It could be true, because every day, in some way or other, I'm examining the mysterious, intriguing act of writing a book. What could be a more glorious opportunity for a book-lover than to find out how these writers do it, how they surprise me into laughing while surrounded by strangers, or make my heart ache or, the most impressive trick of all, make me impatient for the next chance to escape back into the story, even after 400 pages?
Working on The Book Cafe programme over the past few weeks, as authors mention to me their Scottish book festival events this summer, I've been wondering about one idea in particular: how a writer's relationship with their bestselling book changes over time. The one that made their name and the one to which they're yoked for ever in the minds of their readers, whatever else they've written since. How do they feel about that book? Recently on the programme Jeanette Winterson talked about being "tethered" to her 1985 autobiographically-inspired debut, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, saying: "People have always asked me in a tick-box sort of way which bits of Oranges are true and which bits are not true. And that's something I've fought against - because I wanted to see fiction and the imaginative life as bigger than that." Perhaps last year's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, which covers much of the same ground as Oranges, was intended as an attempt to satisfy, finally, those meticulous readers.
Is it so disheartening for a writer to be forever associated with such a strikingly memorable book? In her recent two volumes of fictionalised memoir, Janice Galloway renamed herself Jeanette because she was thinking of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. When I called to talk about The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989), her first novel, she told me: "I don't know if I have a view of it any more. It's not mine any more - it's being taught in schools at the moment - you let it go because you've finished it."
She added: "What I actually think about my own work is immaterial," which was, of course, a dispiriting comment to hear, given how many authors we talk to on The Book Cafe. On the grounds that writers are usually always interesting on the subject of their work, I persevered, and Galloway's voice flooded with warmth when I asked if she remembered the days when she was writing The Trick, just her and the text. "Oh yes!" she replied. "I was making it up as I went along. It's like children. It's like sex. You have no idea if anybody else does it this way."
She started writing because "I suffered a double bereavement and I couldn't make sense of anything", but it's only been in recent years, presumably in that process of letting it go, that she's been able to guess why it so struck readers at the time and ever since. "It's an extremely interior book," she said. "I didn't know that at the time - I think what we were used to in Scottish literature when I was growing up, if you ever encountered it at all, was the fishing, the fishing, the land, the land, the sea, the sea. External things."
If The Trick Is To Keep Breathing made its mark because it felt fresh and was a new voice in more ways than one, what about when an author has been published for years and suddenly one book catapults them into a different stratosphere? Wolf Hall was Hilary Mantel's 11th novel. It won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction and she knew in the first moments of writing it that it was a game-changer. "I felt an enormous sense of illumination when I reached even the end of the first page," she said. "I thought, 'Ah, so this is what it's going to be like.' And I think I've never felt so happy - because I had a feeling that this was the book I was meant to write and that everything else had been leading to this book."
Exhilarated, she did something out of the ordinary. "Normally I'm very protective about a book until the closing stages, but in this instance I was so startled by it - that I really felt an urge to show it to people [at her publishing house] in order to give them some idea of what was coming. I had a feeling that I was doing something better, and special."
I don't write fiction, and I often think I wouldn't dare to try now, after speaking to so many authors in the course of my work, but it was thrilling to go right back with Mantel to those first quiet, tentative minutes when she caught her breath and tried not to break the spell until she got the words exactly right on the page – because that was very much how it felt to read it; could she possibly keep this up?
Allowing for the inspiration and the luck needed to create art, the turning point that was Wolf Hall came because Mantel had spent years learning her craft. Experience also served Rose Tremain well in the writing of her best-known book. "It took me until I was in my 40s to produce a really, really powerful novel, which was Restoration." Her irrepressible, buoyant and yet oddly melancholic main character, Robert Merivel, the anatomy student who falls in love with the favourite mistress of Charles II only to be cast out from the Court, required some coaxing into life: "I started it as a third-person narration, and I realised after about 20 pages or so that it wasn't working and I thought, 'I've got to be bold enough just to become this man.' So I started again, telling the same story but from his point of view, and within five or six pages of doing that I had a voice which amused me. And what a gift to a writer, to find a narrative voice that you're not only in harmony with and understand but is actually making you laugh."
Restoration was Booker short-listed in 1989 and eventually made into a feature film starring Robert Downey Jr and Meg Ryan, and Tremain quotes VS Naipaul when she talks of feeling "refreshed" by its success. "I felt that I had been working in the dark for 10 years and suddenly I was allowed to be in the light, and all the wonders that come with that; of feeling more powerful, of feeling more visible - that I could make choices and feel confident to do anything I wanted. Like a liberation." However, Tremain admits she's lucky to have started her career when she did, because new writers today are unlikely to be given 10 years to score a huge commercial and critical success: "I could have been dropped by book three and never would have written it [Restoration]. I don't know what I would have done with my life!"
Paul Torday, author of Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, is well aware that achieving a hit with his debut in 2006 was crucial: "It has given me a launch pad without which I might not have succeeded in getting any of my other books published for all I know." But for all his clear-sighted gratitude for the novel's success, including winning the 2007 Bollinger Everyman Prize for comic writing, he sounds wistful: "I think I've been living on the reputation of that first book to some extent and I feel it somehow has overshadowed some of my other books. I feel I've written better books since that haven't done quite so well and I often wonder what life would have been like if my third or fourth had been bestsellers instead of my first." He admits he feels slightly "numb" towards his debut and says he's most proud of The Girl On The Landing (2009), a much darker book about mental illness.
It seems that writing a book and handing it over to be published is just the start of a process of letting go and that it doesn't really matter whether an author's best-known work is the one they actually wish it was, because readers, publishers, judging panels, bookshop staff, reviewers and producers of book programmes all get to work and the book's story continues to evolve in its unique way.
And do we get it right, all of us together, in our reception of the books for which some of our most famous authors are known? It's a matter of opinion. For Hilary Mantel, at least, Wolf Hall's great success was justified. She says of it, simply, "I think it was my best work."
Serena Field is the producer of The Book Cafe, 1.15pm, Mondays on BBC Radio Scotland. Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson and Janice Galloway are appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Visit www.edbookfest.co.uk or call 0845 373 5888
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