It’s Christmas; the season of The Hardback, commencing with our worship on Sacred Super Thursday and continuing through the discovery of rocketing sales numbers behind every window of the Advent calendar thereafter until the 25th, Kindle Day, which Amazon bought from Coca-Cola in a deal behind closed doors five years ago.
And then, once the books are stacked high, Publishing Humans go home. Unlike some other industries which churn on through the holidays, publishing closes from Christmas Eve until the new year. And that means that Christmas, in publishing, whatever you believe or don’t believe, is the season of Home. Many of us spend most of every week Elsewhere: in the office, on the train or in the car, on the phone, on email, away. At Christmas, we join the crowds travelling to family houses, or we return to the place we grew up, or we simply turn our full attention onto our own homes, adorning them, bedding down in them, inhabiting them more fully than at any other time of year.
For me, these are the only consecutive two weeks of the year I spend in my home. My Christmas isn’t very religious, but it is a holy family time – an immersion in mothering and home-making, by which I mean that it is a time to let my heart explode with love and an opportunity to express that vast exploding love through the unnumbered ways in which I try to make our home beautiful and to show my family who I am for them and who they are to me through my gifts and the personal way in which I offer them.
I am affectionately teased, for my painted and glittered messy table place-settings; for my extraordinary wrapping themes; for the chaotic wreath on my front door. But my children recognise this worship and join me in it now: Connie sitting down last night to layer cut-out star on cut-out star on cut-out star on each gift tag, because she knows that each message has to be unique – “No star stickers, Mummy!” – and next week planning to bake batch after batch of shortbread stars for dipping in chocolate and gifting to her many aunts and uncles. As for my homebody boy, Rocky, he regarded the token plastic gold apples on the pine wreath from our local shop seriously before pronouncing: “I guess you’re going to rip all that gubbins off and put your own things on? Good! I like the way you do it best”.
We all have our Christmas rituals, our version of holiday home-making, of home retreat. Christmas opens for me with tree-choosing (and the ritual of arguing over who has found the best tree – four people standing at four corners of the Christmas tree farm shouting COME OVER HERE, MINE IS BETTER!), then tree-light untangling (superlative cursing in chorus), then Christmas ornament unpacking (it takes time: every ornament has a story, every story needs to be told, such as the time Mummy and Daddy were so poor – or enterprising – our tree ornaments were these fake plastic golf balls sprayed gold and wrapped in scraps of ribbon) and, finally, sitting in the dark together admiring the tree all lit up and chaotic with colour, weighed down with a couple of generations worth of Significance. Home, at last.
I used the metaphor of novel as home once before. It works, because writing novels is such intensive and expert labour – each book is an extravagant project which begins with a plan that can seem outlandishly ambitious until you start laying bricks. And then there is the way that each brick of the house an author builds is fashioned by hand, imprinted with their palm, their fingers; no other writer would write the same story the same way. That’s what my star-cutting and wreath-decorating is all about too – I’m fingerprinting my home, naming it as Mine.
I had a quite unhappy email from a client recently. She has had sets of notes from her editors – brilliant notes, but head-spinning – and my oh-so-helpful take on them to boot. “I’m becoming increasingly confused as to what everyone wants from this book,” she wrote me. “I feel it is hardly my book any more.”
When we agents and editors read and edit an author’s work, we’re traipsing mud through their kitchen, unavoidably. We’re not intruders, though, we’re guests. Annual guests, asking Where the wineglasses are? and Are we sure the turkey is cooked through – I usually cover it with foil? We bring gifts – ideas, inspirations, editorial fixes – and we put them under the author’s tree with fingers crossed but we mustn’t be too surprised if she already had a vase the same, and gave it away because it wasn’t her style.
Just as each of my tree decorations represents a memory, so that my Christmas tree hosts layer upon layer of personal history, so does each corner of a novel represent some unique and irreplaceable thought or idea of its author. One of my clients describes each of her novels as a time-capsule of her life during the period in which she wrote it. She lives with each book for two years, and her internal life during that time is reflected in its pages in multiple subtle ways.
I remember my first home away from home, the way my future husband and I tried to make something beautiful from something shabby. When you make a home of your own, you have to decide what to keep, of all that you have learned and seen and inherited, and what to make from scratch. You pour all of your own self into the home you build, and when your first guests arrive, you feel exposed: this is me, do you like it?
When we edit a novel, we are fiddling with the treasured ornaments on an author’s tree; we are tweaking the wreath on the door, rearranging the lights hanging in the window. But when we drag in a whole new tree and start transferring the ornaments painstakingly over, it’s time for the author to kick us out and to repossess her home. What my client needs to do is to grab our gifts, listen to our tips about the turkey, offer us a mince pie and then wave us goodbye.
Because her novel is her metaphorical home; this story is her house in which to make creative chaos and to tidy up in her own time; these are her fingermarks on the gingerbread men. This is her Significance, this mode of expression is all her. It’s time for her to make her house beautiful, in her own image. Happy Homecoming, all: this is your book, this is your work, this is your season. Thank you for the mince pie, I will get my coat.