I know I said I was winding up my Publishing Journey posts for now, but I had another thought: about love and resource, and the debts we owe. It’s quite a big thought, so bear with me.
A few years ago I got a daruma and was told how you draw in one eye when there’s something you want, and you draw in the other eye when you have got it. I drew in one eye and then I waited. The thing I wanted was the same wish I always made, when visiting temples and blowing out birthday candles.
Like many writers, I have wanted to be a published novelist since I was very small. Of course when you are small you don’t really know what that means. You don’t think about the New York Big Five or global distribution or advances or royalties or awards or reviews. What you want is very simple: to be on the shelf next to the books you love. It’s to be as important, as interesting, as true, as a story.
Publication does not give you that. But it comes to stand for that. I grew up devouring Penguin books and now I am a Penguin author. It might not last, but it happened. Imagine that.
Even though publication is no longer what it was — even though I know that’s not what it means — it still feels enormously satisfying. It still feels like a gift I have given six-year-old me.
But that’s not true, is it? It’s been a very busy, though happy, few months for me, and I have been thinking about resource. What an enormous amount of love and time and resource has been poured into me.
Though I do work hard, I’m always conscious at the back of my mind of how little I have to do with anything I achieve. A while ago I realised with embarrassment that I did not mention in my post about revisions how much work my agent Caitlin Blasdell and editor Diana Gill did on the book. Hannah Bowman, who is not even my agent, read the manuscript twice before it went on submission. The post makes it sound like I was the only one working, but of course that is not true. And we have not even got to the people who typeset the book, who proofread it (and had to put up with my nerdy responses: “I think you’ll find the OED says that word has been in use since the 16th century … “), who have been sorting out publicity and marketing and sending advance copies all over the place, etc. etc. etc.
But much as I appreciate all that work, these are, after all, people for whom it is their job. They hope to see some concrete benefit from their work — and I certainly hope they do. Who I really think about when I think about love and resource is my maternal grandmother, my Ah Ma, who passed away earlier this year.
I suppose every grandchild thinks their grandmother is particularly special, but it wasn’t just me. My whole extended family thinks so too! The reason you have not heard of her, and you are not able to agree, is that Ah Ma was not educated. She was the eldest daughter of a large family and she had brothers who went to university and spoke good English and got good white-collar jobs. But Ah Ma could not read or write.
I did not know Ah Ma very well; my Hokkien is not good and her English was pretty minimal. But I know Ah Ma, as a grandchild does, through the things she did for me, that showed she loved me; through my mother’s stories of her; and even more, through the influence she left on my family, which is hard to pin down but pervasive. She lived a life of service and charity, in its old-fashioned meaning of “love”. We loved and remember her for that.
But the fact is she wasn’t given much of a choice about the shape of her life. She was an amazing woman in her circumstances, but her circumstances were restricted. We will never know what Ah Ma might have been or done if she had had what I, and many of you reading this, take for granted. An education. The limitless resource of the Internet. Opportunity. Free time.
Traditionally the people who were able to engage in prestige activities and generate art and philosophy were the people with the most leisure, i.e. wealthy elite men. You don’t tend to have much energy for writing or drawing or squabbling about the meaning of life if you’re busy preparing food or wiping babies’ butts.
I am conscious, this year of all years, of how little I serve others. Women are expected to serve other people, Asian women particularly. My parents, who paid for me to go to university and are enormously proud of my career, are always asking me to layan my partner more. They are a bit worried he might notice I haven’t so much as made him a cup of tea in about a year.
I don’t have the time or energy for service: I am busy working. Right now all my energy is going into my work, both my day job and my creative work, whether that is writing fiction or running around trying to persuade people to read it. It is a very selfish way to live, but then some people are expected to be selfish and admired for it, and other people are reminded to layan people more.
Still, I was always told when I was growing up that the best reward I could give my parents for all they gave me was to work hard. What this meant at the time was “do well in school”. I didn’t think about this then, but the main person who benefits if you do well in school is yourself. So what my parents were telling me was to be selfish — to put myself, my work and my success, first. It was a good lesson. I took it in.
A couple of weeks ago I filled out the second eye on my daruma. (I’d been holding off before out of superstition, but once I received two boxes full of Sorcerer to the Crown hardcovers, I figured it was unlikely the publishers were going to pull out and decide not to publish it after all.) It was a big moment, a milestone. I wanted to mention it in this post because I guess when you do a rite like that, it’s in recognition of the things you can’t control — the external forces that ultimately determine whether your life ends up in the shape you imagine, even if it only holds that shape for a short time.
Today Sorcerer to the Crown is out in the US. In 9 days it’ll be out in the UK. It’s just another book really, but it’s a big deal to me. And even though I have not climbed very high, if I am in a position that others would like to be in, that is only because I was lifted and dragged and pushed and held up by people who love me and have invested so much in me.
That’s not something you deserve and it’s not something you can really pay back. The least you can do is be grateful. I am grateful.