Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I get a call from Trevor, my publisher, this morning. He invites me into the office so I can pick up the proof copies and discuss to whom we should send them.

I’d imagined the proofs to be ring-bound A4 folders, like the ones I used to use in my past corporate life when I wanted to divert attention from the fact that there was no substance to a presentation I was making.

As Trevor guides me to a leather sofa in Preface’s schmoozing room, he hands me a paperback book, only this one has a familiar cover: The Mango Orchard. It’s not quite the finished article, a point conceded by the disclaimer at the bottom of the front cover: “Uncorrected proof. Not for resale.” The opening pages are blank, they have lines of text that say “Maps to come” and “dedication to come”. But that, and a few typographical errors aside, here it is. My book.

The purpose of having these proof copies is to ‘create a buzz’. We want to send them to notable people – writers, broadcasters and journalists – in the hope that they will read it and say how life-changingly brilliant the book is. Trevor already has a Who’s Who type list of people who I can’t help thinking will be far too busy to look at my book. I rack my brain for any famous people I could add to the list. I once met Paul McCartney at a party and asked for his autograph. Probably not. I used to live next door-but-three to Sebastian Coe (me and my friend Patrick Edwards used to spit in his drive – not because we didn’t like him, we had just learned how to spit and that’s kind of important when you’re three). No, not Seb either. Then I remember my neighbour Ian had given me the address of a friend of his, both a famous actress and author. Trevor claps his hands together “Perfect!” he says.

I arrive home and write her a letter. Because of the postal strikes, and because it is a nice day, I decide to deliver the proof copy to her house myself. I cycle across North London and manage to track down her house. I am disappointed. This beautiful, classy woman who has worked with the Hollywood elite lives in what looks like a squat. The house number is written on the gate post in magic marker, there are no curtains and the only furniture I can see is a guitar. The paint is peeling off the house walls and the garden fence has been completely covered by car hubcaps. I check the address I had written on the envelope. It’s right: No. 25. I force the envelope through the letter box and cycle home.

Back at my desk, I begin to write this blog. I look at the post-it note with the address of the famous actress and author written on it and I wonder how I’m going to tell my neighbour that his friend lives in a house that looks like the set for Withnail and I. No.23. No. 23??

I had delivered the proof to the famous actress and author’s neighbour. Funnily enough, as a cycled away, I remember thinking what a nice house No.23 was.

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It’s the crack of morning, barely gone ten, when the intercom buzzer sounds. I walk the four yards from my bedroom to answer it, but whoever it was has gone. I forget about it until later that day when I find a card from the Post Office on my doormat. “Sorry you weren’t in!” it says cheerily. It should of course read, “We couldn’t be arsed to wait five seconds for you to answer your door and so we have taken your package away again. Just to annoy you.”

I wander down to the sorting office. It has scribbled notes pinned to the wall, warning customers that threatening behaviour to staff will not be tolerated. After I have been waiting for half an hour, and begun to wonder if the sorting office had considered why customers got so aggrieved that they felt the need to make threats, I reach the front of the queue.

I slide my ID across the counter and, without undue haste, am handed a thick, brown envelope. I recognise the handwriting as my publisher, Trevor’s and realise what the envelope contains.

I rush home to open it: the manuscript proof of The Mango Orchard, all 273 pages of it. I feel like a father, handed his newly born child for the first time. I flick through the pages, checking its fingers and toes are all there. They are. It’s beautiful.

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Editing, I discovered a long time ago, is, as the cliché goes, a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. It’s a process that is never done. One of the chapters in the book went through over 50 drafts. And even after I have been through all of Trevor’s comments, there are still several more to go.

I receive a mail from Trevor telling me that the copy editor will get in touch. The copy editor is the person who checks for inconsistencies, and poor sentence construction. A friend in my writing group has always referred to copy editors as ‘Grammar Nazis’. I again brace myself for trench warfare, fighting to keep the book as it is, paragraph by paragraph.

The Grammar Nazi turns out to be a charming chap called Hugh. He asks me some very reasonable questions and makes very few changes. He even tells me how much he enjoyed the book.

