Way back in 1999, Galaxy Craze – a former actress who'd appeared in films including Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and the thriller A Kiss Before Dying – published By the Shore, a beautifully controlled novel about a 12-year-old girl named May caught between warring parents. The novel was so assured and the prose so engaging that it seemed inevitable that this would be the start of a long and successful literary career.
Most notably, Craze, who was born in London but moved with her mother to America at 10, seemed able to combine an American and English literary sensibility: By the Shore was an elegant and precise novel about the British seaside that could be appreciated by a global audience. But for the past nine years Craze has been silent, until finally returning this year with a sequel, Tiger, Tiger, that picks up May's story two years later, describing what happens when her mother falls under the influence of a manipulative Californian guru. The first thing I have to ask her when we meet for lunch is: what took you so long?
"I don't know what happened," sighs Craze, who is in her late-30s and is neighbours with the band Sonic Youth. "Wait, you gotta admit, don't you, my first book's better than my second? Tell the truth." No, I tell her, this one's better. The prose is stronger, the characters are more developed, and her depiction of how May copes with being taken to an ashram is totally convincing. I liked it a lot more. "You did? You're kidding," she says, in genuine disbelief. "I could use children as an excuse but they had nothing to do with it. When I wrote By the Shore, that book felt like it was coming to me out of the air. I had no distractions. I remember not even returning a call from this boy I had a mad crush on.
"But then, when I tried to write my second book, I tried to imitate the same surroundings. I went back to my mother's house – we weren't getting along – and I was writing something that wasn't good. I wrote half a novel and threw it away. Then I wrote a whole novel – a completely different story – and right before I got married in 2002, I sent it to my editor. She edited the manuscript and sent it back, and I was looking at her changes and thought, 'This isn't good, I'm going to start over.'"
Hang on, I ask her, how did your editor feel about this? "She was having another baby and I didn't want to bother her. I didn't want to be a needy writer. I never called her." OK, I say, but this was years of your work you were about to abandon; surely you needed a second opinion? "She didn't seem too upset. She said, 'Oh, there's a lot of beautiful writing that will be lost.' But I just felt like her changes were too much effort for that book. And I'm lazy, I didn't want to do the revisions. If it wasn't good enough, there's nothing that's going to make it so."
Surely all writers have to do some revisions? Were there no edits with Tiger, Tiger? "I think my editor got to the point where, it's nine years later, and she just said, we accept it. But there was tons of revision. Even after I'd handed it in I kept rewriting, changing structure. My editor wasn't into the idea of the ashram; she told me, that's what people wrote about in the 1960s. It was incredibly difficult to portray it in a way that's not stereotypical. It's impossible to capture a guru and make people understand why their followers would give up their independence and their money to them."
Novelists are often experts at evasion but, as should be clear by now, Craze is incredibly honest. I ask if she felt any anxiety or depression during this period. "Those were not happy years of my life," she confesses. "I never went on vacation. Even if I went away for the weekend I would bring my computer – and of course, get no work done." Writers often say no time is wasted, that even dead projects can help your development. But Craze didn't feel this way. "I wish I could have those years back. To be honest, I don't think this is a great book, but I just thank God it's done."
Craze thinks she was suffering from difficult second-novel syndrome and from now on things will be easier. I'm sure this will be the case, but readers shouldn't pay too much attention to Craze's self-doubts about Tiger, Tiger; these are the misgivings of a perfectionist. And of someone who dislikes drama for drama's sake.
Some of the reviewers who have praised Tiger, Tiger have drawn particular attention to the sex scenes in the book, as Craze depicts May falling for the charms of a manipulative older girl named Sati. But now she thinks that including these scenes was a mistake.
"I wish I hadn't written the sex scenes; I feel like they were too much for the book. I was doing it because it was fun to write, and I thought books should have some sex. My first book, people would say it was beautiful but very quiet. I guess I didn't know what they meant because I felt there was a lot going on when I was writing it, so with Tiger, Tiger I was trying to be not so quiet."
I sense that part of the reason Craze is down on the book is that, though she's had some good reviews, it had a quiet reception in the US. "It got ignored compared with the first book. Places that have given my first book a great review didn't even review this one. Part of that has to do with the times, my publisher said, but you can't blame it all on that."
Well, maybe not, but Craze, who loves writing about England and finds romance in the countryside and architecture of her birthplace, is likely to find greater acceptance for her book here. It's already being warmly reviewed, and the novelists she is closest to in tone – Esther Freud, Helen Dunmore, Julie Myerson – are British. Maybe Americans just don't get nostalgia about toy shops (the title is the name of a toy shop Craze remembers from childhood), British food (an obsession of Craze's transferred to May) and novelists who refrain from judging their characters.
For Craze, as a reader and writer, the prose is of paramount importance. A friend had recommended Stephenie Meyer's teen vampire novel Twilight as a page-turner to read on the plane, but, she says, "It's not a page-turner for me as the writing is so bad. Books that people tell me are such great stories are not great stories to me if the writing isn't concise and poetic or doesn't have its own voice. When I was younger I was more invested in the idea of writing a bestseller but now I realise that's not so important."
Both By the Shore and Tiger, Tiger depict a child trying to deal with the midlife crises of the baby-boomer generation, and although May is such a compelling character that Craze could return to her in future novels, she says she's done with these characters and with writing about childhood. Now she draws inspiration from her marriage (she's married to the novelist and documentary producer Sam Brumbaugh) and her children, and wants to write about being an adult and how this generation is turning out to be different from the one before.
It seems as if her doubts about her book are balanced by happiness in her personal life, which came as something of a surprise to her. "It was always a choice: career or kids. But you can mix it up. You don't have to be a type-A personality, a superstar in your job; you can have an OK career and be happy." Not a sentiment you often hear from novelists, unless they're pretending to be self-effacing, but as Craze puts her wellingtons back on and traipses off to meet her family, I realise she's utterly sincere.
Tiger, Tiger, By Galaxy Craze (Cape £12.99)
'... Most of the people left the room, but a few remained, still sitting on the floor, like the last guests at a party. The candles had burned low, the incense had turned to strings of ash. A small flame on a candle flickered inside a red glass. When I hear the word "loneliness" ... I think of that room'