Strawberry milkshakes

The first thing I noticed about him was that he liked ludicrous drinks. Caramel lattes. Strawberry milkshakes. Later, I realised it was a symptom of something else: that he knew how to enjoy life. Something I needed a lesson in, maybe.

We met outside the law school building. He had a hoarse voice from the previous weekend – too much shouting at the football, he said. I had just started wearing glasses full-time, strained from all the preparatory reading I’d done. He was so languid, he barely finished his sentences.

I went into the lecture theatre before him. How could somebody be hoarse for two days following a football match?

I had no idea then who he was. That we would be here, later, much later. A mortgage, a cat. A joint bank account that sails into its overdraft on the 30th of most months that we receive texts about. When we get them, one of us will say to the other: the bank has been in touch. We have a mattress we bought last summer that we are still obsessed with. At least once a week, one of us will say to the other: I can’t believe how comfortable our bed is. We have a pantry full of Coke – at least twenty bottles – that we get free because we order so many takeaways. We have a spare bedroom lined with my novels, novels that contain him and only him, the man who has held my interest for twelve years. His uncompromising lefty-ism is Reuben from Anything You Do Say. His enjoyment of life, those strawberry milkshakes, is Marc from No Further Questions. Soon I will run out of his traits, I often think, but I never will, because he is layered like sedimentary rock. Funny. And, underneath that, a misanthrope. Underneath that, a do-gooder. Shy and outgoing. Clever and daft. Logical and pragmatic, sometimes. Well, you can’t do anything about that, he will say often. Other times, as irrational as me: we just spent £3,500 on a CT scan to find out if our cat has cancer. There was no discussion. We just did it, purchasing – hopefully – more years together where I carry the cat up to bed like a baby and we laugh at the way he washes his balls on the duvet right in front of us. Some decorum, Dave will say. The CT is worth it. But the bank got in touch.

No, I had no idea then: none. No idea on September 7th, 2006 who he was. Who he would become. Who he would be to me.

 

My American Book Deal

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.’

Houses I’ve loved before

It is like a whole subculture has opened up to us: house hunting. We have never done it. We are lazy homemakers by nature: we lived in a one-bed flat near to law school, so small I could have a bath and chat to my boyfriend while he watched the football. Then we moved into his sister’s house, in the suburbs. She did us a deal on the rent. It was a two-up, two-down house. We liked the wooden floors and that there was space to put up a Christmas tree. We immediately filled the loft with novels and legal textbooks and old paperwork we’d never need again. My boyfriend’s sister wanted to sell, three years ago. We exchanged a glance, sighed, and said: ‘Okay, we’ll buy it’: the laziness of not wanting to move usurping the laziness of not wanting to save, to get a survey, the hassle.

But now, here we are, three years on, and our mortgage lender sends us letters about the end of our redemption period. We shrug when we receive them. ‘We should find a house soon,’ one of us will say. The other will nod, and agree entirely, and then we will do nothing about it.

Until two things happened:

  1. We accidentally sold our house.
  2. I got obsessed.

It began with the Rightmove parameters. Four beds. A detached or a semi. Character, I typed into the little ‘extras’ box. My world opened up into one containing field views, thatched roofs, bifold doors. ‘Uh huh,’ I thought, one night, with ninety tabs open. ‘I can get obsessed with this.’

Luckily, he got obsessed too. We drew little pockets of where we would like to live. Our criteria surprised us. Not en suites and suburbia and close to Waitrose but rural and quiet and spacious. Every day, the Rightmove alerts come in, and every evening, with coffees, we review them. We ponder strangers’ decorative choices. I like to pause at photographs of cats on beds. We usually agree completely on what we like and don’t like, which is nice. We like grey walls, Instagram bathroom tiles, and pretentious kitchens. We don’t like anything that looks remotely dated, except the walls of the house themselves, which must be at least a hundred years old, if not two.

