Friday, June 05, 2009

The Tale of Two Books

Little Bird
We're all home sick today. I'm wearing Martin's biggest flannelette shirt. The girls are in their jarmies, watching a strange dubbed Italian live action version of Pinocchio and playing with blocks, building and demolishing towns.

A truck just drove up and parked outside our house. This doesn't happen very often on our little dirt road. Martin and I watched out the window, wondering aloud if he had something for us. Sure enough, the guy walked towards our house with a box. Martin went out and relieved him of it at the front gate, what with me wearing only a shirt and all. 'Let's all sit round the table together and watch Daddy open it!' Fred said. Martin got a knife. Una brough her bowl of chopped up apple. Out of the box were unearthed 12 copies of my new novel, Little Bird. Hello Little Bird, nice to see you out in the world. The girls were not overly excited.

The strange thing about being a writer is that by the time a book comes out you've been finished with it for ages, and the finished product is like a manifestation of the recent, but finished with, past. In the time that Little Bird has been at the printer I've written a whole other novel. Well half of one. Which brings us to...

The Top Secret Super Exciting Collaborative Novel
aka Dear Swoosie
In March one of the Onions asked Kate if she happened to have a spare Girlfriend novel ready to go, as they had a gap early next year. They said they'd need it by late May, early June at the latest. Kate said probably not because a) no ideas and b) she only really has one day a week to write, but if she had a marvellous idea she'd let them know. We had a chat about what she would write about, I told her how much I loved her blog bio, where she says 'I used to tell fortunes that sometimes came true'. In the course of this conversation we said 'hey you know what would be great if I wasn't so busy and you had more time would be to write a Girlfriend together'.

Somehow this turned into 'Hey, let's write a Girlfriend together!'

And in the end it was the perfect project for both of us. The sad thing was delaying the publication date of Only Ever Always AGAIN, but considering I had just taken on three days a week of teaching, I thought that was probably the best decision for the book anyway, it's too complex a novel to be squeezing into one day a week.

As it was, Dear Swoosie practically wrote itself (well, it certainly felt that way when I opened up our Google document to discover a whole new chapter had appeared). We plotted it out within an inch of its life, first with a dead mother and then - because we're sick of dead parents - with a mum who has nicked off to find herself instead. Then we wrote it a chapter each at a time. Concurrently, we also wrote the series of letters that form the heart of the novel, letters the two girls find hidden away in the school attic that were written between best friends in 1989. The letters are heading towards the Winter Formal, the novel culminates in a twenty year reunion for (you guessed it) the Class of 1989. The letters were great to write, easy to squeeze into a spare moment. However the odd affect was that Kate and I hardly spoke to each other or saw each other as we were writing, most of our contact came through the novel. When we wrote a big falling out, we actually had to ring each other and make sure everything was okay between us.Bizarrely, we actually wrote the Winter Formal letters, just as we were about to start writing the Reunion chapters, so the story parallels are even stronger.

The absolutely best thing about writing this novel was how fun it was. When you write for a living, writing can become work. Little Bird ended up being a lot more complicated than I thought it would be and Only Ever Always has proved a huge intellectual struggle. Often when I write part of me is always fantasising about the book I plan to write next, the perfect, unsullied book, the book that has not yet succumbed to the laws of limited possibilities (where, one you write a certain amount, you have closed off a number of options about what the book could have been). But I always loved living in the world of Swoosie. Having someone else live in the world of the novel so completely, someone who knows your characters as well as you do, who brings life and freshness and unpredictability to your world, well, it's more like play than work.

On Tuesday I wrote the last chapter. It was so sad to have it come to an end, but exciting too, because we can't wait to show it to other people and find out if everyone thinks we're as clever and funny as we do.


  1. Yay! It sounds wonderful.

  2. Anonymous4:38 PM

    Nothing like mixin' it up to make work fun (and fast!), congratulations on the novel, and the Big Issue story too.

  3. Sounds like a great experience, Penni! Most stories of colaborative writing are along the lines of "DON'T!", so it's really nice to hear a story of it going well.

    It sounds like a really interesting book to read. Now I just have to steal myself up to buy a "Girlfriend" book :-)

  4. Ohh I can't wait to read Swoosie. It reminds me so much of my own past in a sense. A friend and I used to write letters to each other all the time. Each week and even though we also physically saw each other weekly, it was something we both loved doing. It helped that he was the older man I was madly in love with in my final years of high school (so circa 1987/88). Anyway, years later after we lost contact and found each other again (about eight years later perhaps), we were talking on the phone one night about the letters and discovered that both of us had kept each and everyone of them. So we spent five hours on the phone reading back and forth (in sequence as much as we could manage) all of these letters we had written to one another. It was one of the best phone conversations I had ever had and at the end we joked at what a brilliant idea for a book it would be: the letters, the reuniting of two friends, and the phone call. So yes, can't wait to read it Penni!

  5. It sounds like such a fun way to write!

    I'm studying to be a psychologist and I love running group therapy in part because it's so great to have someone else to bounce ideas off, to handball to (or to help out) if things are flailing, and to debrief with about the session. A good partnership is so satisfying.

    Looking forward to reading this story one day. :)

  6. Sounds like great fun. Must say I love hearing about what it's like to be a writer/novelist. Both the good and the bad.

  7. Geez, when did 1989 become The Past complete with letters in attics?

    I graduated in 1989. That could have been my Winter Formal (except, not, as we only had an end of year formal, at the Cleveland Community Centre, which was not glamorous).

    I'm feeling a little aged.

  8. Hey Kris, I actually graduated in 1984, so it was even weirder for me. But we had to meet in the middle, what with me being so much more of an old hag than Penni!

  9. congratulations on the new books! lovely lovely

  10. It's interesting, that lag between creating something and the finished result. I've got 150 books that I've printed and are waiting to be hand-bound, but I'm so over the project now that I've finished the first 50 of them. Now I just want to be making something completely new.

    I feel sorry for filmmakers, too, who make a movie and then have to promote it ages later, after post-production. They're raring to get into the next thing and everyone wants to talk about the last. I guess it's the same for musicians as well.