Okay, so I’ve been in New York on my holidays (I’ll just say that a little louder in case anyone missed it: NEW YORK!!!!!!!!!!!!!), and one Friday evening I popped to the Morgan Library and Museum for a little look-see at the Edgar Allen Poe exhibition, ‘Terror of the Soul’. (Blood-coloured backdrops, drawings of ravens, piercing-eyed daguerrotypes… Blog-worthy in itself, of course, but better blogged about by a more ardent Poe fan than myself. You can read all about it, as they say, at Kimberley Eve’s Musings of a Writer).
Pre-Poe, in a little glass room in the lobby downstairs, they were celebrating 45 years of the Man Booker Prize with copies of each of the winners arranged round the walls in their order of winning (a separate glass cube of its own for the 2013 doorstop by Eleanor Catton). All lovely, of course, but the books were taped shut – and I’ll say that a little louder, too, in case you missed it: TAPED SHUT. To these eyes they appeared to be bog-standard copies (not precious, not priceless), or, rather, the thing that was precious about them, of course, was their contents – the one thing denied us. A book you can’t open? Harrumph. Like a bird with clipped wings. Had I been a bit braver I might have gone round and untaped them in protest… Back in the real world, a guard told me off just for leaning on a cabinet (at which I prickled with a peculiarly English variety of embarrassment). So the books, I’m afraid, remain taped.
Without even opening Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel’s record-breaking Booker wins – I could tell you, in fairly small detail, the opening scenes of each book. I remember, in particular, the ‘rosy brick’ of a house she describes in the latter, and how that word ‘rosy’ sang out in a sensory way that plain ‘red’ would have failed at. God, she’s good. She’s a Queen among courtiers. (And more deserving of worship than our actual Queen, IMO. But that’s another story.)
Inspired by the little glass room at the Morgan, that night – in my cushiony bed on the cusp of Times Square while the taxi cabs yelped at each other – I dreamt a strange dream about HM herself. She’d invited me over for afternoon tea. HM’s house was surprisingly ugly, with cheap chintzy fabrics and nasty brown carpet and nary a bookshelf in sight. But the cups were bone china, the tea Lady Grey, and HM and I bonded at once as we supped, and – without even reading a word of my novel – she knew, just by sniffing me (writers, like wine, had aromas), that I was the Next Big Thing: A.S. Byatt and Atwood and Flannery O rolled in one. (I did say I was dreaming.)
Cut to: the following evening. A hall packed with flashing photographers, drink-swilling publishers. HM on stage in her finery, grasping the mic, and a stage full of writers – all female – behind her, cross-legged, rapt with attention, and One Empty Chair. As she hailed me, I stood (dressed in lumberjack shirt and jeans: thanks, brain) and was swept on a wave of applause to the One Empty Chair. This was it. I had Made It. Sniffed out and initiated by HM herself to The Fold. Not just ‘someone who writes’, but A Writer.
Imagine my surprise, then, when HM reached up and unbuttoned her dress. I looked round at the writers behind me, all women, and each one was flashing the flesh till the platform was puddled with fabric – and not just with dresses but undies as well. It was some kind of gesture, as HM explained to the microphone – white as a swan sans clothing – though for or against which cause exactly I never quite caught. My cheeks were a shade or two warmer, by now, than the core of the sun. HM rippled towards me. ‘Get naked,’ she said, ‘or you’re out.’
Did I strip?
Did I f*ck. I stood clutching my lumberjack shirt for dear life. And, as HM had warned, I was swiftly ejected. Persona non grata. Embraced by the arms of obscurity. Out in the cold.
And the meaning of this? Well it can’t be that making your life as a writer means whoring yourself, because HM is nobody’s whore… Could it be that, like one of those sad little books in the Morgan’s glass room, there’s a part of myself that’s taped up, sealed away? Could it be that I’m scared to un-tape my own book, so to speak, in case… (drum roll) everyone hates it?
Back in 2002 I won the Bridport and Canongate Prizes in the same week (to my bank manager’s delight) with the second and third short stories I’d ever submitted. Sounds good – and it was – but success, I’ve found, can be more crippling than failure. Each story you write from then on has to raise itself up in the shadow of prize-winning stories, like Brad Pitt’s less attractive brother, say, or Branwell Brontë. ‘Writing today is like standing stark naked in Trafalgar Square and being told to get an erection,’ said Louis de Bernières, in the aftermath of his blockbuster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Blockbusting success and erections are two things I’ve yet to be troubled with thus far in life, but I get what he’s saying. The end (of the scribbly first draft) of my novel moves closer each week, and, yes, that’s exciting, but partly it’s also like standing stark naked on stage with Her Royal Highness Hilary Mantel.
I wonder what she dreams about?