I, too, used to wince at novelists being highfalutin about ‘loving’ their characters, their characters ‘taking on a life of their own’, all that ghastly stuff. But as soon as I started to write, rather than only interview and read, like you I discovered it was simply what happened. Characters refuse to stay ﬁxed on the page, they take over. And occasionally, I’ve found a character wants to amble in from one book to another and they do, yes, feel like old friends. Aagh!
Did being a publisher help or hinder? Well, in time-honoured tradition, a bit of both. It helped enormously with the editing process, for example. Back in the old days, it was a matter of old-fashioned cutting and pasting. Editing a book was a matter literally of snipping a paragraph from one sheet of A4 and sticking it elsewhere, like a gigantic jigsaw. Copydex, the kitchen ﬂoor, scissors and thick felt tip pens, the Blue Peter school of publishing.
It taught me a lot. Twenty years later when I came to edit my own work (and of course it’s computers and e-editing), I discovered I could solve problems in structure and balance for myself. The principles I’d learnt back in the ’80s were invaluable, especially since both Labyrinth and Sepulchre jump backwards and forwards in time and are complicated. Because I’d cut my teeth on other people’s typescripts, it was less daunting than it might have been. None of this made any difference to quality, but it made a difference to process and, therefore, to my conﬁ dence about being able to pull things off.
However… a big drawback was that I knew just a little bit too much. Having been a publisher, understanding the business and 25 years of the Orange Prize too, I knew what was a good subscription and what disappointing, I knew which review coverage might harm or help, I knew what it meant if Tesco said ‘no thanks’ (as they did for the hardback of Labyrinth). I fear I was too much an ex-publisher and too little an author… sometimes, I suspect, a bit of a pain.
As for judging my own work, the simple truth is I have no perspective. None at all. Like any author, I lurch between thinking my work is all right – that’s to say, I haven’t let myself down – and thinking it’s dreadful, embarrassing. When I deliver a new novel to my agent and editor, I go into a spiral of drinking wine and pacing nervously around the house, ﬂ inching every time the phone rings.So, a treat to be able to ask you – after your years of wonderful and continuing success, whopping sales, novels loved – does it get easier? Can you judge your own work, what works, what doesn’t? Do you feel the pressures of writing versus the pressures of publishing, or don’t you let it bother you? Does it inﬂ uence which stories you tell or can you keep the creative and business side separate? For example, I know you’re writing a Quick Read at the moment. Does this feel harder, easier, the same as usual?