In the Autumn of 2015, I discovered something new about myself as a writer. It wasn’t the fact that, after twenty years of writing poetry, I was now embarking on a new adventure: my first piece of long fiction. It wasn’t that after forty years or more of reading crime fiction, I was finally taking the leap into writing it. It was the actual time of day that I chose to sit at my laptop and begin the arduous task of filling the empty screen with words, much as I’m doing right now. Now it is late in the day; the other tasks preoccupying my fretful brain have been put to bed and the mid-Autumn light is fading. Back then it was early dawn, the sunrise not yet breaking through the trees at the end of our garden and the house still quiet, other than for the relaxed breathing of my husband in one bedroom, or of our dog at the foot of the stairs.
I would like to say that I had deliberately chosen 5:30AM as an auspicious time at which to start this new project. That the strains of Eartha Kitt’s ‘new dawn, new day’ were running through my head as I opened the laptop and watched the screen flicker into white space. But that would not be honest. The choice was entirely hormonal; the combination of menopause and underactive thyroid had rendered my bed uncomfortable those past few months. It was harder work staying put beneath the duvet than it was climbing the stairs to the attic room and beginning the day’s work early. And the advantage was that I could get a head-start with the novel before the rest of the world began posting status updates or tweeting themselves into existence.
So I found the house to myself (almost), the headspace to myself (completely) and a spare ninety minutes each day to try out this new type of writing, this mad challenge I had set myself. And it felt utterly appropriate that I should try out a new way of storytelling at an ungodly hour. The very repetitiveness of the task I set myself—to get up at 5:30, write for ninety minutes, produce a thousand words a day (a teacher had pointed out that writing five-hundred words a day would produce a novel in six months and, literalist that I was, I wanted to test the hypothesis)—was utterly at odds with the way I’d written poetry all these decades. I’m a very responsive poet; unlike those who sit and wait for inspiration to strike, I need a stimulus, and usually find it from a morning walk, a beautiful landscape, an existential threat in a doctor’s waiting room, that sort of thing. I never expect it to turn up like clock-work, or to keep regular hours.
But novel-writing felt very different. I seemed to enjoy this diurnal rhythm, this regularity. As I typed, the chapters grew in number, the characters developed, the conversations became livelier. As the page numbers climbed, the story itself felt more solid, more substantial. It could also be mercurial; one slip of a storyline and I was sheafing back through printouts and notebooks, trying to remember who was supposed to have done what to whom and whether they still could take that action if I’d killed them off earlier. So there was a lot at stake in keeping track of this accumulation of words.
The mornings built up into weeks, into months, through redraft after redraft. The pile of pages got bulkier, then the task of typing ‘The End’ came into view. One day that finally happened. Having spent two decades as a poet, I was now a novelist.
Then another strange thing happened, something that requires me to be especially honest with you now. Something changed about my self image as a writer. I felt more confident about this bulky pile of paper with a punchy title and the requisite amount of suspense, than about the four slim volumes of verse sitting resentfully on my book shelf. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m quietly proud of the books of poetry I’ve published, the journals I’ve edited, the critical studies I’ve contributed to. But I’m a little abashed too. Poetry isn’t something you can chat with the neighbour about, or engage in small talk over with a stranger at a party. And when somebody does tell you they’ve read your book, that it was like looking inside your head, you quake a little.
But novels are different, and crime fiction is different again. Everybody knows somebody who reads crime fiction, don’t they? It’s the sort of thing you buy your grandmother for Christmas, or a favourite aunt for their birthday. It’s not an embarrassing habit, something to keep quiet about. It even has commercial potential, so all those grey-suited people who tutted over the life wasted to poetry can have nothing to complain to me about now.
Thus I went into the valley of death in search of a publisher with my head held high. The lengthy wait for a response to a manuscript was no different to what I’d experienced in the poetry world; it was only a matter of time before my confidence would be vindicated.
And so it proved to be, though not in the ways I’d imagined all those months ago before I was a published author. The book found a home; I found myself having lots of conversations with people about the story I was writing, and the sequels I might be planning, and the potential for TV adaptations. Friends seemed more delighted for me, now that I was a real writer of books that they might actually read. My family could actually look me straight in the eye and admit that not only had they begun my book, they’d finished it too. And recommended it to their friends.
Before, I had been a poet. Now I was an author. I had never understood all those introductions of such-and-such a person as ‘author and poet’; I’d always thought the two were inextricably linked and needed no differentiation. But now I understand. An author has an audience. A poet has other poets. I like having an audience. That doesn’t mean that I won’t shortly return to the quieter landscape of poetry, to wrestle with images that capture whatever existential crisis I’m currently grappling with. But for now I am enjoying the concept of popularity: the novelty of writing in a different way.