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It’s been over five years since I’ve had a proper full time job and have had to get up in the morning, make myself look passably presentable and travel to an office full of busy-looking people. Thankfully, Trevor, my publisher, is accustomed to working with morning-shy writers and doesn’t ask me to get up too early. Our meeting, at Random House’s swanky Art Deco offices in Pimlico, is arranged for 12.45.

Before Trevor arrives, I am invited on to the executive floor and introduced to the CEO of Random House, the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year and recently ennobled Gail Rebuck. When she sees me Dame Rebuck throws her arms around me, plants a kiss on each cheek, tells me that The Mango Orchard is the best book she has ever read, and is the most important signing in Random House’s history. Okay, not really. She greets me politely, asks some intelligent questions about the book and gets on with her day.

Trevor bowls up with a cloth Preface Publishing bag in which he carries my manuscript, covered in yellow Post-it notes, poking out of the top. My heart sinks. I know from having talked to other writers that the edit can be a painful process. It’s a truly gruesome thought to have to rewrite chapters that it took me years to write in the first place, chapters which now feel like my own children: I raised them, made them grow, made them what they are. We suffered and survived the writing process together. I’m aware of the advice given to writers about learning to murder your darlings. It’s not a prospect I relish.

Trevor obviously senses my concern and lays a hand on my shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he says. “Lunch?”

He takes me down to the Random House canteen in the basement. It’s unlike any staff canteen I have ever seen. There are sandwiches – everything from pre-packed tuna and sweet corn to oven fresh ciabattas with goats’ cheese and an olive drizzle – salads, roasts and a mouth-watering selection of cakes and puddings. Book editing is obviously hungry-making work. At the entrance are book displays of the latest releases. Staff can help themselves. Trevor picks up a copy of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and passes it to me. “It’s a good book,” he says, “And besides, it’s got mango in the title.”

After lunch, having introduced me to the marketing and publicity people, we find a meeting room, opposite an office decked out like a stately home study – a giant oak desk by the window and an antique French dresser leaning against the far wall.

Trevor pulls out the manuscript and we go through his comments. Annoyingly, I agree with nearly all of them.

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A month after Oli phoned me to say Preface had offered a deal for The Mango Orchard, he calls me again to say the deal is agreed, and that Trevor, my publisher, has invited us for a drink at his club to celebrate. “You can tell your friends and family about it now,” he says.

I don’t tell him that I did that a month ago and am already receiving daily e-mails from friends and members of the Mexican family, wanting to know why the book isn’t already in the shops.

I meet Oli en route to the club and he leads me to an unmarked black door off a busy street in the heart of Soho. I follow him up the uncarpeted stairs to what looks like a toilet. “Sorry,” says Oli, realising that he has led me into a toilet, and tries the next door along the corridor.

The club reminds me of a sixth form common room, albeit one with more affluent looking clientele, and a much more impressive wine list. The furniture smacks of house clearance, the table cloths are patterned plastic, yet the coats hanging on the hat stand are of the most fashionable brands. This is Soho, after all. Parading in between the tables is a man who I’m pretty sure was in a prominent 90s dance act. He is wearing a velvet waistcoat, purple shades and is swinging a cane. No one pays him any attention. He looks mildly crest-fallen and returns to the bar and orders a brandy.

It strikes me that meeting your publisher for the first time is a bit like meeting your future spouse after your parents have arranged the marriage; the dowry’s been paid, it’s a done deal, so you just hope you get along.

Trevor, I realise as soon as he walks in, is someone with whom it would be very difficult not to get on. He reminds me a bit of a young Charlie Higson, and is garrulous and funny. He greets me with the enthusiasm of someone meeting a long lost Mexican cousin and tells me how much he loves The Mango Orchard. He goes on to say that he would like me to write more books and tells me that he might be able to offer me a further advance. How can I not get on with someone like that?

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It is almost five years to the day since I began work on The Mango Orchard, when I get a call from Oli, my agent. “We’ve got a deal,” he tells me.

There’s probably not a day gone by in those five years when I have not fantasized about this moment. I’ve imagined my primeval cry of triumph and a night of celebrations, interrupted only by texts from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Booker Prize committee.

“Great,” I say, and after asking a few obvious questions, I hang up.

It’s quite the most exciting news I have received in my life; vindication for those lonely years spent in archives and libraries, and I am standing in the middle of my sitting room, unsure what to do. I sit down and finish my lunch.

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