We view them on Saturday mornings, slotted in around work and novels. We haven’t loved one yet. We viewed a Victorian town house and – inspired by their fruit bowl – bought a melon on the way home. We viewed a ‘doer upper’ that we laughed our way around. ‘We would just live in it, mouldy floors and all,’ we said. We viewed a grade II listed building which absolutely stunk of cigarettes. The estate agent was poker faced, and we kept exchanging mystified glances, wondering if perhaps she couldn’t smell it.

We viewed the most recent one on Monday, at 5:00pm. I picked my boyfriend up from the station after a day on my novel. ‘Look, it’s not set back from the road. There’s no path or verge,’ I said, pointing to the latest house. ‘And the road’s fast.’

We sat in the car, the rain tapping on the roof and running down the windscreen, and watched as the estate agent got out of her car and unlocked the house we would not be buying.

‘It’s a shame,’ I said, turning to my boyfriend in the kitchen. It was open plan, one of our criteria, but we could hear the roar of the road even inside. ‘It’s so open. We could chat while you watch TV, me in the bath, like we used to.’

He squeezed my hand as we left.

Life cycle of books

How funny it is that life constructs its routines and its rituals around even the most unusual of events: having a book out.

One month before publication:

Friends say, ‘let’s meet up in January,’ and author internally says ‘oh my God my book will be out then – what will life be like?’ Plans are not made. Whatsapps are ignored. Life ends on January 24th.

Three weeks before publication: 

Amazon pre-order obsession begins. Ranks are checked, and, sometimes, outsourced to friends and family to check lest author gets obsessed. The author refers to dates as ‘after my book comes out,’ and ‘right before my book comes out.’ Even other people’s birthdays.

Two weeks before publication:

Email checking is at all-time high. Usually, the author is supposed to be doing edits on another book, but ends up asking agent inane queries all day long.

One week before publication:

Author has strange feeling as though she may be in a vice. Cries at animal adverts. Shouts at the cat for running away when trying to de-flea him. Swears at a car that had right of way anyway. Friends and family say, ‘ah, you’re stressed about your book.’ Author denies it vehemently. Everything is fine.

Five days before publication: 

Author develops psychosomatic illness, usually of rare and exotic type. Often a fever brews, accompanied by non-specific ailments such as back pain and headaches. Author believes she is suffering from Dengue Fever and wishes to visit GP; friends and family say is all in mind/stress. This angers author. Author does seven loads of laundry in a bid to ‘take back control.’

Three days before publication:

Author spends days asking lots of needy questions, such as, ‘it doesn’t really matter about Amazon reviews, does it?’ and making sinister declarations: ‘anyway, you -’ pointing to significant other – ‘are what really matters.’

One day before publication:

Eerie sense of calm in manner of bride before wedding that is not going ahead. Cursory glance at Amazon, declaring it doesn’t matter anyway. Watches six episodes of Friends on Netflix with head hanging off sofa. Does not wish to talk about the book.

Day of publication:

Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Book in wild/tears/psychosomatic illness ends. Bed.

My Best Books of 2017

I mean, it was a pretty good year for *my* books

Everything But The Truth was released in March of this year and became a bloody bestseller. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. That evening, we went out and ate fried chicken and my boyfriend said: ‘did you ever think this would happen to you?’ with the sweetest, most quizzical look on his face, as I suppose I momentarily transformed in front of him from ‘girlfriend’ to ‘bestseller’ (and back again). ‘No,’ I said. ‘I had no idea,’ which is true.

Anything You Do Say followed in October on ebook (the paperback is coming in January). It reached number 4 on iBooks, much to my surprise one bleary Monday morning.

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But, anyway, on to my best reads of 2017.

518fBIqlvxLFierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

A lone terrorist attack in a zoo. A mother trying to protect and conceal her (sometimes noisy) four year-old. I was so tense while reading it that my cat wouldn’t sit on me.

