I had lunch with my editor yesterday to discuss the First Draft of my new novel. This is a new editor. When isn’t it? Children’s publishing in the UK seems to be exclusively staffed by young women in their late twenties and early thirties, which means that they are inevitably leaving to have babies at regular intervals. I heard of one writer who had five editors during the course of one book. You hardly ever see any editors over forty. What do they do with them I wonder? Perhaps they all get remaindered
My new editor, Catherine, has possibly the trendiest haircut of any editor I have encountered. (I would hazard a guess that it’s an asymmetric bob but being fifty-five and never a real surfer of the zeitgeist I could be wrong.) Every time I have encountered her so far she looks as if she had it cut that very morning. However, this is all by the by. The point is that she was tremendously enthusiastic about my new book.
‘We believe it could be very commercial,’ she said.
'Well that's nice,' I replied.
One has to be restrained, doesn’t one? It wouldn’t do to start blowing a whistle or letting off fire-crackers because the thing to remember about publishing is this: it is fuelled by hope. Everybody in publishing lives and breathes the stuff. So there’s absolutely no point in getting excited just because someone throws you slightly more than your usual portion of crumbs. Nine times out of ten it means nothing at all.
I’ve had my share of success. I’ve been up for plenty of awards. My books are translated into lots of languages. Even now a book I wrote back in 1993, which has been in print somewhere in the world ever since, is doing very well in South America. But my publishers have never before said, ‘we think this could be very commercial’.
My problem is, I don’t actually try to write books that will sell. I just write the book that’s in my head. There was an album by the rock musician, Kevin Ayers about thirty years ago which I rather liked, entitled Whatever She Brings We Sing and that sums it up for me. Whatever the muse puts into my head is what comes out on paper.
It would be great to be one of those writers who surveys the market, understands the parameters of the industry, calculates the mood of the reading public and writes something that captures the spirit of the age. But that’s not how I work. I’m an author because I’m compelled to write and that’s all there is to it.
Anyway, there are at least twelve months before I find out whether Catherine of the trendy haircut was just being nice, or whether it’s true. And in the meantime I have another book coming out next month, Nathaniel Wolfe and the Bodysnatchers, which has at least managed to make it into the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge. The Head of Sales, who was passing when I met up with Catherine, told me with a big smile that this was ‘very good news’.
He is one of the few men in the organisation. I like him and I think he likes me. However, our relationship did come under some considerable strain when I persuaded him to go to a dancing class. (Readers of this blog will know that I am a regular Lindy Hopper). He left half way through the class and told me that he had never been so humiliated in his life.
I know just how he felt. Being an author is a bit like going to a dance class for the first time. You think it’s going to be great fun until you realise that everybody else seems to know a great deal more than you do. They pull off all sorts of flashy moves with the greatest of ease while you are having trouble remembering which is your left foot and which is your right. By the time the class is over you have sworn never to return. But if you’ve got the bug, somehow or other you find yourself turning up a week later, full of hope and ready to make a fool of yourself all over again.