Last summer I got the news: Hachette Ireland wanted to publish my first novel. I was overjoyed, but dazed – part of me couldn’t quite believe that this was happening. Then gradually everything started to make sense. Of course! The Mayans! The book was scheduled to appear in 2013, and that date would never arrive, in fact my contract with a publisher was probably one of the signs of the End of Days. But January came and went safely and, incredible as it may seem, it looks as if I’ll soon be holding a copy of Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World in my hands.
I’ve wanted this for as long as I can remember, but life kept getting in the way. I was a confident child who wrote and told stories because it was easy and fun. (I still have one, a science-fiction saga that was really just Star Trek with cats.) Then I was a miserable teenager who didn’t write at all because I was sure that it would be lousy. Later I became a confused twenty-something who wrote plays as a ‘hobby’ while training to be a teacher, specialising in English as a second language. In my early thirties I moved to Japan, where I taught at a girls’ high school and churned out educational material and adaptations for the school drama club. ‘We need a cast of forty, and everyone must have at least one line and wear a pretty dress.’ That kind of thing.
Everything changed when I met an Irish journalist who was in Tokyo for the 2002 Soccer World Cup. I never could have predicted that I’d one day be living in Ireland, but three years later there I was: married, semi-employed, and looking out the window at a lot of rain. But rainy days and a relaxed schedule are very good for writing, and Ireland turned out to be the perfect place for me. I switched to prose, took part in writing groups and classes, taught English to Chinese students at Dublin Business School. In the first few weeks of 2010 I got up the nerve to apply to Trinity’s creative writing programme. By the time the first semester started I had 70,000 words of a novel finished.
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World came about through a homework assignment from a class I’d taken in 2006. I started with an image – two teenage boys having a violent argument on a cliff by a river, and the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote it as a flash fiction piece. I wrote it as a novella. A virus erased it from my computer. Four years later I was at it again, reconstructing the story from memory. Soon it became clear that this was going to be bigger than a novella, in fact it was going to be a book.
I worked on the story obsessively. I’d been a person who enjoyed spending hours in the kitchen, someone who dusted the curtain rods. When the novel took over I left the cooking to my husband, or the microwave. I let the apartment get filthy around me and barely noticed. I carried notebooks and scribbled in them like a maniac, no matter where I was. If I thought of something in the middle of the night, I’d write in the dark. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.
This may sound like the book came in one crazy rush, but every chapter went through a maddening amount of drafts, sometimes as many as twelve, and then I’d email each finished section to a friend in Canada whose opinion I feared and wait for his response. While all this editing was going on, I continued filling notebooks with ideas for later scenes, and later I’d go through my scrawls with a box of crayons and colour-code. (Chapter 12 was purple. Chapter 20 was turquoise. You get the idea.) I wrote far more than ever made it into the book. It was like the joke about how to make a sculpture of an elephant: start with a big rock and chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant.
The characters were what kept me hooked. First of all, there’s my hero, seventeen-year-old Stephen Shulevitz – bright, funny, impulsive, sarcastic, vulnerable, and in love with his straight best friend Mark, who grows up dyslexic and abused and learns quickly to be the toughest kid on the playground. Stephen also has to deal with his mother Maryna, who is dreamy, disorganised, and stuck in a dead end job in a small town – the one bright spot in her life seems to be her son. Stephen’s father Stanley is a self-absorbed academic who remains irritatingly calm in a crisis, especially if it’s one he’s created himself. Then there’s Stephen’s big-hearted, Goth-punk friend Lana, with an unfortunate crush of her own. I had to keep going to find out what would happen to them all.
On days that I wasn’t teaching, I stuck to a routine: write in the morning for several hours, do some errands that didn’t require much brain power, fall asleep, get up, continue writing until midnight. I worked on the novel through the year at Trinity, and when I was sure I’d gotten the manuscript into shape, I entered it in a competition sponsored by the Irish Writers’ Centre and eventually was chosen as one of twenty winners. Hooray!
The Novel Fair was nerve-wracking, exhilarating and a lot of fun. The twenty of us sat at tables with our stacks of sample chapters and CVs (everyone was wearing nametags that read ‘novelist’, still my favourite touch) and prepared to pitch our stories to a selection of publishers and agents. I can’t remember much of what I said – by the end of the day I’d repeated the same information so many times that I felt like a bit of a dingbat. But I must have been at least partially coherent, because a few months later I got the news that Hachette Ireland were interested in seeing the rest of the book.
And soon my novel will be in stores. Will I be able to stop myself from hanging around displays all day and pointing helpfully at copies of Cinnamon Toast as the shoppers come and go? Will anyone buy the book, crack those covers, smile when I’m hoping they will, see the characters the way that I do?
Now that would be a miracle, and for me at least, a lot more impressive than anything the Mayans could have predicted.
c) Janet Cameron
A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, will be published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com