Together by Julie Cohen

A high concept love story told backwards. It has a twist that knocked my absolute socks off.

In The Woods by Tana French 51jNG7yY+AL

I spent an extremely happy summer reading Tana French’s back catalogue. This is a stunning example of stylish thriller-writing. The relationship between the lead detective and his colleague was so real, I can hardly believe the characters don’t actually exist.

You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmood 

51FGxLLLLkLMy book of the year, probably my book of the century. An original, voicey, totally genius take on the courtroom drama, a sympathetic look at London’s gang culture, and much, much more.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman 

Believe the hype about this book. I have hardly ever connected so well with a narrator and felt so keenly for them. It also has an absolute belter of a twist.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner51hSmoprD0L

I loved Missing, Presumed very hard. I read it last Christmas, voraciously, while ignoring everybody. Never has a novel taught me quite so much – the characterisation, dialogue and free-indirect speech are just to die for.

The Ma51roexK-3mLrsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne 

A fresh and extremely interesting take on the captive-woman thriller. Imprisoned by her father and unable to access the modern world, this is a tale of what happens after you escape – and what happens when your villainous father escapes prison, too.

Love Will Tear Us Apart by Holly Seddon

Hot take – this is out in July 2018 and is a fantastically compassionate look at a vow a couple make. To say any more would be to spoil the absolute joy this novel will bring you.

51Q5yeKumyL._SY346_Let Me Lie – Clare Mackintosh

Out in March 2018, Clare Mackintosh’s third novel delivers two of her huge trademark twists, neither of which I saw coming. It’s also an extremely satisfying take on grief, love, and moving on.

The Liar’s Girl – Catherine Rya51vqOrJrQ7Ln Howard

Another March release. This is The Fall in book form, but even more compelling. Howard can really, really write.

Sign of The Times 

‘Nice review in the Sunday Times,’ somebody tweets me. My boyfriend and I are watching The Sinner on Netflix. We’re going out to dinner in an hour and I can’t settle to anything. I am still, four months on from being part time, sometimes not quite sure what to do with free time.  

I angle the phone towards him. ‘Do you think this is true?’ I say. 

 

He reaches for it and reads. ‘Really?’ he says, then shrugs. ‘I don’t know.’ 

 

The Sunday Times. I can’t stop my mind from imagining it. Proper writers are reviewed in broadsheets. Lee Child, Zadie Smith. Imagine reading a review of yourself in The actual Times, I have thought before. What would your life look like if your work was reviewed in the newspaper? I couldn’t imagine it. 

 

‘Looks like it,’ my boyfriend says. He clicks on the link my Twitter follower has sent to me. There it is: recent thrillers. My name in the headline. 

 

‘I’m going to buy it,’ I say. Just ten minutes before, I had been wondering what to do with myself. And now – this. It is so strange, sometimes, to be a published author. All those people reading a review of my book in the papers in bed today and I had no idea. 

 

My boyfriend is used to these shenanigans and only sighs. ‘There’s money up there,’ he says, pointing to the bookcase. 

 

I don’t take anything except a handful of change to the shop; not even my phone. The ground is frosty underfoot and the night air is completely crisp. The walk to our local corner shop is short – less than five minutes – but I feel as though I’ll remember it forever. The silent night, the change jangling in my pocket. The bright lights of the corner shop up ahead. The smell of the print and papers as I let myself in. 

 

There’s a fat stack of copies left and I select one and carry it to the till, careful not to let the supplements fall out. I bought all of my press, back in March, when Everything But The Truth was reviewed. I have a drawerful at home; Glamour Magazine, Woman & Home, all kept pristine together in a tight bundle. But this is the first for my sophomore novel. The novel that says: here’s the next offering. After the debut. After my first. 

