Celebration time. The Backstreets of Purgatory, my debut novel, has reached its crowdfunding target. The special edition will be published by Unbound later this year. The commercial edition should be available in a bookshop near you sometime early next year. Since I heard the news just more than a week ago, I’ve been wandering around in a bit of a daze with a huge grin on my face, not able to concentrate on anything productive. I’m thrilled, excited, totally chuffed.
And more than a teeny bit scared.
A few years ago, I had a short story published in the (now sadly defunct) Ranfurly Review. Titled very imaginatively as The Kiss, it stars Ade who is in hindsight certainly a forerunner to Finn (the main character in Backstreets), and Crystal, a transvestite who despite not bothering to shave when she goes out on the razz is gorgeous and sexy (if a little stubbly). Even after all this time, I like the story. I like it a lot, in fact. I’m proud it was published (even if the reality is that few people outside of my family actually read it).
The day the magazine came out, I read my story over again. Although I’d worked on it a lot—editing, correcting, testing it out loud—one phrase had slipped through my defences. A phrase that made me cringe. A phrase that made me blush when there was no one there to notice.
It’s that word solemn. Honestly, I’m still cringing (I recently sent it to a friend who had signed up for this website but had already read A Dog’s Life and edited solemn to soft but it still felt slightly cringeworthy). An example of the right idea badly executed. I wanted Crystal’s eyes to contrast with her bright blue seventies eye shadow and all her bling. But solemn? No, no, no.
I can forgive myself for the error. At that stage, I hadn’t been writing seriously for very long. I was still learning, still experimenting. The Kiss was the first short story that I’d submitted to a magazine that hadn’t benefited from the critical eye of a tutor (or anyone else, for that matter; something that I’d never risk now). And truthfully, even if it had been read by hundreds of folk, I’m pretty sure no one else would have found it so cringeably cringe-inducing.
In a recent post, I blithely claimed that I was fine about receiving criticism of my work these days. For the most part, it is true. And, for the most part, I write without self-censoring. (I’m planning to develop this idea in a future post; can anyone really write like no-one is reading? And is it even desirable?) That is to say that after years of trying to anticipate what tutors were looking for, how I could get the best mark—a symptom of a hideous compulsion always to be top of the class—and so many questions about whether I had the right to write about a gay person/a black person/from the point of view of a man/a Glaswegian/anyone else that wasn’t me (hung up by discussions of cultural appropriation, for example, and tying myself in knots to accurately portray a dialect I didn’t speak myself), I had finally reached a place where I could let it all go. At last, I was writing what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write, with only the slightest niggle about what my mother-in-law would think about the swearing.
But now my novel will actually be published. My bravado is waning slightly. From the pre-sales with Unbound, at least 330 people will read the first special edition before it goes into the shops. Three hundred and thirty readers, among whom rank family, friends and total strangers. Certainly, that isn’t the type of figure that will fire Backstreets to the top of the best-seller list but this is only pre-sales. Considering this is my first novel, I reckon it is a pretty fantastic start. And notwithstanding how the novel fares in the shops later down the line, 330 readers is many more than I’ve had for any of my short stories. The Backstreets of Purgatory is quite a long book. The readers will be with my characters for some time. They’ll be going on an intimate journey into their lives.
But like I said, I’m a teeny bit (and a little more) scared. Believe me, I’m not complaining about what happens next. Quite the opposite. I’ve been working for this moment for years. I’m super, super-excited (even though I don’t think it has sunk in yet).
Part of my apprehension, I think, is because I feel a strong sense of responsibility to the readers who have put their faith in my writing, who put their pre-order in months ago and have waited patiently for the crowdfunding target to be met. I hope their patience and generosity pays off and that The Backstreets of Purgatory is the novel they had hoped it would be. My worries on this front have been eased to some extent by the enthusiastic response from early readers and from Unbound. Literary taste is a subjective thing, though, so there are no guarantees. All I can guarantee that I’ve written the novel I set out to write.
As for the solemn eyes equivalents, by the time my amazing editor Rachael Kerr has finished with Backstreets and the editorial and publication teams at Unbound have worked their magic, I’m certain there won’t be a single surviving rogue phrase.
No, it isn’t this that is freaking me.
These days I know a few novelists, one or two of whom I got to know fairly well before I read any of their writing. It made me consider how much this personal connection affects the way you read a book. Before I submitted Backstreets to Unbound, a close friend read it and was engrossed in the story. It was wonderful to hear that she spent time thinking about the characters after she put the pages down. But every now and then, she said, it hit her that it was me who had written it. She said it was a complex and unsettling sensation. It made her wonder how much of the novel was founded in fact, if any of the characters were based on real people, how I knew about some of the things I’d written about. And how different my internal self was (if the novel gives a measure of the writer’s internal self) to my external one.
[A quick note here to reassure my friends and family. None of my characters are based on any of you. Honestly. Well, perhaps a turn of phrase here, a mannerism there, but not on you as a whole. If anything, and I’m sure this is what unsettled my friend, there are probably parts—or extensions or experimental versions—of me in more than one of the principle characters.]
Perhaps this is the most difficult thing to get your head around as a reader and a writer. Not particularly that there are subjects or language in a novel that might make your mother raise her eyebrows—when I wrote the sex scenes in Backstreets, it wasn’t a worry of what my mum would think that made me hesitant, rather that I knew of the bad sex awards, I knew how easy it is to mock sex scenes, how difficult it is to write any physical scene, not to mention one where you have to contend with the absurdities of anatomy or couch the whole thing in ridiculous euphemisms—but more that a novel reveals an internal world that most people are sensible enough to keep to themselves. It is fiction, of course, but it feels quite exposing. Like I said, I’m a teeny bit scared. No wonder.
In the words of Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate: ‘Nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction.’
Featured image adapted from Amor Vincet Omnia by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Reproduced from Wikimedia
Image of eyes adapted from Classic Film, 1971 Beauty Ad, Andrea Wash ‘n Wear Fake Eyelashes (2-page advert), Flickr