Like buses, it seems, you wait all your life, and then several come along at once. I don’t know if there is some kind of universal formula, perhaps amount of time demanded by work, multiplied by time spent dreaming, plus the cube root of perseverance, equals too many ideas at once.
This writing life, it seems, is a conglomeration of what everyone else sees and the crazy mind-world of the writer juggling various stages of different books. So Inshallah is on the shelves, and I am gratified and happy to get the feedback. Readers love it. They can’t put it down. They tell me how they stayed up all night to read it, and how much they wanted to shake Amanda for her decisions, and how angry they are at her husband, and how mystified they are about the actions of other women. They tell me that it feels as if they are really there, living and breathing the tastes and sounds of Saudi Arabia alongside her, chopping onions and learning Arabic and getting sick at the smell of tripe stew. This is wonderful. It’s clear that the book I spent so much time on is making a difference to people, giving them that sense of pleasure and escapism that I long for as a reader. Great feedback, and I hope the book goes from strength to strength.
So here I am an author, and attending events and talking about the book, and smiling when people tell me they’ve read it – this is the persona I have longed to be able to adopt for so long. But at the same time, I’m a writer, and that means writing. And writing means finding time to concentrate on the current project, which is now at the editing stage. I finally finished its first incarnation a couple of days ago. My new baby is, like all newborns, weak and dependent, needing maternal love and nurturing to grow and stand on its own two feet. It needs a lot of work, a lot of shaping, feeding, trimming, and dressing up to make it acceptable to the outside world. In order to do this, I have to be both mother and father, teacher and custodian. I am like the perfect parent in that I must be firm and unrelenting in shaping and socialising this beast so that it is ready for company. But it’s still my baby, so I worry about it and whether it will ever be ready to cut the apron strings and face the outside world.
In the midst of this shift into parenting mode, after (ironically) around nine months of gestation and creation, I have to deal with the kind of plot twist that authors should be accustomed to, the emergence of a sudden change, an obstacle, this time, in the form of more ideas. I have to treat these like fertilised embryos, allowing them to coalesce, honouring the moment of conception, then freezing them just after that point, and storing them until the point when I can devote a period of my life to letting them implant, grow, and be born in their turn.
My family of books and stories. My firstborn is out in the world, and my second creation is growing, and may find a place out there too, although nothing is guaranteed. And meantime, I’m writing academic chapters for textbooks and trying to write essays for collections and competitions. And the sequel to Inshallah is sitting there in a test tube in the freezer, waiting for the right time to be brought into being.
Meanwhile, everyone I know seems to be writing a book as well, and here I am, published, and they are asking for my opinion on their work. I’m happy to give it. I’m happy to hear that other people I like and admire are writing and creating. But in the midst of all this reading and commenting, and my teaching and marking and student support, and cooking and cleaning and shopping and filling in forms for school, and paying bills and planning Christmas, I wonder, where’s the room for writing?
Does it matter? Some might see this as a hobby. But when someone asks me about my book, and my writing, or when someone demands a sequel (who’d have thought they’d want to know what happens next), I feel like this is who I was born to be. I love books. I could talk about them all day. I could talk about my books forever.
So I sit and look at my next book-to-be. It’s nothing like my first, except for the moral dilemma issue, which is at the core of the story. Or is it a mystery? Or an identity crisis? These are all good questions. I’m still not sure. I don’t think writers are. I don’t think we go into writing a book saying it will be a ‘tour de force of Orwellian proportions’ or any of that bullshit that you see in the reviews and on the covers of the best sellers. We don’t sit down and say, today I will write an insightful critique on modern family life, or anything. We write stories. We get ideas, and the ideas start to live inside us, and the characters start to talk, and once they get their voices heard, they often won’t shut up. But it takes perseverance commitment, pragmatism and a certain degree of blindness to keep on writing. It’s not easier once you’ve been published, quite the opposite. When people tell me how good my book is, suddenly I’m frozen in fear, halted by self doubt. What if this one isn’t as good? What if nobody likes this one? What if I picked the wrong story, the wrong characters, the wrong setting?
And then it comes down to the question of why am I writing? Am I writing to be published, or am I writing because I have a story that simply has to be told? I’ve gone with the latter. After all, it worked the first time round.