I have folded more clothes in the last week than in any other week of my life. I have even watched Youtube videos about folding. When I realised this may have something to do with finishing writing my book I thought I'd dust off my keyboard and write something here instead. One month ago I finished the book I have been working on for three years, and I find myself in a strange limbo-land. Somehow my creative juices have found expression in sorting out the endless piles of clothes scattered untidily in drawers around my house. I'm not good at waiting and I'm not good at being still, but I realise unfettered folding is a rather insane way to proceed, so instead I am writing about not writing.
I remember an author saying that writing a book is a bit like childbirth (ie; you forget all the pain and mess once you hold your baby/novel in your actual hands). I disagree. I have had four babies and not once did I birth a baby only to be told I hadn't got it quite right, and could we just stick it back in for a few more weeks before trying again. This happened twice with my book, and may well happen again if an editor wants me to do some major rewriting. Don't get me wrong, I am happy to redraft, especially on the advice of my lovely agent Natalie, or after feedback from editors and readers I respect and rate. It's just that, unlike with childbirth, there doesn't seem to really be an end. Instead the book takes on a different shape, and becomes an absence rather than a completion.
What it really means to finish a book is this: you have created a book but you have also created a huge hole in your life. For three years I was immersed in another world, that of my grandmother Elisabeth, whose story my book pieces together. I would look up from my notebook after spending hours reading her diaries and be surprised to see modern things like cars, so fully had I dived into her past. I frequently felt like she was with me (I know this sounds a bit nuts, but it's true), walking alongside me or turning my pages like someone holding sheet music for a musician. I never knew her, in reality, but now I feel I know her better than most people I can touch or hear or speak to. There was a point when I was questioning whether I should even carry on writing the book (what's the point, your writing is rubbish etc etc) when she even wrote the next passage for me: I was stuck at the start of a chapter about Beirut and then through the letterbox came a heartbreaking notebook with the opening pages of a novel Elisabeth had started writing just weeks before she died. The pages described a sea voyage to Beirut. I used her words and the chapter evolved. It was a grandmotherly nudge. I wrote her alive, and now she is gone again. Other authors (proper ones, you know with actual books) have spoken about the sense of loss that comes with putting aside a set of characters, but it is only now that I can understand this void. It's like I have lost my grandmother twice.
Except I haven't, not really. She lives on in my book and in the memories of those who knew her better than me. But which she is it that lives on? In the process of writing my book I constructed a version of Elisabeth, using historical research, anecdotes, letters, photos, newspaper articles, diaries and her incredible book of lists. I wove her story from these fragments, and embroidered in bits of my own story too, the weft and weave creating a narrative that I felt to be true. I don't believe it is possible to reconstruct a person's life without flourishes and missed nuances and subjective interpretations, but I think I have done the best job I could to find my version of the truth. In one part of the book I describe Elisabeth's sons - my uncles - collecting mussels in the Thames. I know this happened because Elisabeth recorded it in her diary. Yet when my uncle and mother and stepfather read my manuscript they each said things like "Well, I think you need to take out the bit about the mussels. That can't be right", or "I'm sure there aren't mussels in the Thames", or "We didn't collect mussels. Or if we did we would never have eaten them." My reaction was to Google 'Are there mussels in the Thames?' (there are) and cut the bit about the damned mussels out of my draft, but then I stopped. If I changed every part of Elisabeth's story that someone questioned, where would these snippets end up? Untold and unexplored. Whose truth was I writing? I decided to tell her story as truthfully as a slightly besotted 43 year-old woman could write about someone they never knew yet feel a deep connection to.
For now I'm not ready to jump into a metaphorical bed with the main character of my next book. I don't want to write on the rebound. But I do need to exercise my writing muscles and work out how to leave my version of Elisabeth behind, for now. So if you know someone who has 'finished' writing a book, be kind to them. And tell them to step away from the laundry.