– save up their holidays, tell the family they're having a staycation this year, then lock themselves in a room for a month. Well, they might write a book. Possibly even a good book – if they're extremely talented and brutally disciplined. These days they could even get it e-published before reporting back to work to hand in their notice.
I wouldn't want to quash anyone's enthusiasm, but it doesn't always work out that way. Twenty-one years ago, while working in the West Indies, I first heard about a community of poor whites claiming Scottish descent. I thought, there's a story I could dash off after a bit of background research. The book, Redlegs, finally comes out this month. What went wrong?
Everything. Not being extremely talented or brutally disciplined. Taking terrible decisions about publishers. Bad advice from agents. Under-estimating the job of researching. Needing to make money. Losing faith – in the book, then in myself. Thinking of another idea for a novel and writing that instead. The demise of the Net Book Agreement. Having children. Cyril Connolly was oh-so-right about the pram in the hall. My eldest was born at almost exactly the same time as I started to take notes for the novel. She will be 21 this year.
After Ascension Day (the novel I wrote during a prolonged lull) came out, I was all set to devote myself entirely to Redlegs. My publisher at the time, Hodder Review, offered me a two-book deal. But my agent advised me not to take it. My next book, she convinced me, would sell better on the open market.
The unforeseen consequence of taking that advice was that I didn't have a deadline, which for most novelists is the kiss of death. Other work came along, other distractions. I pretended I was writing by reading endless amounts on 19th-century Barbados, Scotland, fashions, modes of speech - I console myself that at least it didn't take even longer. Helen Hooven Santmyer took half a century to complete - And Ladies Of The Club. John Irving is something of a lightweight, taking a mere 20 years over Last Night In Twisted River.
Nor did I die in the attempt, like Mikhail Bulgakov still polishing The Master And Margerita on his deathbed in 1940. His masterpiece would wait another 27 years before being published. Flaubert spent his last decade writing Bouvard Et Pecuchet, one of a long list of novels whose authors never saw the published article.
Shamefully, what really cheered me up during the writing of Redlegs was Lanark (while trying not to brood on the fact Lanark is one of the great novels of modern times): overall, nigh on 30 years from inception to publication. Money (or the want of it), publishers and their problems, rethinking, re-editing, all slowed even Alasdair Gray down.
Lanark is, of course, a first novel. Redlegs was supposed to be and suffered the problems of both first love – an act of passion, gestating sweetly in your mind for years and handled with the utmost care – and the Difficult Second Album which, as Stephen Fry pointed out, is an act of professional writing and therefore more exacting. The industry loves first-time novelists. There are prizes galore, special sections of literary magazines, a general air of expectation. But if your debut doesn't make the bestsellers list, you're already damaged goods.
The industry became problematic in 1997, the year I began serious work on Redlegs. The end of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 weakened every link in the chain between writer and reader. Publishers had to get books into supermarkets, so concentrated their efforts and cash on fewer titles. They spent less on editing, expecting the finished article to be handed to them on a plate. So agents took over the job of editing – a profession they aren't always suited to.
In my case, neither my publisher nor agent at the time could understand why I had changed genres. Ascension Day had done well enough and sat comfortably on the Scottish Fiction and Literary Fiction shelves. Why write a historical novel? To make matters worse, apparently not even a "proper" historical novel at that. I spent two years trying to fulfil someone else's idea of my story. The next two staring at it, flummoxed. Two more putting it back together again. Like addicts, most writers crave the opinion of others, the opium of validation, but it can destroy them. Cyril Connolly was right again: "Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self."
Taking 21 years to write a book becomes a kind of record of your self. Redlegs has its origins in the career I was following before taking the plunge into writing full time. We turned research trips into memorable family holidays. I should have been writing it on an award trip to France, and then as writer-in-residence (I wrote a different novel altogether, and then a film). I've worked on it in Spain, France and the US. Reams of it were written in my childhood house while my old mum was living alone; both she and the house have gone now. The final sentences were written, with satisfying symmetry, visiting my eldest child – Redlegs's twin – in Japan.
Finally it found its natural editor and publisher – and only then because an old friend believed more in the book than I did. Vagabond Voices was passionate about the novel throughout the most extraordinarily meticulous and astute editing process. That rarest of animals – a publisher who genuinely likes writers and writing. And if, at the end of 21 years-a-growing, your literary love-child will never be as good-looking or as famous or brilliant as Lanark, that's only because Alasdair Gray wasn't in such a frenzied rush.
Redlegs is published by Vagabond Voices, £12.95.