This book will change your life is a phrase to make the eyes roll, especially if you’re a book publisher. It is conceivable that a book’s wisdom and insight might make you fitter or smarter, a better lover, cook or parent. It might make you more empathetic and spiritual, calmer and neater to boot. It might transform your social interactions as your friends start twitching as you drone on about a book’s revelations. Residents of the Land of Literature will argue that the pleasure of serious reading—a noble end in itself—is life-changing enough.
I am an optimist and a booster for my profession, permanently on call to spruik book publishing, particularly of the nonfiction variety. But in not-breaking news, the vast majority of books will not change your life. Those least likely to do so are probably the ones with a tagline on the front cover, or a blurb on the back, promising transformation. While I can’t yet speak of the impact of publication itself, to my surprise and joy I have discovered truth in the proposition that writing this book will change your life. I would even go so far as to add the phrase, for the better.
No-one is more surprised by this turn of events than me. I’ve worked with writers for all my professional life: cajoling, encouraging and occasionally pleading, but mainly enjoying myself, and their work, very much. Happy in my role as professional reader and publisher, the idea of becoming a writer was never a life goal. Until one day early in 2014 an idea landed and rather than commissioning someone else to write the book, I decided I would write it. Not in a begrudging passive-aggressive, ‘Oh, I’ll do it myself’ way. Instead, pulse quickening, I saw the clouds opening to give me a moment of clarity where I could see the outline of my own project, a history of the year 2001, blurry but coming into focus. That might be fun, I thought.
It took more than a year for me to share my vision with anyone else, though ‘vision’ is too grand a word. Mine was more of a mini idea with serious growth potential. Some low-key research and a lot of thinking and reflecting meant that one auspicious day when the urge to share my idea struck, I had the confidence and the language to pitch it. Being on the receiving end of countless pitches had given me a template for what might work, but in that moment I learnt that being the pitcher takes courage. The pitchee’s only task is to say yes or no, the latter often taking less courage than the former.
It is no coincidence that my audience in the moment this desire struck was a literary agent—now my agent—who found the tables turned on her. Her first question to me, expressed with more than a little trepidation before I launched in was, ‘It’s not a novel, is it?’ Not having written a novel felt like the greatest ice-breaker ever. Awkward moment out of the way, I threw myself into the task, so pumped I could feel my face and neck going red. She liked the idea and asked for a proposal. I sent her one I had prepared earlier and will never forget the first line of her email in response: ‘We love it.’ She sold it and before too long, oh happy days, I had a book contract. That sounds too easy and in a way it was, except that I had been in training to get one for 25 years.
At this point most accounts of the writing process focus on the paralysis of the terrified writer as she looks out at the blank pages spreading before her, hundreds if not thousands of them to be written and rewritten, crafted and cut. Each page forming a stepping stone between where she stands now and a deadline 18 months away. For me, that panicked image is a lie. The rush of excitement and purpose the contract brought with it never dissipated. It licensed me to do what for so long I had wanted to make my work email signature: Sit down, shut up and write the book.
Writing a book is not a mysterious or metaphysical act. It is all about work. It was time to interview the people, read the books, articles and transcripts, to watch the video clips and study the photographs. Immersed in my new world, it was time to resurrect memories, my own and those of others. The book gave me permission to interview a former prime minister, former Ansett flight attendants and pilots, a former refugee, people who were in Washington or New York City on 9/11. I didn’t need the book’s permission to revisit the worst thing that has happened to me but the book gave me permission to write about it. What do you think about this, the book asked me, how do you feel about that? Sure, that may be true, replied the book to my undercooked arguments, but where’s the evidence? The book niggled at me, interrogated me and made me try harder. I’ll tell you what I think, I said to the book and wrote it all down. Then I cut all those words so I could write them again, better, differently.
The book took hold of me. I was a woman possessed. I rearranged my life. My supportive boss allowed me to go part-time, saying optimistically ‘Writing your own book will probably make you a better publisher.’ My colleagues were unflagging in their support too, selflessly so, as my initial day-a-week absence grew over time and meant one thing for them—more work. Soon I was spending every Sunday in the State Library of New South Wales. 49-year-old me going through newspapers alongside hordes of students studying for the HSC. There we all were, in this public repository of knowledge abuzz with teenage pheromones. My daughter had been part of this scene but she started hanging out somewhere else. She couldn’t be seen in a place I had now inhabited, especially after one of her friends was forced by circumstance to introduce her new boyfriend to me, both of them blushing as I shook his hand.
