From elation to despair – how I reacted to The Call and The Other Call
Last week I went to see two emerging Irish writers read from their work at Aspects Literary Festival, one of Ireland’s foremost literature events, which just happens to take place in my home town of Bangor, County Down. The writers, Kevin Barry and Kathleen MacMahon, kicked off the five day festival with their sell out event, Dazzling Debuts. Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award last year, and earlier this year he won the Sunday Times short story award.
But in truth it was Kathleen MacMahon I went to see; the woman who last year landed one of the biggest publishing deals in recent years when her debut novel, This is How it Ends, was bought at the 2011 London Book Fair by Little, Brown. A gorgeous book, exquisitely written, it is smooth and bumpy, funny and thought provoking, uplifting and, ultimately, heartbreaking, each character perfectly crafted and vividly voiced.
During the Q&A session after the readings, MacMahon admitted that it was, in fact, the second novel she had written. The first secured her an agent, but no publishing deal. My ears pricked up. She had come close to a deal, she revealed, but then it didn’t happen. A near miss, she said. Were you devastated, someone asked? Not a bit, she smiled, I was relieved. I nearly fell off my chair. Relieved? Relieved? Did she really, truthfully say that? My companion (Natasha Geary @scriptsmart, another talented writer who’s on the verge of landing a debut deal herself) nodded. Apparently she had.
I didn’t feel any sense of relief when it happened to me. Not a morsel of it. I was devastated. Unequivocally, absolutely and, I can see now, somewhat absurdly.
Since I launched this blog back in May, my ‘deal and then no deal’ story has been hanging over me like a bad smell, poking at my shoulder, lingering like one of those irritating colds that never really comes to anything but won’t go away. I knew I’d have to address it sometime. I couldn’t admit to the whole naked feeling thing and then not tell the tale of the day my clothes fell off.
It was four years ago, almost exactly. My novel, Biddy Weirdo, had been submitted for publication by my agent. Initial responses were positive; a few rejections tinged with regret that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t or wouldn’t make a bid, mostly because they didn’t know where to place it. It was obvious pretty quickly that my book was difficult to position; for some it was too adult for their YA list, for others too YA for their adult list. A couple of publishers were properly keen, but my novel clashed with a recent acquisition or another book on their list. A couple of others made notes of interest, which eventually came to nothing. At least we weren’t getting ‘sorry, but this is shit,’ replies, or ‘tell Ms Richardson to go work in a butcher’s as she seems to be at home with tripe’. It will happen, my agent reassured me. We’re close.
At the same time, my husband’s non-fiction book was also in submission. His had been doing the rounds a bit longer than mine and had also come frustratingly close to getting a deal on a couple of occasions only for his hopes to be crushed. We were beginning to lose faith that either one would ever make it onto a book shelf. Then, out of the blue, one sunny autumn morning in 2008, John got The Call. We whooped and rejoiced, and hand on heart I was thrilled for him. I can genuinely say I never thought, you jammy bastard, not even fleetingly! Then, a few hours later, just as the champagne was chilling in the fridge, I got The Call too. I was sorting socks at the time. When Susan said the words, those words that every writer longs to hear, I cried so much my terrified daughter ran for her dad gasping, something’s wrong with mum. And then, of course, we were all crying, hugging, whooping and toasting an incredible day. It was one of those rare, serendipitous moments of total symmetry and unabated joy. The kind of thing you read about in soppy, romantic novels. The twist at the end of a Nora Ephron Rom Com. We were writing our very own happy ending.
The next few weeks were spent in a flurry of exciting activity, agreeing terms, fine tuning contracts, getting our heads around the fact that we were both going to be published at the same time. John had already published a successful business book a couple of years previously, so his elation didn’t quite meet the heady heights of mine, and in truth he was probably more excited for me than for himself. After all, this was my game changer. From now on I would be known as Lesley Richardson, published author. Not a copywriter, but a novelist. A proper writer. I’d been given the validation I had craved and my life was about to change forever. I wouldn’t be able to quit my bread and butter copywriting work immediately, of course, wave ta-ra to my clients overnight. As both our deals were with small independent publishing companies, the advances were extremely modest. But that was fine. It would take time to mould, this new life of mine, a while for everything to shift into place. Publication was set for the following spring; hardback first, followed by paperback release a few months later. All I had to do now was sign the contract, and while we waited on that, I carried on with everyday life, a few feet taller in a haze of happy mist.
