My post-Bailey’s prize reading

So we know know that the Bailey’s Prize went, not entirely unexpectedly, to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. I loved that the prize went to a new novel that had difficulty finding a publisher. A Girl is a Half Formed Thing is a bleak, desperate novel that reads as though James Joyce turned feminist and discovered plot. I also love that my copy is the original Galley Beggars Press edition, because the prize is a triumph for Galley Beggars too, and a vindication for small presses everywhere. And it’s quite fun seeing The Guardian Review section falling over itself to applaud Eimear McBride, after its two-page hagiography of Donna Tartt just days before the result was announced. But enough. I’m not the only reader whose faith in book prizes has been restored by the result. Tartt got the Pulitzer, Adichie sold her film rights, Lahiri’s been on two major shortlists, Magee and Kent both had huge boosts for their debuts, and McBride won. Good call, Baileys Prize. Good call.

But bleak. So bleak. I had to reread Cold Comfort Farm and The Diary of a Provincial Lady before I could read anything else, which didn’t do much for my TBR pile (although they both do wonders for my spirits). When I did, it was Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson, 19th June). Issy is the youngest child in a Mormon family and the novel is the story of the family recovering – or not recovering – from her death. It’s beautifully told and absorbing but its main attraction for me was the glimpse into the Mormon way of life. Eve Harris’ The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann, longlisted for the Man Booker prize last year, held a similar fascination.

Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11 is due out in September. Mandel is an American writer; Station 11 is her fourth published novel but the first to be published in the UK. As readers of The Ship will know (or will find out), I love speculative fiction. Not science fiction per se, but the kind of novels that push our current world to its very edges and examine the results. In Station 11, the characters’ relationships and the images of America at the end of civilisation are linked by a group of travelling players who perform Shakespeare as Shakespeare would once have been performed (I found myself thinking of Geoffrey Trease’s classic children’s novel A Cue for Treason); the idea alone is worth the price.

Maybe it was the thought of my childhood reading that sent me back to John Christopher. His Tripods trilogy made a huge impression on me when I was ten/eleven. In A Wrinkle in the Skin, the world’s been changed by a huge earthquake; in The Death of Grass, a mysterious virus is killing off all the grasses, including the cereal crops. Like John Wyndham, John Christopher was writing at a more confident time. The Triffids, the Kraken, the earthquake, even the virus, happen to humanity. Humanity doesn’t cause them, but triumphs over them. It’s a treat to revel in a world where, y’know, the good human beings are really super. But the casual misogyny (the novels were originally written in the 50s and 60s) jars horribly. We’re destroying the planet, but some things really are getting better.

I loved Katharine McMahon’s The Woman in the Picture (W&N, 3rd July); Laline Paull’s The Bees (out now) deserves all the accolades it’s had for sheer originality; every child in the land should own a copy of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers (out now). And I finally read Wolf Hall. Enough said.

Seven months till publication – June

I had lunch with my editor on Thursday. I love having lunch with my editor. I mean, she wouldn’t buy me lunch if she wasn’t going to publish my novel, right? So that makes it real, in a way that school runs and lost homework and washing up and power cuts and removing dozens of toads (dead and alive) from the cellar pump in the company of an excited four year old just doesn’t. She greeted me with the words, ‘We have a cover,’ swiftly followed by the words, ‘But I didn’t bring it with me. I’ll e mail it, so you can react in privacy.’ And I’m afraid those are the last words I actually heard or can report on, even though we’d barely even been given menus at that point. I vaguely remember being encouraged to order a pie, and that I didn’t order a pie, but that what I ordered was delicious. I think it was a fish.
I try to believe that covers aren’t as important as all that. It’s a novel. The important thing is the story. The words inside the covers. But I know it’s not true. Who doesn’t love a beautiful cover? The duck egg blue of the hardback of Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing? The blue and ivory paper cut outs of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? The iconic blue and orange silhouettes of One Day? The cover of The Ship will tell me everything about the novel I’ve written. If it’s ivory with a small detail from an oil painting, then I’ll know it’s To Be Taken Seriously (like The Luminaries and The Goldfinch). If it’s in primary colours and graphic blocks with a 3D font for the title, I’ll know it’s got Young Adult appeal. A watercolour seascape with a young girl gazing out over a deck rail will give me Romance; a Soviet-style poster will suggest a political novel; something pointed and shiny with a few stars might get fans of the futuristic, whilst a decaying cityscape, perhaps in silhouette, will show that The Ship is a Dystopia with a capital D. And while The Ship is all these things, it’s really just a novel about people. About a father wanting to do his best for his daughter; about our own responses to a society in crisis; about what on earth we’re all doing here anyway. I’m not sure how you’d get that into a cover image.
Anyway, The Ship is not really mine any more. I’ve written it and redrafted it and redrafted it again, and taken it apart and put it together. I’ve embroidered and unpicked and remade it. And now I’ve ironed it, boxed it carefully in tissue and handed it over. And in a set of offices in St. Martin’s Lane, it’s been unpacked, shaken out and put on a mannequin, ready for potential readers to take a look and decide whether they want to accept the invitation. That’s what a book cover is, after all – an invitation to step inside and explore.
It’s what I’ve always wanted. I’m just not sure I’ll be able to look.