One day my son said, not a little plaintively, ‘I feel like we used to do more things together on the weekend.’ I had unilaterally removed myself from weekend family life, with the promise that I would return once the book was done. I remember going away one weekend for a celebration of two friends’ 50th birthdays and realising it was the first Sunday all year I hadn’t been in the library. I could not have been happier to be there, but no festivities could budge my deep paranoia about missing my deadline. To do so would surely be the worst karma ever. No author of mine would ever deliver on time again. (Not that they all do.) So, full disclosure: nine months before the due date I asked my publisher for an extra six weeks so I think I am telling the truth when I say that I met the deadline. But I will confess that the manuscript was longer than I said it would be.
I have often been on the receiving end of what are nominally conversations but are really monologues as an author describes their work in detail. Sometimes fascinating detail, sometimes stupefying. Minutiae about their research, interviews and writing. Reflections on their progress, the revelations of the archives, and the difficulties, always the difficulties. Now on the other side, I got it. I understood their obsession, their need to offload big-time in response to the question ‘How’s the book going?’ When someone asked me that question I told them, often in more detail than their innocent query deserved. Even when they protested, ‘No, I’m really interested’ after my counter-question ‘Do you really want to know?’ For I was more interested in telling them than they might imagine, even as they stepped back and cast furtive looks so a fellow party-goer or dinner guest might rescue them from a manic writer on a roll. When I had coffee with my wonderful publisher I found myself thinking, well, at least she’s being paid to hear me go on and on.
No such luck for my family. More than once around the dinner table I zoned out and with varying degrees of politeness my nearest and dearest would call me back from 2001. One time I remember saying to my husband and son, ‘You’ll never guess what happened’ and, poised to launch into my tale, was interrupted by one of them sighing as he said, ‘Don’t tell me it was in 2001.’ To which I could retort, ‘No, it was this morning.’ Boom.
And yet I couldn’t have done it without them. Not just the meals, hugs and banter, but the support, encouragement and advice, particularly from my husband, who found himself co-opted into the role of reader and multidisciplinary sounding board. Imagine living with a wife writing a book and a daughter studying for the HSC at the same time. He was copping questions about Nazi foreign policy fired from one side and al-Qaeda from the other. When my book was safely delivered, I had coffee with one of my authors who confided that his marriage had broken up. Gulp, was it because of the book he had taken so many years to write? No, but the book probably didn’t help, he answered. And his (former) partner doesn’t appear in his book like mine does in mine.
Yet once I delivered the book, flooded with relief and fatigue though I was, I missed it. Because it had been fun. Yes, I’ve heard the tales. Writing is supposed to be a hellish nightmare. The hardest job in the world. Compared to what, I ask? It’s not lucrative, granted, but I’d rather sit at my desk writing than work in a childcare centre, cart water from a distant well or assemble iPhones in a Chinese factory. Writing meant I wasn’t working through spreadsheets, managing people or wrangling other people’s words. For better or worse, I owned this project and was writing it on my own terms. Words didn’t always flow but when you entered the zone where they did you might look up hours later and feel as if you had just scaled Everest, oxygenated by a rush of ideas as you looked down on a beautiful world. Often a descent through the valley of doubt and despair followed, but doing the work, always doing the work, meant you might reach the summit again.
I delivered the manuscript after adrenalin-charged weeks and months, and immediately felt as if a truck had run over me at the end of a long-haul flight that had left me with the worst-ever case of jet lag. I had dreamed of watching television and drinking wine at the same time. But when the day arrived where such oblivion was theoretically possible, my book now sitting on someone else’s computer, sleep was all I craved. At first I couldn’t sleep because my mind was whirring through the book, but then I slept the sleep of the dead. Only now am I waking up.
I booked a massage. I explained to the therapist—klutz alert—that the day before I had ploughed into a door at full throttle. We giggled as I imagined the bruise on my arm in the shape of a door handle, like in a cartoon. She made the standard observation, ‘Your back and shoulders are really tight’ and I imagined those muscles knotted in the shape of a book. Maybe a hundred books, lined up along my trapezius muscle, now a bookshelf. All the books I’d read for my own book, maybe all those books I’d read through my life that had stayed with me, in me. My whole body weighed down by books—other people’s and my own. The essential oil burned and the bland massage music piped and I realised this thought was completely wrong. All these books had liberated me and made it possible for me to carve out my own. My neck and shoulders may have been locked, but my brain and my heart were open. •
Phillipa McGuinness is a Sydney publisher and writer. Her book The Year that Changed Everything: 2001 will be published in June 2018.
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