I often think of new books as having dark-adapted sensibilities, and imagine them blinking and wincing a little as they come out into the light. And I’m thinking of this image a lot these days since my fourth novel (The List of Real Things) has just come out. In my experience, publication day is a very strange and oddly emotional time for a writer. Having a new book published feels like waving one’s grown child off at an airport, silently begging the world to treat that child with love and care and kindness; It’s like lifting a most important cake out of the oven and waiting for it to cool, hoping it will have turned out all right; It’s like a putting a message in a bottle.
I have spent a lot of time with this book. I’ve dreamt about the characters, and worried about them, and hoped for them. I’ve edited and re-edited the story and seen it grow from messy, chaotic, unclear first draft, to finished story. To get there, I have taken out the clunky exposition, and I have removed unnecessary adverbs and I’ve toned down hyperbole and fleshed out the parts that were rushed and cut down the parts that were overwritten and fretted over sentences asking myself a thousand questions. Is this true to the story? Is that really what one of my characters would say? Is this a proper description? Does that do justice to a crucial turning point? And, (I ask this one more often than I’d like to pretend): is it a load of rubbish?
I have done my best to tell a story that matters greatly to me. Whether it will ever matter greatly to its readers, well that all remains to be seen.
Like many writers, I have to squash my writing time into the cracks and crevices of a fairly hectic life. People have often asked my advice about managing time and about how one goes about writing a novel when they have jobs and families and responsibilities and so many other things to do. I’d love to have a really wise and useful answer to such a question. I guess part of the answer is that I have always experienced writing as a compulsion and we humans tend to find time to do things we are compelled to do.
But the truth is that, even though I appear to have written four of them, I don’t quite know how to write a novel. It’s a relief to have discovered that even the most prolific and accomplished writers don’t know either. While there are many things that can be done to improve writing, really at the heart of it all, the knowing is in the doing.
And yet there are things I do know now that I mightn’t have understood before. One of these things is that there are no shortcuts. Perhaps it is true that some literary masterpieces have flowed easily and gorgeously from the minds of their wonderful writers onto the page. It is said that it took Muriel Spark less than a month to write The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, that Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road in three weeks, and that the bones of John Boyne’s The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas came flooding out in the space of a long weekend. But for me, and for most writers, writing is slow and it is hard, and even those novels that seem to have tumbled out fully formed only happened because of the years of watching and note-taking and thinking and imagining that preceded them.
Another thing I know is that once a book is published, you really do have to let it go. We’ve had a Dublin launch of my new novel in the very wonderful Hodges Figgis, and the Limerick launch is happening in the equally wonderful O’Mahoney’s bookshop. I’ve had lots of friends and family and readers wishing it a happy journey out into the world. But once the launches are over, my new book is on its own, and my job is done. I have to suppress the urge to scan for online reviews. I must not lurk in bookshops struck by that special kind of writerly bashfulness I’m often afflicted by. It’s out there. All I can do is hope the very best for it. Its fate now lies in the imagination of its readers – which in the end is what really brings all stories alive.
(c) Sarah Moore Fitzgerald
About The List of Real Things:
A poignant and big-hearted story about love, loss and believing in the magic of the imagination. The fourth novel from bestselling Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlisted author Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, following BACK TO BLACKBRICK, THE APPLE TART OF HOPE and A VERY GOOD CHANCE.
Grace knows the difference between what’s real and the strange ideas that float around in her little sister’s mind. Their parents died – that’s real. A secret hotel on the cliff-top where their parents are waiting – definitely NOT real. So when grief strikes again, Grace is determined not to let her sister’s outlandish imagination spiral out of control. But the line between truth and fantasy is more complicated than it seems…
‘Completely beguiling, and funny and tender and wise, with a heart as big and deep as the sea’ – Piers Torday’Poignant’ – The Sunday Times
‘A sparkling tale … about loss, family and believing in magic’ – Sarah Webb writing for the Irish Independent
‘A book full of warmth, hope, and wonderfully unforgettable characters’ – Zana Fraillon, author of The Bone Sparrow
Order your copy online here.