I Swear, I Just Made It Up (No, Really, I Did)

‘So I read your book,’ they say.

When someone I know personally – a relative, a friend, a former co-worker or classmate – says this to me, I never know how to respond. You cannot ask ‘And what did you think?’ because that puts them on the spot and anyway  I don’t want to know because it might be bad. Usually I either mumble a thank you, or giggle nervously and say that that’s good because now there’s going to be a quiz.

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Sometimes though, before I can do any of these socially awkward things, they get a bit of a glint in their eye and their face adopts a kind of suspicious-yet-bemused expression (trust me, this exists) and then they say something like ‘Who was x based on?’ or ‘Where did you get that idea?’ and everything – their tone, their face, the little pause they took before they asked the question – suggests to me that they think they already know the answer, and that the answers lies in my real life.

They refuse to believe that I just made it up. Or maybe they can’t believe it, and I get why that might be.

First of all, if you’re not a writer, making stuff up must seem like a bat-faeces crazy concept. Something from nothing? A whole 100,000-word book from a virtual blank page? What voodoo is this?! (The caffeine-induced kind, obviously.) I feel the same way at the start of the process, when I’m staring down that blank page, the first of 400 or so of them that I have to murder one-by-one in order to write a book. It is a kind of black magic. And over those 400 pages, there’s bound to be some person or some experience that’s common to us all, and people who know you are bound to read it and think that it’s based on your personal experience that’s common to us to all, and that actually this fiction is thinly disguised fact. Even though it’s not.

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Big surprise for me this week – Blackstone, my US publisher, did my ARCs (American for proof copies, don’t ya know) in hardcover! They look absolutely amazing – as do the “brochures” for a cruise aboard the Celebrate that are going to go out to reviewers, bloggers, etc. with them. We have a new US publication date as well: February 2, 2017. 

Second of all… Well, not all of it is fiction. Some of it is thinly disguised fact. Because while I don’t abide by the advice that you should write what you know, I wholeheartedly believe that you should, as much as possible, use what you know. In Distress Signals, Adam is a struggling writer surrounded by people who think he should get a proper job. (Ahem.) This was easier for me than, say, making him a biochemist, especially because I was so bad at the single year of Chemistry I did in secondary school that I wouldn’t have just failed the state exam in it, I would’ve been unable to say for sure if the exam paper I’d been handed was in fact the correct one. (Luckily I dropped it before such a scenario could occur.)

I’d never worked on a cruise ship, but I had worked in the housekeeping department of a colossal hotel, and in principle the running of a department that cleans cabins on a ship is exactly the same. I’d also had experience of living “on site”; back in 2006, I (briefly) worked as a campsite courier on a resort in France. During the day I cleaned sparkly new customer accommodation – tents and mobile homes – and afterwards I went back to the crappy old broken tent the company had given me to live in. Everything we had, from the pillows thinner than a slice of toast to the cracked patio chairs to the chipped mugs, had already been used and abused the paying customers – just like what Corinne and the rest of the crew have on board the Celebrate.

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There is a chance to win one of these beautiful babies, signed and personally inscribed, over on my Facebook page. Open worldwide until midnight GMT Sunday 18th September. 

And, yes, all Corkonians – most Irish people, in fact – do pronounce the word ‘film’ with two syllables, i.e. ‘fill-um.’ And ever since I started working abroad and being the butt of good-natured jokes about this, I have avoided using that word. I tend to say ‘movie’ instead, encroaching American influence on my language be damned, or very carefully pronounce the f-word. Adam does this in Distress Signals. Does that mean Adam is really me? No! Because if we take that logic to its extreme, I am also French and (potentially) a serial killer.

(And let’s just say, god help me for Book 2.)

I think there could be a third reason the non-writing people in your life believe that they see mutual friends or shared relatives in the pages of your book: because they want to. That’s what the suspicious/bemused look is about, the knowing smile, the wink. (Yes, sometimes there’s even a wink.) They think they’ve sussed it, spotted a secret hidden in plain sight, solved the clues – and maybe they think no one else has. Or maybe it’s not about them, but about me. Maybe they think I couldn’t have made it up. That I’m just not that talented or creative or imaginative. But moving swiftly on—

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Book 2 is finally FINISHED. Well, the first draft of it is but that’s the hardest part.  I bought this little bottle of champagne to drink when I typed THE END but it’s actually still in my fridge because I am awaiting verdicts from my agent and my editor. I love revising and redrafting so I know this is just raw material in many ways, but still it’s important that they think it’s good enough raw material. I’ll let you know if I get to open it! 

