Through the Looking Glass

First published in Scotland on Sunday


Nick Hornby cycled past me the other day. A quiet street, mid-morning on a weekday, pretty much just him and me outdoors – him cycling in one direction, me walking in the other. There’s no way he could have missed me. Yet he cycled past as if he didn’t even know who I was.

Which, of course, he doesn’t. Not from Adam. And there’s no reason why he should, apart from the fact that Holmes and Hornby are so close alphabetically that our books are occasionally racked next to each other in shops (I know, because I check bookshops. Check, then furtively move copies of mine so it’s front-facing. And perhaps Nick does the same thing because his are usually front-facing, too). Even so, I realised afterwards, there was a tiny bit of me that resented Nick for not stopping. Like he hadn’t read the script. The one called My Life as a Novelist, where Andrew, having achieved his lifelong dream of being published, is walking along the street when he bumps into Nick Hornby, who stops, chats for a while about authorish things, like agents and how ghastly daytime telly is, before the two become firm friends.

But this didn’t happen because of an error of judgement on my part. A flight of hubristic fancy. I assumed that getting a book published would somehow change things. I wasn’t sure how, but the fact is that like most people, I thought published writers were a different, rarefied breed, and when I joined their ranks, clawed my way in through sheer hard work and persistence, I, too, would become different and rarefied. For a start, like most people, I had assumed that being a published author meant instant financial security. I know most people think this because when I’m not authoring I’m a freelance sub-editor, where I go and provide holiday cover, and where people inevitably ask, “What are you doing here if you’re a published author? Shouldn’t you be sunning yourself in Barbados or something?” These are people who work in what you would consider fairly savvy newspapers and magazines, so I can hardly be blamed for thinking the same thing. Obviously if I’d thought about it harder I would have realised, but I didn’t, probably because I was practising for being an author, when my mind would be concentrated on matters such as how to describe the smell of fresh rain, not on all that pre-author stuff, like bills and running out of cat litter. Which reminds me…

The fact is, for those of us not in the Hornby bracket, getting a book published is one of the most understated something-you’ve-worked-a-lifetime-towards achievements there is. It’s a life-changing event that’s really not all that life-changing at all. Imagine you’ve got really dressed up for a fancy-dress party, perhaps as a clown, with full make-up and everything. And when you get to the party you walk in to find that it’s not fancy-dress at all, and everybody else is standing around in suits and evening gowns. But instead of acknowledging the fact that you’re dressed as a clown, nobody says a word. As you socialise, flopping about the room in your comedy-length clown’s shoes, you wonder: “Why has nobody said anything? Do they not realise? Should I tell them?” until at last you say to a guest, “I’m wearing a clown costume, you know,” and they say, “Yes. I know,” and continue talking to someone else. That’s what it feels like.

Of course, I’m being slightly disingenuous. I would have happily chewed off my own arm just for the pleasure of seeing my book in a shop, nothing beats seeing it on Amazon, and last year I was shortlisted for an award, where I stood around chatting with the other nominees, the likes of Donna Tartt and Ben Elton, my book cover occasionally being flashed up on massive overhead screens.

Still, though, I didn’t win. And the next day I arrived at work and some bugger had nicked my mouse mat.

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