I had often wondered where I would be when it happened for me. And, of course, I wasn’t where I expected. I would touch my desk and wonder if maybe I’d be sitting there at lunchtime, unknowingly about to see my agent’s name light up on my phone screen. Or I’d be out with a friend for lunch and think maybe I would have to excuse myself. My desk and the quiet backrooms at work and the walk from the train station became loaded, like sets ready to use for a play. Because I knew it would happen, this time – somehow. It was only a matter of when.
I wasn’t thinking about it when it happened. Isn’t that always the way? And, all that morning, when it had been happening, totally unknown to me, it strangely, for the first time since my book went to editors a week and a half previously, hadn’t been on my mind at all. I had angsted to my father about the silence – what did you expect? he said. You knew it would be a while. A wait. It’s out of your hands. Write another. Just write – and then I felt better, and work was busy, and it was almost my birthday, and I’d bought myself a nice handbag. Life was good. Someone would want my book one day. I would be okay. I would write another. I would always write another.
I was walking in to an hour-long training session when I saw it. A little blue spot on my iPhone. A voicemail. My phone hadn’t rang, I didn’t think. I saw my agent’s name at the top of my voicemail list and felt a shiver cross my shoulders. And then I saw the email. Can you call me, please? it said. Inscrutable. And yet I knew. Partly because my agent doesn’t tend to call me without arranging to. Partly because I had been on submission for about the right amount of time to begin expecting good news if I was exceptionally lucky and had a publisher interested enough to act quickly. And partly – isn’t it always so? – because I knew in a way I haven’t known before that I had written a bloody good book.
The training was an hour. I started drumming my fingers on the table. Folding and unfolding my arms. Huffing. I didn’t know and I did know and I didn’t dare to know and I didn’t dare to leave in case I was wrong. I texted an author friend, screen shotted the email. She said she felt like her chest felt full of helium; the perks of texting writers. I waited out the hour. You’re a professional waiter, now, she said. You can do 58 minutes.
I escaped from the training and took the back lift down to my floor. So here’s where it will happen, I thought, over confident and hopeful and wary all at once. The back meeting rooms. I went into my favourite; the one I have always called my agent from, the one with the opaque blinds and the two chairs and the one whose extension number I know off by heart.
My agent’s receptionist answered, and I said something crazy. Will she know what it’s regarding? she said. YES, I said insanely.
“We have an offer,” my agent said. She relayed the terms to me. I barely heard them. My eyes were full of tears, my throat tight. All those nights. All those plot problems. All those times I thought it wasn’t going to happen for me. The characters I had created and then cried for as I (sometimes) killed them. The social occasions I’d missed because I was writing. The yawns at my desk during edits. The novel I wrote when I was twelve that I finished in the optician’s called Where Magic Is Possible. The novel I wrote when I was twenty called Three By The Sea. The blogs I’ve written here for a third of my adult life. All of that. And here we were. I was going to be a published author.
“Gilly?” my agent said to me after relaying the terms.
“It’s from Michael Joseph. An imprint of Penguin.”
Well. That was too much. I had known the kind of names who had my novel. The publishing giants. The ubiquitous names that would dazzle any lifelong reader. But I never dared to dream it would be them. Penguin. The Penguin Classics mug on my bedside table. The names they publish. JoJo Moyes. Marian Keyes. Liane Moriarty. Zadie Smith.
“Well, I think we’ll accept that,” I said, playing it cool. “Penguin,” I added.
And so it happened in that meeting room, as I always thought it might. My meeting room. My Penguin meeting room, I now call it in my head. That’s where it happened; where my life changed forever.
The calls were next. It was to be on the down-low until the announcement, but I could tell my family. I called my father first. The man who’d plotted it out with me. Asked me leading questions about my characters. Poured pot after pot of tea as we mused on plot holes and why people do what they do. The man who said technically it’s domestic noir when asked by another relative which genre my book is. The man who now knows the name of all of the major publishing houses’ imprints. Understands pre-empts and royalties and UK and Commonwealth rights.
“Dad,” I said, standing on the corner, between my office and my favourite coffee, shop as I looked at the late-winter blue sky. “Penguin bought it.”
“What? Fucking hell. What?” Dad said. “Penguin?”
“Yes. Just now. Five minutes ago.”
We paused, each feeling the same thing on the phone. I cried first.
“Penguin bought our little book,” Dad said, genuine wonder in his voice. “I can’t believe you actually did it.”
My mum cried. My best friend sent expletives.
I met Dave outside his office at 5:00pm, wanting to tell him in person. I sent some insistent texts and he left on time. “You alright?” he said as he walked past the security guard on reception. His eyes looked bright blue in the evening sun. We hardly ever leave work on time. His forehead wrinkled as he saw my disheveled appearance.
I burst in to tears and he reached for me, unthinkingly. “Penguin bought my book,” I said through my tears.
Dave’s eyes crinkled as he drew me to him. “What on earth…?” he said to me. “What?”
I went to meet my editor that Friday, four days later. I had still not really slept; every time I closed my eyes a kaleidoscope of happy memories crowded in. We went to the Savoy. We talked about the words I’d written, the people I’d dreamt up and put in a book. Everyone had read it. My words. My dad’s suggestions for better characterisation. Like it was our child, out in to the world. My editor got my book in more ways than I could hope. She knows what sort of book it is, and knows better than I do what I am trying to say. We drank champagne and chatted and I kept thinking to myself Penguin bought my book.
We went away, that Friday night, for my thirty-first birthday. “I haven’t even bought your present yet!” Dave had said on the Thursday. “Crazy week. What do you want?”
“Nothing,” I said honestly. “I have everything I could ever want.” At 30 and 364 days, I had achieved everything I had ever wanted to do.
He nodded at that. “Yes,” he said.
We went to dinner with friends. We were at a spa hotel. We ate and drank and lolled around in the sauna and jacuzzi. It was nice, that weekend. The quiet. I finally slept. Stopped reeling. We went to the beach. I looked at the sea. But as I sat there, nursing a crisp glass of white wine – I drank most nights that week; more than I drink in an entire year – I drew my knees up on to the armchair and thought to myself: Penguin bought my bloody book, unable to believe my luck. The happiness had stopped fizzing inside me. I’d become a bit more accustomed to it. But in that moment, it was like a blanket of happiness and warmth around me as my friends chatted about boxsets they’d been watching. Penguin bought my book, I thought again. It would be a real, real thing on the shelves and in my hands, my entire life ambition achieved in a moment. I tilted my head back slightly and looked at the ornate hotel ceiling. I would capture this moment, somehow, I thought. I had never been quite so unbelievably happy.