Entitlement is done. My advance copy arrived in the post yesterday morning and it is, quite simply, gorgeous. The colours are warm, inviting and well-blended, and the character in the foreground, contemplating the homestead, encapsulates Cate and her dilemma perfectly. My editor, Rachel Scully, and the designer, John Canty, will always have my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for pulling this together so beautifully. The novel will be released on 22nd August, both in hardcopy and as an e-book, and the launch will be at Avid Reader on 31st August. I’m trying to decide which frock to wear, but at the moment my cobalt blue Sacha Drake wrap dress is winning out. Possibly with my red stiletto Karen Millen boots from London. Or with my pale pink Alannah Hill pumps. Some consultation with my sister will be required, methinks.
So I am exhilarated, but it has also been quite saddening. Once we had finished the copy edit and I couldn’t touch the work any longer, I plunged into depression. The world lost its lustre and it was difficult to feel connected to anything. One the one hand, there are straightforward reasons for this: for the last three years, nearly every day has been geared towards the production of this book. I’ve worked part-time in a flexible, if sometimes unstimulating, job, so I have time to write and I’m not drained by stress. I’ve run in the mornings to wear myself out and sit down and write for the rest of the day; or conversely, swam in the afternoon to unwind after a day of writing. I haven’t made a habit of drinking, so I can get up and write the next day without being blurred by a hangover (which, incidentally, makes me a delightfully cheap drunk). Most of my annual leave has been taken up with writing so I’ve barely had a break, and if I did get a break, most of it was stained by feeling guilty for not writing. The novel and its characters travelled with me for all this time, becoming especially real in the last few months. Is it any wonder, then, when I contemplated divorce from the world I had created and nurtured, that I dissolved into tears?
Yet no one seemed able to understand my abiding sense of loss, and nor could I completely comprehend it myself. After all, there are songs, stories and novels aplenty about losing lovers, homelands and friends, but where are the narratives about the loss of a creative life?
I’ve found myself turning, as I so often do, to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Anchor Books, 2003). In this, Atwood observes that ‘the mere act of writing splits the self into two’ (p. 32), and that there are two selves that make up a writer:
'the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing' (p. 34).
There were times, particularly in the last few days of the copy edit, when my body truly was nothing but this form that ate, slept and pushed a pen across a page so that the story could emerge and live. It wasn’t me anymore; I was the story itself.
Later in her text Atwood expounds on the role of this ‘shadowy personage’, describing how all writing is motivated ‘by the desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead’ (p. 156). What she means is that writers write to make something alive – they talk to ghosts, write down their stories, and bring them to life. Of course, the Underworld can be interpreted as the unconscious, and the self that goes about its daily living does so in order that this unconscious might be able to take a tangible shape.
So Entitlement is not merely three years of work in a beautifully packaged form, it is three years of conversations with an inner self; of carrying forth a childhood, a love for the land on which I was raised and for my brother and family; of finding words to shape a loss so that others can feel it too; of several startling moments when a phrase appears in your head, so suited to the scene at hand, that you are astonished; of daydreams that are wished for and projected into the writing; and of the alchemising of research into something accessible and believable. When that process is interrupted, and there is no longer a daily conversation with the elements of your psyche that contribute to the work, it seems obvious that you will feel depressed. And as so few make such a journey or go through this process, it’s difficult to communicate it. Most people get on with living, rather than using that living to make stories, and to engage with other worlds. And this, quite frankly, is alienating.
However, I went to the annual ASAL conference in New Zealand last week and was jolted into a new environment (albeit another unsettling, but still stimulating one, where academics pull apart the works you have put together – more of this in another post), and stayed with my gran in Christchurch, and read 6 novels, and generally recovered. I feel altogether more normal now, although there is still a vague and persistent sense of absence. I have a mountain of non-fiction writing awaiting me (on which I am, of course, procrastinating) and there is the difficult decision to make not only about shoes, but also on whether to wear a silver belt or a pink flower with a ribbon, with my launch frock. Clearly, we’re a long way from the underworld.