I’ve now written three novels (that’s three if you don’t count the awful one lurking in a box beneath the bed—we don’t have monsters living in our house, we have failed novels). I suppose that means I should have some confidence as I know, if nothing else, how to write and finish a book. I should know what the process is like. But I’ve found writing each book to be a very different experience.
‘The Gallery of Vanished Husbands’ has been the most emotional book to write. Shortly after I started writing, I discovered that I was pregnant, and then, as often happens, I miscarried. For the first time in my life I was too sad to write. I’ve read Keats and I know that melancholy is supposed to be literary rocket fuel, but it didn’t work like that for me. Or perhaps it only works with melancholy—that beautiful sadness—but simple, dragging unhappiness and grief left me empty and quiet inside and for a while, unable to write.
After a couple of months, I picked up the novel, re-read it like a stranger and started to slowly write myself out of unhappiness and back into the book. Then, a few months in, I found I was pregnant again. This time everything was fine and my excitement and anxiety about impending motherhood worked its way into my novel. The children in the story had voices that very much wanted to be heard. I had to get out of the way and let them speak.
The novel grew in time with my belly. I’d intended it to be on the short side (I always do, it’s not happened yet) but by the summer, it was quite clear that it would be touch-and-go as to whether manuscript or baby was delivered first. In the end, I finished the novel first, but only by a matter of days and only because our son had the generosity to be late.
After the baby came the edit. Much like children, novels don’t arrive fully formed and ready to go off into the world, but take a good deal of nurturing. I worked while the baby slept—sometimes in a Moses basket at my feet, sometimes on my shoulder as I typed with one hand. Those days are merged with my memories of new motherhood, when time feels like it’s on fast-forward and each moment is so precious and fleeting, I found myself growing nostalgic for the present. It was an odd experience to re-read passages about my protagonist, Juliet Montague’s views and experiences of motherhood, which I’d written before becoming a mother myself. Sometimes I was tempted to change details but in the end I realised that her experiences were simply different from mine. I might have created her, but we didn’t need to agree on all things.
I’m now starting to write something new. For the first time in a few years, I don’t have all day to procrastinate and think about writing. There’s no time for rituals—when I have a moment to myself, I’m at my desk. I’m not sure how the process of writing will turn out. All I know is that much like a child it will be unique and quite different from the others.
Reposted with the kind permission of Penguin. This blog post first appeared here: