Writing a novel in a bookshop is like trying to conceive in a maternity ward: one of those times when seeing the final product, while you’re still struggling to make one of your own, can really put you off. For the three and a half years I spent writing my first novel, I worked at a small independent bookshop in Peckham, south London. I have watched the life cycle of books: seen them arrive in a flurry of attention, only to become prematurely old and cast aside to make way for the next lot. Writing a novel can seem like a silly undertaking at the best of times. Writing a novel in a bookshop borders on the ridiculous.
Being an author is about spending a long time finding the right way to say something. But that’s not how most people choose what to read. The way people ask for books is a levelling experience when you are in danger of taking yourself too seriously. Hunched over the counter, trying to find the right way to describe the look of a disturbed patch of sea above a shoal of feeding mackerel, I was interrupted by a punter needing help to find ‘that book that’s, sort of, all the colours of a blood clot’. (The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, since you ask). Another time the request was for ‘that one set in Africa or Mongolia. A Million Tiny Suns?’ (An excellent idea for a mash-up of James Frey and Khaled Hosseini).
Sometimes, though, distracting customers were unintentionally helpful. I was wrestling with the voice of my main character, a drunken self-destructive Australian, when the door opened and a man shouted, ‘You can get books for free at the library!’ before wobbling off across the road to the accompaniment of an impressive screech of brakes. Did he mean to do a struggling writer a good turn?
Whenever I tell customers I’m a writer they say it must be the perfect combination, and in many ways it is. Normally this is right before they say, ‘I’ve written a novel,’ and then tap their temple with their index finger. ‘It’s all up here, I just need someone to write it down for me.’ These irritating types are, of course, rogue customers from out of town, and never our lovely regulars.
Sometimes Roz, the owner, and I will leave notes for each other, taped up in the secret place behind the counter. Roz has a permanent note to self about her partner, neatly typed and laminated, which reads ‘Roy is not horrid.’ Difficult customers get a note behind the counter: ‘Take your children and go’, or: ‘You are going to swallow that mobile phone whole.’ Once I came to work to discover I had left a note from my book by mistake. It read: ‘Stays near water and eats women.’ Underneath I had drawn a small black pig.
When the finished book came into the shop, I felt extremely shy. We have a table for new releases and hardbacks, and I wanted to pop a copy of something heavy over the top so no one would find it. It was the same feeling as that ghastly dream moment when you discover you are naked. But Roz whipped it into the window next to a red arrow, emblazoned with ‘Look! It’s Evie! She works here!’
I’m looking forward to a time when someone picks up my book and I don’t flush red. But most of all I can’t wait for someone to ask for it. Sometimes I wonder if working in the shop prompted me to choose such a long title, just to see what jumbled formation it would come back to me in.
After The Fire, A Still Small Voice is published by Jonathan Cape. Available at www.amazon.co.uk from Dhs72.