 

I carry the paper home close to my chest, like a baby, and let myself in to our warm house. ‘The woman on Twitter says it’s on page 38,’ I say to my boyfriend. I pass it to him and he spreads it out on the kitchen counter. This has always been how we have done things – bad news, good news, he always breaks it to me, and we default to it without thinking. I take my shoes off and stand, sock-footed, waiting, leaning against the fridge.

 

After a few minutes, he says. ‘It’s there. It’s good.’ 

 

He passes it to me and boils the kettle. I sit on the stairs and read The Sunday Times on a Sunday night that – somehow, miraculously – contains a review of the novel that I wrote. 

Anything You Do Say (May Be Given In Evidence)

It seems impossible to go to bed. I couldn’t. It would be like missing the New Year; going to bed in 2017 and waking up in 2018. And so I have stayed up, even though I am alone, and even though it is not the New Year, only: my New Year. My book comes out in half an hour, the digital edition only. The paperback arrives in January.

I sat up late on March 8th, 2017, too. The weather was similar; a sort of blustery nothingness, sometimes much colder than expected, sometimes so close-feeling that sweat formed and I had to take my coat off while walking, try to hold its puffiness in my arms instead. I had no idea what to expect on March 9th. I had joked at the time to my boyfriend that I couldn’t see past that date. It had sounded dramatic, even to me, but now, I can kind of see why I thought that. Having a book published had been my ambition – no, not ambition; something more than that – a raison d’être? – since I had been old enough to know what an ambition was, and here it was, looming. But, with reality and not fantasy, there is often a reckoning. It had to sell. It had to be a success. Otherwise, it might end for me, right as it had begun, like a match that’s struck and inexplicably snuffs itself out.

I couldn’t have predicted all of the changes that have happened since March 9th, my last New Year. Small changes clustered next to large ones like diamonds amongst costume jewellery, and I am still sometimes unable to tell the difference. It became a bestseller, and so I became a bestseller; a label that is forever attached to me, on my novels, said about me at parties, and in jest when I am being pathetic about not wanting to put the bins out. The things I used to think were important: the verified Twitter tick, the approval of strangers, the acclaim. The things I now think are important are still there, like planets slowly circling a sun I have been too busy looking at: that my family love me, that my boyfriend wants to spend his life with me. The friends who text me on this night, twenty minutes before my book is published, saying: how are you feeling? And the writing, always the writing; my life’s heartbeat, strong and consistent. Promoting book one. Editing book two. Writing book three. Book two’s publication plans. Delivering book three. Starting book four. Putting book four aside to edit book three. Oh look: a message from a reader in Hungary who loved my debut. Like having a busy family of four children whose names I sometimes mix up. Picking up book four again. First draft, second draft, third draft. Plot crisis. Character crisis. Slowly slowly slowly solving the puzzle and falling in love, year on year. A different sort of New Year, but the same, too.

I couldn’t, either, have predicted the less flashy changes. The effect of the changes, maybe. Realising as I wrote late at night in April in a train station, gloves on my hands as I typed, that I needed to go part time. Waking up on a Monday recently, after I delivered my third book, with no novel to write and nothing to do and wandering downstairs and running a hand along my empty kitchen counter. The constant, demonic fear of my last book being the best thing I will ever write. The worry that a book will be uniformly hated. That not a single person will buy it.

As I write tonight, at now fifteen minutes to midnight, I don’t feel many of the things I felt on the 8th March. The reviews will be as they are for every other book in the universe – some stellar, some irate, some constructive, and wincingly insightful too – and the sales will be what they will be.

It’s ten to twelve, now. I’m sitting in my office. A hot chocolate and a candle on my desk. And – here, and now – there are no reviews, no sales to consider.

It’s midnight as I type my name into Amazon. I see the box at the top flick from pre-order to buy now. But it’s not that that catches my attention, that films my eyes with tears. No. It’s simply my name. My book. Everything else falls away. Here I am, a published author – building a canon, no less – able to type my own name into Amazon.co.uk, and find something there.

512Qc3ZJuwL