that for me.
Little things, little things. And nothing that has been a surprise to others who know me. They have said again and again, ‘of course this was going to happen’, ‘of course people will want to know’. I didn’t believe them, but I went ahead with each step anyway.
Each of my small efforts has reaped its own reward for the book, as I intended it to do. No reward has been outsize. I continue to hope for the stroke of luck that will take the novel supersonic; but that hasn’t yet come. It may or may not come. I cannot control for luck.
What I have received is an insistently repeated lesson that good things can happen. That many people, if I ask, will say yes. That people are interested. That people consider me a friend. That others do not think I exist to be scorned, rejected, left alone. That the default for most people is kindness. That a published novel is considered an achievement. That I do have something to say which others find worthwhile.
My circle has widened. My perception of the world has changed. Without signing that contract I would never have known that such a change could happen.
A particular friend tells me every few weeks that to change my life I need to take positive risks. He congratulates me every time I take one. I’m getting into the habit of doing it. And the world as I see it is making itself anew.
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