My very long stint using Editor finished two days ago and coincided with my friend Dr Pamela Tudor Craig coming to stay for a night so that she could attend Jay Wilson’s funeral. A time of endings, then. Pamela is an art historian and has helped and encouraged me for years. She speaks as she finds and if she becomes rapturous about your work, she means it. This is tempered by her speaking the truth equally forcefully when she is not enraptured.
‘Where’s your Lippi book?’ she demanded as I brought her some coffee and said I was just off to make supper. She can be more imperious than the Queen (when she’s not being Dr Tudor Craig, she’s being Pamela Lady Wedgwood). An hour later, when I returned with a dish of quiche, she pronounced in a doomy voice that I’d lost my touch, this was just the bare bones, it lacked all atmosphere and if you’re going to have a rogue as a hero, make him lovable. She repeated herself several times over supper.
I went to bed depressed, of course, compounded by having been charged £62 ‘no show’ fee at a bed and breakfast I’d cancelled two months ago. And then, whoopee, the next day dawned and we had a funeral to go to. I hardly knew Jay but had liked him a lot and he was a fan of the trilogy. As a minister at St Mary Magdalene in the centre of Oxford, he got a full requiem mass. This jolly, rotund neo-platonic septuagenarian was sent off with Bob Dylan and Mozart. The times they are a-changing…
His friend Colin Dexter gave a little speech from the pulpit. Now Colin is famous and presumes everyone knows it and plays to the spotlight, so the talk was very entertaining, but afterwards people – cultured intellectuals but from London, not Oxford, where Colin is infamous – were asking ‘Who was that man?’ and I went amongst them saying, ‘He wrote Inspector Morse.’
I know most people are oblivious to the authors of the books they are reading (and enjoying) but I thought everyone knew Colin Dexter and they don’t – how depressing is that? Authors overshadowed by the characters they’ve created – there’s a thesis in that. And so cast down with post-funeral blues and this opening chasm where yesterday my confidence had been, we came home, and on the bus Pamela wondered out loud (very loud) how my novel could be improved, and even if it can be. Are my powers spent? Is it one trilogy and out? After all, it was true of Tolkien and looks to be true of Philip Pullman (both Oxford men) so to live around here and write a trilogy, well… ‘Be content with what you have done and between now and your own funeral just concentrate on some little things, like Lyra’s Oxford, or Leaf by Niggle.’
I went to bed last night feeling sick with the glums. But I’d got the seed of an idea during the funeral, and this morning I tried it on paper and wrote a new first chapter. It took five hours. It was the best writing I’ve done for years. It was certainly the longest stint at one sitting. There’s nothing like being beaten up to put the fight back in you.
I printed it out and gave it to David when he went for his afternoon nap. When I passed by (OK, looked in hopefully) five minutes later, he had that look on his face, that ‘Oh, really!’ look of the offended critic. ‘To start a novel with the word He is such a cliche.’ Damned on the first word?! I staggered away trying to laugh it off. A few minutes later he called out, ‘There are ten hes in the first paragraph! Such a cliche! All bad books start that way! Why are you withholding his name?’ If it then went quiet it was because he’d fallen asleep.
But I know in the pit of me that I’ve answered all Pamela’s justified complaints about the first chapter and that the book, which I was never quite sure of, no matter how often I edited it, is now fine.
There are three validations. Third party validation is the one we all crave, where the world shouts ‘hosanna!’ at our work (and a week later crucifies us); second party is our friends and family, who usually say only good things, and therefore can’t be relied upon (unlike my dear husband, who is nothing if not reliable). But the real validation, the only one of worth, is first party, when we know in the pit of ourselves, ‘this is fine’.
I’ve got there, I know I have, but I just need to read through now and make sure the edifice sits well on the new foundation… And I suppose I should send a copy to Pamela. And then of course I have to change the first word.
It’s a true friend who tells you the truth.