I got a call from my agent. “I have news.”
I sat on my kitchen table, my feet on a chair, my elbows on my knees, one finger jammed in the other ear, the better to hear.
For the first time in days I hadn’t been obsessively checking my inbox; I’d let it go, I’d given up, I’d said to myself, oh well, I’ll just have to write something better. I’d gone off to town with my children, I hadn’t looked at my phone all day till I was home and saw three missed calls and an email saying, do call when you have a minute. I was holding the phone in my hands, staring at the screen, when it rang again.
It’s a bit like when you’re pregnant for the first time, all you think about is the birth. Not the aftermath, the what comes next, the slow reveal of fears you never thought you’d have. I’d spent a decade driving at representation, a manuscript finished and loved and taken up by an agent. When I signed with Jenny Savill following FoW16, I thought that was it. It was a height I had dreamt of and not once had I thought beyond it. It had never crossed my mind that anything would be as fraught.
A friend once commented that being taken up by an agent was child’s play compared to selling to a publisher. A writer can submit to the same agent year on year if they want. But once a publisher turns your book down, that’s it. It’s a one shot game. At the beginning, with Frankfurt Book Fair looming and all the excitement of total ignorance, I was convinced I’d hear within days, hours, of easy success. Instead the weekly updates from Jenny were crammed with kind, encouraging notices of failure.
It was three weeks into that torment of declines that Jenny gave me the best advice I’d ever had. Lower your expectations she said to my whining misery that I hadn’t been bought overnight, that the industry moves at its own quiet pace, that clearly I knew nothing. And when it seemed like pessimism was getting the better of me, she said It’s not over yet. But Christmas came and went and my infant novel looked for all the world as if it would never make it to adulthood. I practised saying it happens and searched for examples of Booker Prize winners who’d struggled to find air. I got on with writing something else.
A trip to town on a freezing afternoon at the end of January, my children needing boots, or the dentist, or maybe I just needed to get out of the kitchen and away from what felt like humiliation – I don’t remember anything of that day except coming home, and checking my phone for the first time since breakfast, and seeing three missed calls and an email. When it rang in my hand my heart jumped and my breathing went funny.
“We’ve had an offer.” And then she told me who it was, and I sat on my kitchen table with my feet on a chair, and my elbows on my knees and one finger jammed in the other ear, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
My debut, ‘A Perfect Explanation’, came out in March 2019, published by Salt Books, one of the finest independent publishers of literary fiction. It happened; the thing that I gave no thought to, that I presumed would be easy, and wasn’t and felt crushed by. Those four months seem like nothing now, but looking back at the struggle, I have learnt this: that every step is a test of what you know and reveal of what you don’t, and when a brilliant and hard working agent and you decide to work together, remember it is just the beginning.
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