I was doing the weekly shop in Tesco when The Other Call came. Standing at the fish section, a packet of cut price smoked salmon in my hand. Should I or should I not add it to the trolley? It would do grand for scrambled egg brunch on Sunday. Then again, what if it was stinking? My mobile rang and I tossed the salmon into the trolley and pulled the phone out of my bag. Susan, my agent. It isn’t everyone’s call I will accept whilst grocery shopping, for fear that chatting will prolong the agony, but Susan has instant access, wherever, whenever. Of course I knew at once, just the way she said my name; the grimace over the ‘Les’, the extension of the ‘ley’. Lezleeeeeee. I looked at the salmon and immediately knew I didn’t want it.
It wasn’t me, they said, it was the climate. The downturn had changed everything. They were experiencing problems. They couldn’t commit after all. Sorry. The crash had turned into a pile up and I was one of the victims. Granted, compared to thousands of others I walked away relatively unscathed; just a fractured dream, a badly bruised ego, and a few bottles of champagne I felt obliged to return along with the congratulations cards. I hadn’t actually signed yet, so the book was still mine. Apparently I was lucky. Only I didn’t feel lucky. The lucky I had felt for three short weeks stuck two fingers up my nose, shoved them straight through my eye sockets, and laughed in my face. Only joking you stupid twit, it roared. When I started this blog I promised myself that I would be completely and utterly honest, always, no matter what, regardless of how stark raving naked that honesty made me feel. So here you have it – when my book deal fell though I was devastated, mentally and physically shattered, literally poleaxed with grief. Now, I’m fully aware how ridiculously ridiculous that sounds, it was only a book deal, after all, but honestly my heart was broken. I felt as though I’d been jilted at the altar. Actually, I felt bereaved.
And then I really was bereaved. Not long afterwards a dear friend lost her battle with cancer. Within weeks my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and, after a horrendous few months, he too lost his fight. And shortly before his death a cousin, a beautiful, vibrant girl who had just turned 40 also lost her life. Cancer, again. All I’d lost was a bloody book deal.
I did get over myself, pretty quickly once I proper heartbreak to deal with, but my confidence was wrecked and my ability to write seemed paralysed. A combination of all the real grief coupled with some other personal garbage (a hysterectomy, the betrayal of a friend) stifled me. My agent continued to send Biddy out to publishers, but in truth I think we both felt like it was damaged goods. She encouraged me to write something new, and I tried, I really did, but each time I came up with a new idea for a novel the story sank like a brick, or stank like a stink bomb. I have several drafts of stories begun and discarded, sometimes after a few hundred words, sometimes thousands. Then one day I realised that they all had one thing in common: a central character named Elizabeth. Suddenly I saw a possibility, and The possibilities of Elizabeth was born. Now all I have to do is finish the damn thing.
My reaction to the failure of my first novel to make it into a book shop was the polar opposite of Kathleen MacMahon’s. Hers was relief, mine distress. She was energised, I was dejected. She wrote, I didn’t. Kathleen MacMahon is the one who now has a bestselling novel with a £600,000 two book deal. I don’t. Simples, as that furry little meerkat fellow would say. As I sat in that room listening to Kathleen read with her glorious Irish lilt, I felt like such a fool. I’m not saying that I’d be in Kathleen’s very expensive shoes right now, but if I’d only adopted an iota of her drive and committed properly to The Possibilities of Elizabeth, I might just be wearing one of her pop socks. So, I’ll say it again, now I just need to finish the damn thing, and, well, you never know.
And by the way, my husband’s book did make it into print, was quite a hit, and still sells very well. Bastard!