Monday, 29 June 2009

The edit

Of the many fantasies (which I can admit to) that sustained me during the years of writing The Mango Orchard, one of the most vivid was the one about marking up the final manuscript in the sun, the swimming pool water lapping gently at my feet.

A few days after meeting with Trevor in the Random House offices, this dream is realised when I am invited by my sister, Emma, her boyfriend, Mark, and their daughter, my niece, Sophie, to join them on holiday. They journey in style, from St Pancras, through France and northern and central Spain in a first class train compartment, and arrive in Andalucía relaxed, already in a holiday mood. I follow a few days later on a cheap yet distinctly unpleasant Irish airline.

I establish myself in a sun lounger next to the pool, and in between periodic inquiries from Sophie about why I am spending so long scribbling into a green folder with yellow Post-it notes sticking out of it, I begin to work through Trevor’s comments.

The comments are, as he had said, not as bad as they look. He has deleted superfluous words, and every now and then, circled a sentence or paragraph and written “Do better” next to it. I cross out the superfluous words and try to make the circled paragraphs less deserving of his comments.

There is just one chapter that Trevor thinks needs cutting down. It’s towards the end of the book, about my journey home across the States, and has long been one of my favourites. During that stretch of the trip the stark contrast of being in America after months in Mexico helped to see it all in perspective for the first time, and yet I was still in a foreign land; still a long way from home. I had explained this to Trevor. He was sympathetic but maintained that I could take out several pages and still convey that emotion.

Eventually I realise the real reason I don't want to cut the passage is because of the months I spent researching and drafting. I struggle with the decision for several days. Then I cross out 1,500 words and open a bottle of Albariño.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Going in to Random House

It’s been over five years since I’ve had a proper full time job and have had to get up in the morning, make myself look passably presentable and travel to an office full of busy-looking people. Thankfully, Trevor, my publisher, is accustomed to working with morning-shy writers and doesn’t ask me to get up too early. Our meeting, at Random House’s swanky Art Deco offices in Pimlico, is arranged for 12.45.

Before Trevor arrives, I am invited on to the executive floor and introduced to the CEO of Random House, the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year and recently ennobled Gail Rebuck. When she sees me Dame Rebuck throws her arms around me, plants a kiss on each cheek, tells me that The Mango Orchard is the best book she has ever read, and is the most important signing in Random House’s history. Okay, not really. She greets me politely, asks some intelligent questions about the book and gets on with her day.

Trevor bowls up with a cloth Preface Publishing bag in which he carries my manuscript, covered in yellow Post-it notes, poking out of the top. My heart sinks. I know from having talked to other writers that the edit can be a painful process. It’s a truly gruesome thought to have to rewrite chapters that it took me years to write in the first place, chapters which now feel like my own children: I raised them, made them grow, made them what they are. We suffered and survived the writing process together. I’m aware of the advice given to writers about learning to murder your darlings. It’s not a prospect I relish.

Trevor obviously senses my concern and lays a hand on my shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he says. “Lunch?”

He takes me down to the Random House canteen in the basement. It’s unlike any staff canteen I have ever seen. There are sandwiches – everything from pre-packed tuna and sweet corn to oven fresh ciabattas with goats’ cheese and an olive drizzle – salads, roasts and a mouth-watering selection of cakes and puddings. Book editing is obviously hungry-making work. At the entrance are book displays of the latest releases. Staff can help themselves. Trevor picks up a copy of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and passes it to me. “It’s a good book,” he says, “And besides, it’s got mango in the title.”

After lunch, having introduced me to the marketing and publicity people, we find a meeting room, opposite an office decked out like a stately home study - a giant oak desk by the window and an antique French dresser leaning against the far wall.

Trevor pulls out the manuscript and we go through his comments. Annoyingly, I agree with nearly all of them.