A long time ago, a girl said to me, ‘Jessie, you’re always in the passenger seat.’ She was not talking literally about my being driven everywhere, and she meant it as a criticism. It came out a little lofty, and was a spiteful use of metaphor. Aside from the machinations of friendship, it proved how easy it was to remember cruelty and how much harder to hold a happy moment. Why are we so programmed to let the good times go? I suppose it’s so we learn from our mistakes.
I have tried to remember how it felt to sell my novel, a year ago today. I have tried to piece together a body of evidence before my own grows old and forgets, and I thought of calling it The Moment. Damascene moments make good copy; the passenger taking the wheel and all that.
Twelve months ago exactly, I spent an hour in a pleasant restaurant. I felt unease in the slack of my jaw, in my need to swallow constantly. I remember how the fashionable walls of fashionable brick were exposed to a thin high sun. I remember how the conversation between my literary agent and myself had grown skittish. We’d exhausted ourselves, both coated in the strange film of fatigue that follows euphoria. There were easy diners around us, an early lunch, me looking blankly at the menu, unable to focus on garlic prawns or dirty burgers, waiting for the phone to start its beep.
Three publishers across this enormous city, in whose offices we had sat and talked and laughed and fidgeted over the entire course of the morning – the three who were hanging in there after eight others had finally dropped away across the week – were deciding their best bid for The Miniaturist. I felt a little sick. I could have been sitting in a cathedral – those high walls, the unearthly light, the vague sense of judgment. Like a sinner, waiting for The Moment.
I hadn’t expected this. No one does. I have my rejection letters and embarrassed emails imprinted on my retina; so have we all. I had not permitted myself such wild fantasies – no Twitter messages sent secretly by enthusiastic editors, no conference calls with New York publishers – for the sole reason that I wanted to consider my writing a possible reality. Up to that point, to have someone want it was the only thing I’d wanted; a human need to have my work acknowledged. Of course, for any writer – or person, for that matter – daydreaming is utterly essential; the inward life, imagined time, both a nourishment and constant wellspring. But imagined realities can come to stymie as much as inspire. When you exist constantly on a dream planet, it’s easy to ignore the drearier one at hand (which is, in its way, also imagined, but that’s another essay). The best work is born when imagination runs headlong into adversity and restriction, instead of pretending those beasts aren’t there.
One of the publishers had given me a miniature silver birdcage with a parrot inside it, the pet of my main character. As the cocktails arrived my fingers played with this lucky charm, everything imbued with an awesome, fearsome feeling of a dream made flesh. Ironically, the insomnia had started a week before. A UK pre-empt had come within twelve hours of my agent’s submission. Brazil and Norway had already bought it. I had tossed and turned at night as if my mind was in a decompression chamber, trying to get used to the difference. Rio, Oslo, me in bed in south-east London.
You think it churlish, that I over-protest – it’s every drop of luck, after all – but let me admit it was a little frightening. All the time, the adrenaline was pumping. Now the interviews with the three UK publishers were over, those two states of alert and dope had mingled and I could no longer grasp the situation. Quite literally, I could not incorporate it.
The phone beeped. The first publisher. I sat opposite my agent, marvelling at her extraordinary calm as if she was reading the price of a bag of sugar. It was a brief email. Then another. Then the third. We knew the choice. I sipped my drink; refreshing, bitter. ‘Let’s call them back,’ she said. ‘Let’s make their day.’ The barman clinked his glasses as he took them off the shelf.
We made that day, Juliet and me – and for once, I wasn’t in the passenger seat. I wasn’t the driver, nor was I the car, nor even a lumbering carthorse. Was I a wheel, oiled and fast, momentarily possessing a symmetry of form and purpose? I wasn’t a bloody metaphor at all, which was both the liberation and the problem. For how to describe, to define the experience? Or why bother? It was what it was. The only truth was me, sitting in a restaurant with sweaty palms.
But I think I have to try. I have to bother.
Everything got back to the appearance of normal quite quickly. I made it so. It’s as though I refused to let the sale of the book to all those countries change anything. I wouldn’t let them in – the compliments, the looks of astonishment, the slyer ones of envy. The Miniaturist had come from a place of hidden safety, no expectation; a private pleasure that of course, of course, I had wanted to be public. But the change had been sudden and vertiginous. My shell was lifted off me and the wind was on my back. It was as if I’d been ushered to a golden ledge, invited to sit on it, and presented with a completely different view of my future.
Friends derived more immediate pleasure from my good fortune than I could allow for myself. I didn’t know what to do, but thankfully Amy collapsed in joyful giggles on the pavement and did it for me. Alice, who’d been away during it all, sat at a bus stop and burst into tears. Victoria, like her namesake, pretended I was empress of the world. Their secondary happiness was easier to process; in me, the doubt still burned. Why would it not – how could I be so lucky? It was a magician’s trick, except this time I was the magician, and by a sleight of hand I’d sawn myself in half.
I am not wise, because wise people, I realized, don’t wait for The Moment. I kept trying to feel it, people kept asking me, but time is not made of nuggets you put on your shelf and keep forever, frozen and perfect and easy to see. It’s what so many of us crave, but it’s impossible. So we make it up. Writing this, I have recreated a history. I have put a false nugget on the shelf. A really great one, mind. Shiny as hell. But not entirely true.
So when it came to my novel being sold, there was no particular point of change. The scales didn’t fall from my eyes. I didn’t rise up like a phoenix. I didn’t suddenly write amazing stories that poured from my fingertips like lilac wine. The week’s events and all the fragmented moments after, echo deeper inside me than I can articulate. Years knotted tight, that week I unspooled myself, and I have still not put the threads together. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps that is OK.
These months have brought great changes to my life, and yet much remains the same, for which I’m also grateful. I’m not even published officially yet. Who knows what that will bring? I do know that caution, in moderation, is no bad thing. Taken in small portions, it is a precious commodity. Not great cloying clags of the stuff, of course, but in the form of patience, in the shape of thought.
And there’s one other thing I’ve learned – gradually, (cautiously!), probably only in the last eight weeks. As if I were my own friend, I am happy that this luck has come along. What else is there to do but to deeply, truly enjoy these months? It would be foolish and selfish not to. That passenger seat, such a site of scorn? Well, it got me where I am, and thus it draws me on.