Becoming part of the pattern
April is here and that means my debut novel will be published in the next few weeks. Despite everyone from my editor to fellow authors telling me it would come around quickly, I can’t believe just how fast the year is going. This has been an amazing journey for me, from securing a publishing contract in October 2013 to the prospect of seeing my book printed and bound on the shelves come April. That prospect is one I’ve nurtured since my teens when it was little more than a dream. Next month it will be a reality and that wonderful, momentous fact is going to take some adjusting to. Perhaps more so because I work in a bookshop and may well find myself shelving my own book one day.
I write this with a prickle of embarrassment, but personally selling my book is likely to be one of the greatest moments of my life. Perhaps it’s not much in the scheme of things, but being able to write professionally is my life’s goal and I’m profoundly grateful to everyone who has helped me achieve it and who have supported me in my role as a new author. Waterstones has played no small part in the latter, from distributing exclusive proofs of my book to organising events and allowing me space on their social media to talk to you all. And so I’m writing this post with the question in mind – what’s it like to be a writer and a Waterstones bookseller?
I am far from the first, of course. Most recently there’s James Rice, author of brand new debut Alice and the Fly, an exclusive proof of which I remember seeing in the staff room. And author Ben Aaronovitch famously describes becoming a Waterstones bookseller to fund his expensive book-buying habit. It was shelving the novels of other writers that inspired him to write his own, he says, and that’s a statement I readily understand because for me as a writer, working in a bookshop is like a constant call to arms. I find myself surrounded by books, by stories captured between colourful covers. A book is a wonderful thing. Imagine that the whole of The Lord of the Rings – its history, sweeping narrative, its hundreds of characters – exists as a neat rectangle, small enough to hold in the hand. I’m carrying around a war-torn world of orcs and elves, mountains, cities, forests, a lost king and a dark lord and it’s a world I can jump into whenever I want.
That’s what books are to me: portals to dimensions, to worlds I could not otherwise access. Physically they’re just paper and words; figuratively they’re universes. People who work with these marvellous things are lucky – to have all this at their fingertips, to be able to pass it onto others, to spread the joy of learning and discovery. As writer and bookseller then, it’s a union of purpose –adding to the myriad worlds contained in the greater world of the bookshop and being in a position to appreciate the limitless possibilities of the human imagination.
Coming back to earth for a moment, I wonder about the extent being a bookseller affected the creative process. When I started my current job at Waterstones in 2010, I was attempting to revive an old story that really ought to have stayed buried. It was a Young Adult fantasy I’d written as a teenager with the distinct aroma of Harry Potter and Tolkien. I spent eight months trying to bring it up to date, but in the end conceded defeat. Going into the store, seeing the new books being released in the YA genre and listening to what customers wanted to read convinced me that the style of my old book simply wasn’t suited to the current YA market. Without that kind of knowledge, I wonder how much more time I’d have wasted on the project.
The above makes it sound as if I was writing with the sole aim of getting published, which is not the case. It’s so important to take joy from writing and to write what you love to read, but it doesn’t hurt to listen to readers – they’re the people who’ll be buying your book and spending time in the world you’ve created. I began again with the story that became Starborn, which is aimed at adults instead, and whenever I found myself shelving books in the sci-fi and fantasy section, all those stories shouted at me to finish my own. (Writing a novel is probably the definitive exercise in self-discipline, especially when there’s no guarantee anyone will publish it).
It’s a surreal thought that my book will join them up there very soon, looking a bit incongruous amongst authors who are considered masters of their craft. Alphabetically speaking, I’ll be thrillingly close to Robin Hobb, one of the writers who most inspired me as a teenager. If my fifteen-year old self could see that, she wouldn’t quite believe it.
Becoming part of the weave of the bookshop is one of the best things about being published. It’s bookshops, rather than the internet, which embody the magic of reading. These peaceful, promising spaces have always provided a haven for me, and buying a book means I can take a little of that atmosphere away into the world. To be part of that rich pattern is surely any writer’s dream.