I made it up. That’s what fiction is, what being a writer is. I sit down at my desk, I drink coffee and I make stuff up until there’s enough made-up stuff to make a book.

So if you’re reading Distress Signals or you’ve travelled into the future and are already reading Book 2, rest assured, I just made it up.

All of it. Every word.

Well, except for that bit that’s obviously about you.

In other news, you may have noticed the e-book of Distress Signals has got new threads. Find out more about what and why in Distress Signals: The Cover Story over on Writing.ie. Don’t forget you can enter to win a HARDCOVER (ooooh!) ARC of it over on my Facebook page or, if you’re a book reviewer or blogger who’s based in the U.S., you can also request it from NetGalley

The Feeling of My Own Extreme Caring

I have always been jealous of people with a demonstrable, consuming passion, especially when it results in an incredible, sustained effort to start and finish a creative project.

As regular readers know, thanks to the whole Distress Signals editing and launch festivities, I ended the academic year down three essays and had to do them over the summer. One of them was about the Lisle Letters, a collection of 3,000 pieces of correspondence generated by a dynastic Tudor family during the reign of Henry VIII. To the untrained eye, they look to be written in hieroglyphics – and did I mention there are 3,000 of them? The historian Muriel St. Clare Byrne took it upon herself to translate them, edit them and put them together in six volumes with her own commentary, a collection published in 1981 on Byrne’s 86th birthday. It had taken her almost 50 years to complete the project. Fifty years of work with no guarantee of publication. Imagine the dedication that required.

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A few years back I went to a talk in Waterstones Cork given by John Boyne and Claire Kilroy. At it, Boyne talked about the feverish creation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He said it was something he had to start right away and that once he had, he couldn’t stop. The story flowed. It flowed so much that he wrote continuously from Tuesday to Friday, punching out 50,000 words, only stopping when his friends insisted that he step away from the desk for a night on the town – because Friday was his birthday.

It doesn’t have to be books. During a recent and particularly shameful bout of procrastination, I discovered that early seasons of The Hills were on my On Demand TV menu. In one episode, a superstar intern from Teen Vogue in New York comes to Los Angeles and instantly removes any doubt about whether the MTV girls are working there for real or not. I wondered where this superstar intern was now, because surely she was editor of her own magazine or something. When I looked her up, I found an interview where she talked about launching her own website/blog while still holding down a day job. This involved getting up at 4:00am every morning and working until she had to leave for work at eight. Every. Single. Morning. Jonathan Safran Foer also spent a period of time getting up at 4:00am ‘savouring both the solitude, and the feeling of my own extreme caring‘.

It doesn’t even have to be real. There’s something about the movie Julie and Julia (which, while based on a true story, probably isn’t exactly true to life) that stirs a motivation in me. I just love how Julie is feeling a bit blah about everything until she decides that she’ll cook everything – all 500+ recipes – in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the next 365 days, and blog about it. This commitment, this passion project, takes over her life. Meanwhile, in 1950s Paris, Julia Child is revelling in her newly discovered passions of food and cooking.

I’m jealous of these people, and unnerved by them. Should I feel like this about my work? When I’m writing a book, should I feel like they do, ignoring everything else besides? In one of my favourite movies, Adaptation, Meryl Streep (playing author Susan Orlean in a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman) considers that the reason people are passionate about things is because ‘it whittles the world down to a more manageable size’. How wonderful that would be – to not even think about cleaning your house or Netflix or in fact anything at all except writing and finishing your book. Because at times that’s all I can seem to think about.

There have been times in my life when I had felt that drive to finish something, when I really did ignore everything else – food, time, TV – because I was so consumed by what I was doing. Making a scrapbook when I returned from my eighteen months in Florida. When I decided to start a handmade card company and worked to put together a catalogue. Self-publishing Mousetrapped and everything that came with it.

And it’s looking back on these times that I realise I’m romanticising this kind of passionate, creative rapture and that the way I work – over a long period of time, with breaks for Netflix, around my normal life – is, while not as exciting, the only way forward. Because these raptures aren’t sustainable. Everything would fall apart if I ignored everything but my writing. And I want to sustain. I want to be able do this for as long as I possibly can.

I’m passionate about that. And I think that’s enough.