Reader, I made a killing

The column It took long enough to admit to writing a um ... kind of ... novel thing, but now Maggie O'Farrell has to cope with money, success and the reactions of `friends'
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
You'd have thought I'd be euphoric. You'd have thought I'd be dancing naked on cafe tables, calling up all my friends to come and join me. My first novel was being auctioned between four publishers. The money was going up, as my friend Ellis put it, "in increments of the price of a car". Bribes kept arriving at my office: boxes of books, flowers, a feather boa. "What's next?" one of my colleagues remarked, "a brace of partridges?"

And where was I? Hiding behind the answerphone in my flat. I was having the weirdest time of my life. Everyone around me was in a state of feverish excitement but I was behaving like an educationally subnormal recluse.

This wasn't normal stress - the bad, debilitating kind pertaining to deadlines or exams or relationship break-ups. This was good stress. Success stress. I found that you do very strange things: I threw out half my clothes. I wandered round a supermarket for hours without buying anything. I even washed the kitchen floor. At one point, just as my agent Victoria called, I was snipping with some blunt nail scissors at the fringe of my new haircut. "I'm glad you rang," I told her. "You've stopped me cutting chunks out of my hair." There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Oh right," she said calmly, obviously used to dealing with people in the grip of temporary insanity.

I had met the publishers the previous week on what was the strangest day of all. What I couldn't get over was that everywhere Victoria and I went the focus of attention was me. Everyone talked and laughed and asked me questions. But if I so much as opened my mouth to mumble, "Well, I find ... " the room fell silent and everyone gazed at me. It was the most disconcerting experience I've ever had. And every time it happened I completely lost my thread and forgot what I was about to say.

At one point, someone said, "So which books would you say inspired you?" The room stopped like a lift. The collected company leant in to hear my answer. But I couldn't remember the name of any book I had read ever - not even ones I didn't like. My mind went as blank as an Antarctic plain. "Errggghh, uuumm," I managed. Victoria swept to my rescue: "We should be going," she announced briskly, "I think Maggie's exhausted." She marched out of the room and down the corridor. I stumbled after her, convinced that the entire publishing world of Britain now thought I was an inarticulate simpleton.

It goes eventually to Headline Review for pounds 65,000. I hear the news from a callbox in a service station off the M11. When I call my parents later in the day, it's clearly too much for my father: "Which service station was it?" is his initial reaction. Then he shouts, "Sixty-five thousand pounds is a lot of money!"

Getting what you want - what you've always wanted - is a very peculiar shock. Middle-class British culture and education is inured in the "aim halfway and make-do" mentality: if your parents have any modicum of sense, and don't want to have engendered a nauseatingly cocky brat, you are brought up to play safe, to do what you're good at and no more, to keep your reach within your grasp, to be content with your lot. We're taught how to cope with disappointment and failure, but not success. Ambitions are tolerated as far as the four-year-old ballerina/astronaut stage, then quashed. And quite rightly so - there can be nothing worse than growing up with the expectation of being a rocket scientist and then having to get used to being an estate agent.

When I started writing my book I didn't tell anyone; I was past the 25,000- words mark before I could even admit to myself that I was writing a ... um ... kind of ... novel thing. The only way I could carry on was by telling myself that it didn't matter what happened, that I was writing it for myself, that I was doing it because I was enjoying it. When a novelist tutor on a writing course in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales said she liked it and did I have an agent yet, I was so excited and surprised I ran outside and fell straight into a ditch.

People's reactions are interesting, and varied. Colleagues keep asking me when I'm leaving (answer: I'm not). I've received cards and letters from people who knew me as a child or friends of my parents I hardly know. My family are bemused and pleased - and more than a little paranoid. I have to assure my mother, over and over, that the rather feckless mother in the book isn't based on her. "But everyone will think she is!" she wails. I promise to put in a disclaiming dedication.

It has also sorted the friends from the goats. The real friends ask close questions about the whole process and what happens now and when's it going to be out and what's going to be on the cover? The galling reactions are not so much negative as lacklustre: "You've been very lucky," someone says sourly. A woman I've always counted among my closest friends sits silently through an entire conversation with two other people about it, then snaps, "How much money d'you get then?" It's hard to feel the same about someone after that. Somehow more galling is that in the past two weeks I've had three invitations to dinner from people I've barely spoken to - suddenly they've decided they like me.

The effect that imminent publication has on your writing is one of severe self-criticism. Going over the manuscript in the knowledge that people will soon be reading it, I hit the delete button more than ever before: some dodgy lines go, as do song lyrics, and some "datable" references. I agonise for ages over whether a character would wear boxer shorts or jockey shorts, and how a man would concisely refer to the latter. Jockies? Shorts? Pants? I canvass opinion: "Um, I'm not sure," one chosen male replies. "I don't generally tend to talk about them."

After You'd Gone has so far been sold in Sweden, Italy, Germany and Holland, and the sum I'll be getting for it has just tipped over six figures. Not that I've seen so much as the price of a Kit-Kat yet - all the clothes I've had to buy to replace the ones I threw away have had to come off my overdraft. But my hair is growing back nicely

Comments