The best things I said about my book, I said at the beginning. My answers have thinned, the more I am asked about it. I have come to realise, the less you say, the more powerful you suggest you are. The other tactic I employ is evasion. To some questions I reply, That’s not for me to answer, because I want to be mysterious—as if the sound of the modern world is too loud for my sensitive soul, as if I am being awoken from an inner sanctum, interrupted from hushed communion with my creativity.
In the depths of the winter lockdown, my world shrunk to five-minute increments of time. Each second was bone-crunching agony. I spent a lot of it in bed. My friends were somehow finding relationships—the ones who were single with me, going into it, were suddenly no longer single, and the ones in long-term relationships got married and started having children. We never had a final summer of reckless abandon before they settled down. In the Before Times, we were available to one another, and then in the summer of 2021 I couldn’t get anyone to come out anymore, so I didn’t go out either. We went in as kids, they came out as adults, and I got stuck somewhere in-between.
Being single was a suspension. Touch was relegated to that of the family, the one you made, not the one you came from. I decided to write, as I had nothing else to do. I watched the attacks on the Capitol in 2021 and started noodling about. Watching something so surreal clicked inside my head. I wrote two pages and sent it to Rough Trade Books, who had nurtured the collective, 4 Brown Girls Who Write, that I am in, by publishing our pamphlets in 2020. The editor, Will, wrote an initial email of encouragement that I still keep up on my wall. The publisher, Nina, told me to write the book. Will said to aim for one hundred thousand words. I baulked. They both said they’d help, so I met Will once a month on Zoom where I’d show him my scrappy collection of words and pictures I screenshotted from the Internet. We picked a date to publish which just kept moving. All I wanted was a beautiful, finished object I could point to and know what a year of my life had resulted in, because otherwise there was nothing. I felt arid, barren, static. I kept writing. Time ticked on.
Four months before the book was sent to the printer, the publicist suggested we make a Bookseller announcement to make it official. The Observer got in touch, said they saw the announcement, and asked for the manuscript so it could be considered for their Top Ten Debuts list for the upcoming year. I hadn’t finished it, so I spent two frantic weekends trying to work it up to the best state it could be in, before the deadline. A week passed. When they told us it had made the list we were put under embargo so I couldn’t tell anyone, but for three days I would manically cry then laugh then cry again. I was writing up until the print deadline and so because of this there were no advance copies, it was going straight to the shops. I was a nightmare in those last three months. I had a tantrum on the floor of the publisher’s office where I cried for two hours and my poor editor hung off the window ledge for dear life waiting it out. My friends kept their distance from me. I was alone. I had no one to hang out with the day The Observer announcement went out until my publisher asked me to join her at her house.
When I did the interview for the paper early in the new year, the journalist apologised for taking up my time and I said, No, it’s no trouble. I wanted to tell him, I could talk to you for hours if you’d let me, because I’ve got nowhere to go and nothing else to do. I can’t believe someone is interested in me because of this book, my book, a book I wrote, me. Even when the paper came out, I didn’t tell my friends because I didn’t want it to look as if I was gloating. I used Instagram to announce it as if I were a celebrity. I sat down on the floor and stared at the photograph the paper had used of me. I scrutinised my appearance, my faded jawline, did my face really disappear into my neck like that? Was I prettier a year ago? Was I pretty now? How did I come across? I wondered what my exes thought of it and tried to see the photo from their perspective. As a joke, I said to the publisher, if this was going to happen to anyone, I’m glad that it’s happened to me.
Suddenly writing wasn’t just a hobby. I met the industry. I knew it would change my relationships with people, just as I knew telling them writing a book would. It was almost the same as when one of your friends tells you they are going to get married, or have a child. It’s one of these thresholds that until you go through it you have no idea. Then, when you do, you join a secret club of people who have shared the same experience, and other people in your life are suddenly locked out. I hoarded the secret because I didn’t want anything to change. And it did change, but now the emails coming into my inbox have gone right back down. The constant high of that attention is like snorting gak up your nose. It is addictive and I miss it now it has gone.
In publication week, one friend who was close to my creativity and now is not—she can’t stand me in fact—leaned over with her hands around her back to look at a copy of the book but didn’t touch it. She never talked to me about it. Pretended it hadn’t happened. In her eyes, none of this has happened to me. Foyles got in touch with my publicist, offering us a window. London Review of Books made it their book of the week, and there were reviews in The Observer, then The Guardian, and they were great. In the avalanche of press, like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, I felt myself become Other. I grew thick, scaly skin, hard, almost bone, because people talked about me as if I didn’t really exist, as if I don’t have feelings. I read everything, in the press and what people say online, there is no review I don’t read. I am the least chill person about what is being said about me, anxiously scanning anything anyone says about it. I hear second-hand from someone we know that the reviews were as if I was being ‘flayed alive’. I still don’t know what they meant.
In the slush of attention, there is huge space between my friends and me. I don’t have anyone other than the publisher and the publicist protecting me or going with me to events. I talk to the press and have my photo taken. I become obsessed with how I photograph. Suddenly I’m expected to know my angles—me who ate three huge slices of cake a day in lockdown. I realise I didn’t expect to be perceived this much. People call me unique, original and it’s easy to believe them. I am. I actually am, I always was. People say it is a terrible book, DNF they write, it goes nowhere, what a waste of time and it’s easy to believe them. I look at the Goodreads reviews twice—once very early on when it was at four stars, and then one night, a year later, I read all of them drunk, in bed, in one go, not blinking as I scroll down and I fall in a fitful sleep thinking I’ll never write another word, I’m not even a proper writer, they’re all right about me, the worst things I think about myself, they’ve said out loud.
As the hardback turned to a paperback, my small indie press publisher turned into one of the bigger outfits, I am shortlisted and longlisted, I take up space and multiply much like a single person turns into a couple, a couple turns into a family, with coiffed dogs on leashes and ergonomic prams and the never-satiated need for more and more space which forces me onto the road, to walk past them, I have to make way for these ever larger families, I start to do the same. There is no getting away from me. People must make way for me. I take up intellectual space. My book is in shop-window displays up and down the country, it’s posted all over the internet, my name starts to mean something to other people, people I haven’t spoken to for years message me randomly to pass on their congratulations and that they have bought a house. I find myself more secure at parties, my nervous tics disappear. I can order a drink and wait for someone if I am early, people are gracious when I am ten minutes late.
When I say I am lonely, my friends tell me, ‘At least you have your book,’ as if the publicity stands in for a partner. Writing seems like more of a business now, less a hobby, but I have nothing substantial to say. Recently all the ideas have fled out of the orifices in my mind. I strongly believe this book was my only hit, it may not happen again—though I am grateful it happened this way. My friendship circle has fluttered back into place, bar two missing feathers. After the skin-bursting shed of the last two years, like an ouroboros, my life has circled. A mouth reluctant, greets the tail.
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on the writing life.
Previously: On Community by Jan Carson