No, it doesn’t get any easier.
When I said my final goodbyes to my characters in Eden’s Garden I was sad and bereft. I grieved for weeks. Of course they were still with me – they still are – but I knew I would never live in their heads and breath with them they way I had done over such a long time.
Well, that’s it, then, I told myself. Part of the learning experience. Part of the overwhelming, author-changing, life-changing experience of working closely with an editor. It was one of those ‘firsts’ that would never feel so intense again.
How wrong could I be!
Last week I sent my final edits for We That Are Left into the ether. Phew. It’s a bit unnerving seeing your gorgeous cover up on Amazon, and therefore REALLY coming out next February, as you tousle with the last bits that won’t fall into place, and (with the usual writerly utter lack of confidence) are quite convinced they never will and then you’ll be found out, and who were you fooling anyway? (This, I should add, is two minutes after you have been busily penning your acceptance speech for the Booker…)
So I sat down with my gin and tonic (well, you have to make room for the sloes in the bottle) to celebrate. And this wave of utter anguish came over me, even worse than for Eden’s Garden. I ended up swallowing two gins (my equivalent of getting roaring drunk these days) while listening to Freddie Mercury singing ‘These Were the Days of Our Lives’. Phoebe did her best to be sympathetic, having obviously decided that being an author’s dog was seriously hard work at times.
I felt a bit of a fool for a while. Then I realised. It’s not just that I have lived with my characters for the past eighteen months. Thanks to my Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary, I was able to spend three months full time with them, too. We That Are Left begins in 1914 and ends in 1925, so I’ve been through an entire war with them. I’ve lived the danger and the fear and the horrible uncertainty, and I’ve been to some pretty dark places with some of them. And while my characters are fictional, they have been borne of real experiences. My dad was born in 1915 and had memories that stretched back to the Great War. It’s that far, and yet that close. That still brings a tingle to my toes.
Writing about the women of WW1 also brought it home. It brought up inevitable questions of how would I feel, and how would I cope if the unthinkable happened?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Having learnt so much more about the lives of the courageous, skilled and indominable women who kept a country going and proved themselves as managers, organisers, drivers, farm workers, ambulance drivers and surgeons, I am more aware than ever of the debt I owe to them. I can vote, I was able to go take a degree, I was able to have a career. No one questions my right to be myself, rather than merely the meek and solicitous helpmate of a husband.
I’m still grieving a little, but my characters are still with me, in a different way. And now I can be excited at the thought of the book being out so soon. Meanwhile, I’ve some fun bits to do. Part of my research for the book was to find and cook the recipes of WW1. The recipes that are actually in the book are a closely guarded secret, but there are plenty of others, gleaned from newspapers of the time, that I am going to try. With results posted here first.
So watch this space for the shortages of wartime in World War One to bite, just as they did in the Second World War. The Edwardians were heavy on meat and suet, which is a bit of a challenge to a life-long vegetarian. But there’s vegetarian suet, and meat was eventually in short supply. I’m not sure about the horse meat and the rabbit pie, but fruit and vegetables I can deal with. The one with the two raw egg yolks (freshly laid or no) whisked with sugar then stirred into hot tea has been voted a definite no-no. And as for the hog’s lard …..
But that is for another day. I’m off to source some vegetarian suet and see if the rosehips are ready yet for rosehip syrup to keep those coughs and colds away!