Vicious cycle

The time: March 1991 The place: Kentish Town, north London The woman: Amanda Craig, novelist

When my first novel, Foreign Bodies, came out in 1990, I was in tears for a year - which is now extremely funny, but was not at the time. I had spent most of my twenties, in between doing journalism, writing and rewriting it, and I'd come across all the usual problems: I had an editor who accepted the book only to be fired the next week; I had an agent who lost the only manuscript, so I had to rewrite it from scratch, and I was very poor and not very self-confident.

And when I got a proper agent and she had an auction, which was exciting, I thought this was going to be a wonderful new life. I'd only ever wanted to write novels and now I was being published, I was extremely happy.

We had been trying for three years to have a baby, and I thought "oh, how wonderful, I'm having a baby and I'm having a book". And then they both went wrong the same day.

I got the papers that Sunday, and it was a week before I was expecting any reviews to come out, and I wasn't prepared for this, the first review and the killer review. I saw a photo of myself massively retouched and smirking out of the paper, and began to read the piece. I just couldn't believe it; I was so shocked.

You read it automatically and think, "this is wrong, she hates the book because she hates the character, but the character is meant to be hateful, what's happened here?" Your mind is buzzing with all these things. And I began to lose the baby. I was nine weeks pregnant. It was really horrible, that day. I was very, very upset; it may just be a coincidence, but it came all at once. You feel as if you have been stabbed. What comes off at you is this wave of hatred, and it stuns you, it just takes your breath away, it's like somebody wants to kill you. That's what a bad review feels like.

I now realise it was a ridiculous overreaction. At the time it was horrendous. It was also a physical thing with the miscarriage, and you have to pull yourself together, and then there's another awful review and another one and two weeks later it's your launch party and you've got to face all these people.

The hardest thing, when you write a novel, is really the tone, getting the voice consistent. But when you begin, what seems like the hardest thing is the story. I taught myself to do plots by reading the course Robert McKee does on story structure, which is great for writing films, but a disaster if you're trying to write literary fiction. And I, like a complete innocent, didn't realise this. What I'd done was to imagine a very awful, arrogant Sloaney narrator who runs off to Tuscany like an EM Forster heroine in search of love and beauty, and she finds it in all the wrong places and with all the wrong people, but she also uncovers a murder - this was the Robert McKee bit. I'd wanted to write more than a classic rites of passage novel and more than a satire on Chiantishire, but it was utterly over the top. And I didn't realise this at all.

Everyone who had read the book roared with laughter and got the joke - the heroine is called Emma - but the people who reviewed it didn't. I was staggered that critics could dismiss a novel simply because the protagonist was unpleasant. I still hadn't realised that of course they were reacting to the fact I had written a bad novel.

I wrote a furious letter to the literary editor, which is the last thing you must ever do. I was a complete prat. And I had to write my second novel in six months, and I was a complete wreck, physically and mentally. When I began to realise I'd written a bad novel that was also devastating, because you then wonder if you're ever going to write a good one. And I felt so sorry for myself that I went to bed in tears and got up in tears.

I was completely sunk in misery and fury; I would go out to lunch with people and I was like a lunatic, I would get on the subject of writing and it would descend into this furious rant. It got to the point where I was bursting into tears and I would start laughing at myself for crying, because I could see how silly it was, and yet you still can't jerk yourself out of this. It's the awful thing about depression, you go around in this terrible monochrome cloud and you're aware there are far more serious things going on in the world but you can't stop.

Self-pity on a professional level is one thing, but the baby was much worse because we were so desperate to have one. It was pretty awful: for one thing you're quite ill and it's quite scary, and for another there's this culture still of not talking about miscarriages.

And I still had to write this bloody novel and make it better than the first.

I did write a better novel, because in the middle of all this I came across this essay that saved my sanity. It was like a bucket of cold water being poured on me. It was about halfway through the year, I was sitting at my desk, feeling very despondent, and I found this essay by Paul Fussell, called "On Being Reviewed". In it he says all the things I hadn't even begun to think of - that nobody asks you to write a novel, it goes on the market and you have to accept what people think. And that the only response of a real writer when you get a bad review is just to write another book. It was so, so funny - he quotes from these whingeing letters - and I roared with laughter, and it cured me, it made me grow up.

I got pregnant after A Private Place, the second novel, came out and I was so happy. I was very ill, and it was a very traumatic pregnancy and birth, but it was like nothing compared with writing the second novel. When you have a baby your body takes over, or the doctors do; when you write a book there's nobody except you, you've got to find that will to keep going.

I had wonderful parents and friends, but I didn't tell them about the miscarriage, I think, until I got pregnant again. If I'd kept the baby it would have protected me against the self-pity, and I now feel very much with writing that it doesn't matter what happens to the books in some way - my two children are much more important.

The other good thing was that I got asked to start reviewing, by The Independent, and that also made me grow up because I saw the other side of the coin. The quickest way to rise as a critic is to do a hatchet job, but if you're good you try to make it more balanced and serve the book- buyer; but if you're too kind you're not serving them. And this triangle between the author, the critic and the book-buyer began to fascinate me, and that's what fed into the literary bits of my new book A Vicious Circle. I began to see how horribly funny this battle between writer and critic was and what a good satire it would make. You can't take sides in this battle because they're both right and they're both wrong, and often neither is thinking of the reader, who is the only person who matters.

There's been a lot of complaint this year in all the arts about the critics and how insensitive they are, RB Kitaj and Michael Bogdanov, for instance, and all the people who've complained look like prats. But it's very, very funny for me to see the biter bit.

I've had my first hatchet job by DJ Taylor on A Vicious Circle and I was in tears again, but they were tears of laughter.

Amanda Craig's novel, `A Vicious Circle', after being withdrawn by Penguin because of fears that the character of a ruthless but stylish literary journalist was too near the mark for certain literati, was published by Fourth Estate yesterday, priced pounds 15.99.

Interview by Emma Daly

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