Some years ago, I was in one of my favourite bookshops and saw author Arnold Zable, who I’d met briefly on a few occasions. I had long admired Zable’s storytelling ability, and his stance on refugees. I made my way up to him to congratulate him on the release of his new book, Sea of Many Returns. As I bowled up to him, I realised too late I’d interrupted a moment – he’d been staring at his book on the shelf, in a kind of reverie; clearly it was the first time he was seeing it there. I mumbled my congratulations and slinked off sheepishly, feeling like a stalker in a b-grade movie.
It takes a long time for a book to reach a bookshelf. And the moment of seeing it there for the first time is so fleeting. Now I’ve experienced it myself, I would do anything to give Arnold back his moment in all its fullsome glory.
For me, the process of creating a book started some years ago with nothing more than a vague idea that I would write about growing up in a Greek family, and on the many trips I took to Greece to find out where ‘home’ really was. Of course it would involve food. And lots of it. There was always the question: are these ideas/stories/grains enough to carry a book? I believe there’s no way of knowing the answer to this until you start writing – a word, a sentence, a page. Soon you might have some chapters and even a proposal, which you might show to a few people. They usually tell you where you’ve gone wrong (why do they have to do that?), and what you can do better. When you’ve honed the words, your agent puts these out to a publisher. Then you wait. And wait some more. Finally, a miracle happens and a very nice publisher asks if you could please provide another 60,000 words or more in the same vein. Something that has a beginning, a middle and an end; preferably something that might move people just a little.*
So you sit on your laptop day after day. Try to relax enough to let the magic alchemy happen. You let the words bubble up from somewhere deep within; sometimes inspired by a photograph, a strong memory; a smell. When you lose track of time, you know you’ve reached that elusive place that is the ‘zone’, where nothing else matters except the words flowing onto the page. A few hours later, that particular story comes organically to an end, and you think you’ve nailed a good first draft. It's your story, your voice, your experience. That’s all the matters.
You do more of this most days, trying all the while to ignore that irritating voice that pipes up occasionally– it says, ‘no one wants to know that you ate the thyroid glands of young lambs when you were a 10’. You push through it, feeling the satisfaction of stories finding their rhythm; chapters connecting with each other; the beginning and end eventually forming a circle, just like a Greek dance. You dig up poems you haven’t read for a while; re-discover anew how much you love the lyricism of the Greek language; wish you’d concentrated more in Greek school. Your wrists and back start to hurt but you keep going regardless, pruning the original draft. You shift a chapter here; cut something back there. Finally, after many months, you have something that resembles a manuscript.
Despite wanting to hold on to it for a few years to let the dust settle and fix those pesky dangling modifiers, your deadline comes around; you really do have to press the ‘send’ button. Some months later, your editor’s report uses words like ‘beautiful subtlety’ and ‘artful way’ to describe your book. But it also says your story has several individuals named George and half a dozen named Kathy – it’s hard to tell who is who. There is more work to be done. You have to explain things, add a chapter, prune a little more. And so begins the editing process, back and forth over months. The changes get tinier, until you’re staring at a bunch of typeset pages that include your husband’s beautiful photos. Your baby is nearly ready to see the light of day.
So you’re standing at your favourite bookshop and your son says, ‘I’m proud of you Mum.’ And your daughter beams. Your husband takes a few photos and then you shoo them away, a little embarrassed. But secretly pretty chuffed. This is your moment.
*That's in really insy winsy writing in the contract.
Afternoons in Ithaka is now on sale. You can purchase it at all good bookshops, such as ABC Books, Readings and Hill of Content, where the book will be launched on the Thursday 13 February.
For upcoming book- and food-related events and musings, go to the Tribal Tomato Facebook page.