Wednesday 27 May
We are late taking off. The Airbus sits unmoving on the tarmac, the stale air tasting of dust and the faint, tantalising possibility of disaster, while outside the New York City evening is blackening to night.
In London, it is one am: in seven hours or so, while this plane crests down towards southern England, my book will officially be born. Launched into the world, newly jacketed and shining, like a child sent stumbling off to school. And I, rather than standing at the gates waving her off, will be somewhere up above the clouds.
The man in the seat next to me is tall, friendly-faced: a photographer from west London. “What do you do?” he asks, and I hesitate before answering.
“I’m a novelist,” I say: it is the first time I have used the word, and it sounds strange on my lips. “My first book’s being published tomorrow. Or today, really, if we’re on UK time.”
He grins, asks for the title; promises, sweetly, to buy a copy as soon as we land. And then, finally, the plane’s engines begin to thrum, and we take an ungainly lurch forward. Soon we are nosing up into the sky, chasing time, and I – always anxious in the air – close my eyes, and try not to picture the post-crash headlines. “Debut novelist falls to watery death on eve of publication.” Well, I think, at least it might be good for sales.
Thursday 28 May
London is bright and clean, blessedly cool after the clammy New York heat.
I am bleary-eyed, delirious with snatched sleep and excitement; in my taxi home from Heathrow, I hold my phone like a talisman, scrolling through my mail, Facebook, Twitter. My feed is busy with warm wishes, many of them from people I have never met, but whose enthusiasm for my novel has carried me through the endless months between the sending out of the first proof and today: publication day. I talk to these people more, these days, than I do to some of my oldest friends.
Someone posts a photograph of the front window of Waterstones in Cambridge. The shop I walked past almost every day as a student, and spent hours in, seeking out literature from Italy, Spain, Latin America (I studied Spanish and Italian), is now a riot of blue and yellow; a vintage bicycle stands between bunting, handwritten signs, and, everywhere, stacked copies of my book, The Versions of Us. I rub my eyes: am I still somewhere between sleep and dream? I tweet back, “Thank you – it’s just beautiful.”
I lean back against the headrest, watching London slip by: the city I have known all my life, and yet which, today, seems somehow different, transformed – as my life, too, is different. “A novelist”. Now, it seems, that is what I may call myself.
Friday 29 May
Mid-morning in Doncaster. A light rain falls over the shopping centre in which, piled on a table in Waterstones, I have found copies of The Versions of Us: the first I have ever seen on sale. I sign them with a borrowed Sharpie, thinking that I really ought to perfect a more stylish signature: on the title page, between the name of the book and mine (my publicist, Rebecca, has kindly shown me where to sign), I insert my squat, smudged scrawl. Note to self: buy a better pen to sign with.
Leilah, the bookseller, tells me that she has worked here since the store opened as an Ottakar’s eight years ago – the first ever bookshop in Doncaster, something neither of us can quite believe. We discuss whether it is acceptable to retweet praise: she says it is, and I – already guilty of this, and, like most Brits, uncomfortable about being perceived as self-aggrandising – am reassured.
Then, Rebecca and I are moving on: drawing her car out onto a ring road, heading for another city, another stack of books. How strange, I think, that the words that appeared in my head, over those long years of writing and redrafting, are now held fast between these neat hardcovers – trimmed and hemmed, and travelling to places I have never been, and then, if I am lucky, into the minds of people I have never met, and whose reactions I may never know.
— WaterstonesCambridge (@WaterstonesCamb) May 27, 2015
Wednesday 3 June
Our house is a mess. My husband Andy and I embarked on building work in February, thinking it would take three months; well, four months on, it’s still going strong. The living room is crammed with boxes and plates and furniture, everything is steeped in thick layers of brick-dust, and the sound of drills and hammers and tile-cutters is the soundtrack to our days. Our neighbours are endlessly patient, and Andy and I are remembering why offices were invented.
I leave at seven, relieved to have a few hours away from home. I am to give a talk to a group of Year 10 pupils at a girls’ comprehensive in west London: a school much like my own, in fact, and where, in a couple of hours, I am sitting, facing the largest audience I’ve had yet. They are quiet, smiling, attentive: a group of them asks me questions about my book – among the most intelligent and challenging I’ve been posed – and a girl with flowers in her hair tells me she wants to be a writer. I tell her she can do it: that anything, really, is possible, if she is prepared to work hard.
It feels, in a strange way, as if I am talking to my own younger self: the dumpy teenager with rimless glasses, purple Dr Martens, and a passion for sixties psychedelia and the novels of Margaret Atwood, hoping that one day the life of a writer might be hers.
Saturday 6 June
A national newspaper review. I wake absurdly early, somehow sensing its presence: Rebecca had a feeling it might be in today. I find it on Google; as I click on the link, my heart quicksteps into double-time.
So many of the authors and artists I’ve interviewed over the years as a journalist have told me they never read their reviews: that if you start to believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones, too, and that way madness lies. I agreed with them, at the time – it made perfect sense – but now that I, too, am being reviewed, critiqued, analysed, I simply lack the willpower to look away.
And so I look, my heart beating out its alarming tattoo. The review is good; my ambitions for the novel, and with them I myself, have been understood. My pulse stills a little, making room for a great, welling feeling of relief. I look over at Andy, desperate to tell him – but he’s sleeping, and it’s too early to wake him. I know I won’t be able to get back to sleep. Not now. Not today.
Monday 8 June
My launch party. Under the high, elegant stained-glass windows of Daunt Books on London’s Marylebone High Street, we gather: Andy; my parents and stepfamily; my editor, Kirsty; Rebecca; lots of lovely people from my agency (my own agent, Judith, is hurrying from the airport): all the people whose support and hard work have turned that kernel of an idea I had two years ago into a real, physical, hold-it-in-your-hands book. Friends; fellow journalists; relatives I haven’t seen in years. Here we all are, milling and circling, drinking wine, eating miniature pork pies (I think we may have gone slightly overboard on the pork pies).
It passes in a blur, as I knew it would: as my wedding day did – all those hours of pure emotion, gone too soon. At eleven, when the pub down the road from the bookshop finally chucks us out, I take an Uber home to south London with my family, tired and tipsy and reeling from the strangeness and excitement of it all.
Somewhere, high above the rooftops, I see the blinking tail lights of a plane – and I remember that flight I took home from New York on the eve of publication. My mind, I think, is still somewhere up above those clouds, unable to believe that any of this is truly happening; aware, too, that it can’t last, that soon I will begin my descent back to normal, humdrum, everyday life, and to the daily agonies of trying to write another book. But for now, this pure, ecstatic, airborne moment is here to be savoured. And so I catch it, and hold it fast, as the cab spins its slow way through the darkening London streets towards home.
Laura Barnett is a writer, journalist and theatre critic. She has been on staff at the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, and is now a freelance arts and feature writer for various national newspapers and magazines. She was born in 1982 in south London, where she now lives with her husband. Laura has previously published short stories, for which she has won several awards, and Advice from the Players – a compendium of advice for actors. The Versions of Us, her first novel, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson as a £12.99 hardback, in eBook and downloadable audio. Read more.
Author portrait © Sarah Lee