“I won’t be ready again for a while,” I say to my father, my boyfriend, my friends. Texts to my agent. A writers’ group WhatsApp. I need to wind down first, I say. They look at me, knowingly, when the next novel idea comes, and afterwards, too.
It is supposed to be easy, we writers think. But it is not easy, because it is work. Not the words; the words aren’t work. Nor are the scenes. Nor the lifting, shifting structural edit which I have to do halfway through every book, every time with knots in my stomach as I realise – like a person disappointed they have put the hinges of the IKEA wardrobe on backwards, and the doors on upside down, and the back on skewed – that I have to re-do it. None of that is the difficult part. No. It is merely the fact that it must be done.
As I eat my breakfast, they are there. They are there, too, on a sunny Saturday in July. On Bank Holidays and birthdays. The thousand words I must do. That scene I must change from being set in a cafe to being set outside. That character I must strip away, erase their presence, and the other characters’ memories of them, like they have gone into witness protection. There is never, anymore, nothing at all to do. I reach the end of my to-do list every year in November – finish novel – and never before. And, even then, the circus of admin that surrounds the sale of a book. The VAT; the Polish double-taxation form.
“Nope,” I say to my Dad when he asks tentatively again about book three. “Not ready to even discuss it yet. I still can’t watch half an hour of television without feeling guilty.”
It is true. They take it out of you, these books. Or perhaps they take it out of me in particular, I don’t know. Joanna and Reuben, from my now-second book, are fully formed. I could bump into them in the street, would know exactly how they would respond to most anything. But it took a year to get there. It took a lot of me, to put into them, to bring them to life. The end result must look easy, to some, but the hours calculator on my Pages document says 704 hours, 56 minutes.
“Yes, rest,” Dad says. I tell him about watching 24 Hours in A&E for an entire hour the previous night; the first solid hour of television I have watched since the summer and he nods. “You need to recover, then,” he says.
I nod, too, decisively, but I cannot ignore them anymore. The next people, queuing up, like determined new neighbours, continuing to knock even though it has become rude. They ring the bell twice, three times. Rattle the letterbox. They are ready. My new characters. Two sisters. A taller, more awkward one. Yes. I can see her.
I flex my fingers over the keyboard a few days later. Send my agent a synopsis. I had forgotten. I always forget. Novels take it out of me, you see, but when I am not writing, there is nothing to take at all; I am only half-me, in the first place, without writing.