It has been a pattern in my life that I get good news when I’m among strangers.
Two years ago I was in a supermarket in Boston, trying to describe cress to the utterly bemused gentleman in charge of produce (Jamie Oliver has a fantastic Keralan salad on his website, in which cress is essential). Watercress? No, much smaller, and usually grown by children on kitchen towel. Goes well with egg salad. This was all met with good-natured bewilderment – he was adamant that there is no such thing as cress in America. I am half-American myself, usually quite proud that I speak both languages fluently. But it was cress that defeated me – a survey was taken, and it was roundly concluded that I must be wrong, either about the name or the thing itself. The discussion had expanded to include the man behind the fish counter as well as two other shoppers, all arguing amongst themselves. And it was in the midst of this – just as the fish man had, rather helpfully in fact, suggested that I use pea shoots instead, that my agent rang to tell me she’d had an offer on my first novel.
It is impossible to articulate the surge I experienced of pure, visceral joy. Years alone in a room, unknown, increasingly unkempt, intermittently unhinged. Writing novels was – and is, and always will be – a life in which exchanges in the supermarket take on a heightened meaning and value because they are often the only human contact of the day, the outing itself the only reason, apart from a general attempt to be civilised, to get appropriately dressed. It’s strange and lonely and, of course, the best job in the world.
Because suddenly a nice publisher at a big house in London had changed everything – the book would have a life. A chance. A jacket. Readers. That moment was perfect. Unadulterated joy, unsullied (as yet) by the fear, the doubt, the self-administered torment and pathological insecurity that are, in my observation, the psychic landscape of many writers. It was a moment of respite from it all, there among the fruit and vegetables. I told everyone – the produce man, the fishmonger, the other shoppers.
Last week I was nearing the end of my first American book tour – an experience that is two parts rock star, three parts travelling vacuum salesman. Seasoned writers might complain about life on the road but I was having the time of my life, mostly because the majority of my events were at Jewish Community Centres and everywhere I went I was hosted by volunteers from the centres’ book programmes. These were almost always Jewish mothers whose own children had grown too old for them to fuss over and for a day in Detroit, for two days in Washington, for an afternoon in St Louis, I was a passing, if equally over-aged, surrogate. It was bliss. I was fed and watered and coddled across America, and I was sad to leave each place that invited me. And then several days ago I was at breakfast in Richmond, Virginia, sharing huevos rancheros with two of the most charming chaperones I had that month. Sandwiches had already been tucked into my handbag for my flight that afternoon; they both worried, having never met me before, that I looked a little tired, and offered to take me home to nap.
And then my phone rang and it was the head of Chatto & Windus to tell me that I’d been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and they were all thrilled but I was IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS TO TELL ANYONE THAT ANYTHING HAD HAPPENED OR ELSE, so we spoke in code, and I had to appear calm.
It was the opposite of the phone call in the supermarket when I gasped and squawked and celebrated aloud with passers by. Instead I said nothing, I finished my eggs and hugged my hosts goodbye, flew halfway to my next event and was promptly stranded, overnight, in Philadelphia airport. But it was alright, because I was buoyant with happiness, and I had a sandwich in my handbag, and I knew that in a few days I could shout it from the rooftops and that all my Jewish mothers would be very proud of me.
Francesca Segal, for Waterstones.com/blog
Find out more about the Costa Book Awards Shortlisted books here.
The category winners will be announced Thursday 3rd January whilst the overall award winner will be announced Tuesday 29th January.