I was in Nando’s when it happened. Well, no, that’s not quite right. I was in Nando’s when I got the first sign that it was going to happen.
I was wearing flip flops for the first time that year. My toes were cold in the overzealous air conditioning. I’d been writing in Starbucks all day, doing that thing writers have to do during a second draft which is a little like spending time with a vicious partner who doesn’t love you very much, until you work and work and work and think and suddenly, they reform into somebody you want to see all the time. That hadn’t happened yet.
I was getting us takeaway chicken on my way home: a Friday night treat. My boyfriend had sent me his order over text, and I was reading it when I heard the tone for my email. I’m not the kind of person who can leave an email unread, much as I would sometimes like to be, so I opened it. It was from Camilla, my agent’s maternity leave cover. It was 7:10pm on a Friday night – an unusual time to get an email from an agent – and I was scanning it just as the server asked me what I wanted.
“A quarter of a chicken…’ I said, but then I saw it, and – oh.
‘I’ll come back,’ I said to the server.
I read the rest of the email standing outside, my toes now sweating, and rang my boyfriend.
‘An American editor wants a call with me,’ I said.
‘Ooooooh,’ my boyfriend said – a taciturn, level sort of man who doesn’t ooh very often, who says things like it is what it is, about both good things and bad. The sort of brain I would like to have. ‘But… don’t get carried away,’ he added.
You see, the thing is, America had never bought my novels. Not when many other countries had, not when I became a Sunday Times and then also a Kindle bestseller. Not when my Amazing UK publisher, Michael Joseph, Penguin almost doubled my sales from book one to two, and believed in me from day one, never wavering.
But ambition is both a good and a bad quality, you see. The markets are so different, there is never a guarantee of finding an American home. So many authors – great authors – never do. But nevertheless, I wanted America to buy my book. I was like a woman who wanted a second child. The first child, my first deal, in my home country, changed everything. Nothing will ever compare. I didn’t want to carve myself and my ambition and passion and love in two: I wanted to double it.
But there are certain markets that, to an author, are life changing, and of course America is one of them. All those readers. The validation of a New York, New York editor saying: this is up there with the best we have here.
And so there I was, in flip flops outside Nando’s, with American interest for the first time in my literary career.
‘I never thought it would happen in Nando’s!’ I said nonsensically, and my boyfriend, Dave, laughed and asked me where I thought it would happen. ‘Definitely at home,’ I said.
I rang my dad and told him – ‘which imprint?’ he said sagely, now a veteran and true geek of the publishing world since my life changed forever in 2016 – and finally went back inside and finished my order. I took the chicken home and googled the shit out of the publishing house.
I slept for about three hours all weekend, wound up, excited, worried. Annoying the cat and Dave by rolling over and switching the light on and reading. I read three books. I looked up their American publishers on the internet at strange hours. I went down strange instagram rabbit holes. I thought about book tours and American copy edits and what it would mean for me.
The call was scheduled for Monday at 4pm UK time. ’11 New York Time,’ I liked to say to Dave.
If you had been a fly on my wall at 2.30pm, you would have found me organising my pantry – an excellent side effect, according to Dave. Later, I removed everything from the kitchen windowsill and wiped underneath it. I paired up socks, removed mould from grouting, threw away old mugs. All the while practising a phone call, one sided, like an insane person. ‘That’s a great question,’ I said, as I dusted the corner of the living room. ‘I think it was born out of observing the inequality women still face in parenthood,’ I said as I cleaned the mirrors.
I spoke to Camilla before the call, while sitting on my spare bed in the best patch of signal in my house, and learnt there was more than one publisher interested. I stared at the wall and wondered what it was about this book, my third novel, but I knew: it was because it was the best one I had written so far. Thank God. Thank God I was brave enough to write it, my dark, feminist book about death and love and forgiveness and women.
I had intended to make a cup of tea and settle myself back on my bed, but what I actually did was scroll mindlessly through somebody’s weight loss journey on instagram and try to calm the pounding of my heart. At 3.59pm I saw New York calling and almost took a screenshot, such was the feeling that bubbled up through me. This was it. That’s how it felt. A Manhattan publishing house, calling me. But of course, I worried doing so would reject the call, so I didn’t.
The editor, Sally, and I spoke about how and why I wrote the book. We spoke about the role women play in motherhood, how they share the mental load. How every woman has a story to tell and that this – in all the witness vignettes that feed into the courtroom drama that makes up my book – is what it is about. I told her how obsessed I am with motherhood, which is what I tend to do when I really vibe off somebody. She told me, laughing, at the end of the call, that she’d speak to my people.
‘Oh no,’ I sent to Dave. ‘I really like the American editor.’
I wandered downstairs and surveyed my tidy, somewhat empty-looking kitchen. How long would it be before I knew? I knew the answer. It was London Book Fair: I might be waiting a while. Still, I didn’t sleep. I read another book.
‘What time is it in New York?’ I asked people often. I existed on New York time, staying up late. ‘I suit New York time,’ I said to Dave at 6pm. ‘The day is only really just beginning.’
The text came on Wednesday at 5:50am: mercifully quick, just 36 hours after we spoke. My boyfriend was in the shower. I read it, then vaulted out of bed, sprinted across the landing and trod on the cat’s tail. Dave was squeezing shower gel into the palm of his hand when I burst in. ‘America have offered!’ I said. I showed him the WhatsApp message. He gave the biggest, loudest whoop I’ve ever heard, and put his soapy, wet hands around my shoulders. My hair got drenched, and frizzy, but I didn’t care. Later, at work, I found some shower gel in my hairline, and smiled. I have an American book deal ran through my head on a loop all day. Holy shit.
There followed one of the strangest and most enjoyable weeks of my life. Texts came about all sorts of things – publication schedules, money, rights – at all sorts of times. I got out of bed at 23:45 the next night to take a call from Camilla on my sofa. The cat came with me. Dave remained asleep. We closed the deal there, on my sofa, my feet bare. I hung up, at close to 1:00am, and reached over to pull my cat onto my lap. ‘Penguin USA are going to publish me. It’s happened,’ I said to him. ‘Finally.’