Alison McQueen


The Heebie-Jeebies

The manuscript for the new novel has been in the hands of my lovely publishers for about three weeks, and the heebie-jeebies are beginning to creep in. It takes a while for a manuscript to be read, thought about, commented upon. Details aside, the most I hope for, the one thing I hope for more than any other, is that the reading has been enjoyed. The story is complex, as relationships so often are, and such things have to be handled sensitively, with subtlety. Yet knowing what I know in my head is no guarantee that it will actually end up on the page. In the name of subtlety, there is always the danger of skating too carefully across the thin ice and leaving the reader wondering what on earth’s going on. 

A good editor is the kind of person who will tell you immediately if you have spinach stuck in your teeth, rather than leaving you to go home and find out about it when you look in the bathroom mirror and read the reviews. A good editor is the kind of person who keeps your head out of the oven when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

For me, handing in a manuscript is like seeing a baby play with razorblades. It’s unwatchable. The best way to deal with it is to forget it, even if that forgetting means I’m up at 6am every morning drinking coffee and trying to distract myself. On the upside, once the manuscript is in, I am free to do what I want which in my case means reading whatever I want (rather than wading through piles of books and papers in the unforgiving name of research), and indeed writing whatever I want, (as opposed to sweating beads of blood over a novel that has already robbed years of my life).

The last three weeks has been an orgy of books. They are everywhere, littered around the house, tumbling off the bedside tables, smeared with accidental garnishes in the kitchen. I am currently enjoying the outputs of the likes of Dorothy Parker, Christopher Hitchins, Diana Athill, Alan Bennett, Isadora Duncan (odd choice, I know, but her autobiography, My Life, is fabulously intense and bizarre). I also have a big tome of collected American short stories on the go, and am waiting for a couple of out-of-print volumes to turn up from a bookseller somewhere in Virginia. If you’re in the mood for a rather wonderful, shortish novel, I would point you towards Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell. I read it recently and it has stayed with me. Marvellous.

My agent just called. She, like me, has probably done that Monday morning mental checklist, knowing that the manuscript has been out there playing with razorblades for well over a fornight. My agent is exactly the kind of woman you would want to have with you in the case of a shipwreck. Take that however you will, but trust me; you could make no better choice. Irish, based in New York, mother to a gorgeous little girl and wife to a man who must have some chutzpah to try and handle a woman like that, my agent is the “other woman” in my marriage. It’s possible that she knows more about me than my husband does. My husband has no idea that I might be fretting about an imminent verdict. My agent, on the other hand, has a diary note about it, probably in red pen, and has called in a perfectly-timed pre-emptive strike to make sure that my head is nowhere near an oven.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Cape Town, my good friend, the writer Rachel Zadok, is tearing her hair out trying to finish a novel while her four-year old daughter stretches the word Mum to three wailing syllables and the new puppy eats her memory stick. She has my unbridled sympathy. To write, while raising children, is like trying to nail a jelly to the ceiling. With hindsight, I don’t know how I didn’t kill them, or indeed myself, when it came to my own brood. Fortunately, they are both now past the age of twenty, as indeed is my husband, and are in possession of all their arms and legs, so my shift is well and truly over: I point blank refuse to let any of it interfere with my writing any more. Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room Of One’s Own, pretty much covered most of the relevant facts if any of my family want to argue the toss about it. I’ve left a copy of it on the dining room table so that I can point to it whenever anyone asks me ‘what’s for supper?’. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve stood vailiantly in the face of the enemy and done my duty, and now I have been well and truly demobbed.

Perhaps, rather than worrying about the manuscript and the razorblades, I should go to the kitchen and think about making something for supper (although I already know that I really can’t be bothered). There’s a half-finished bottle of wine in the fridge from yesterday. I saw it there this morning. Seems a shame to let it go off.