The lady in the local bookshop was impressed. ‘You wrote this?’ she said, as I showed her a poster about my new book. ‘So, you’re an author,’ she continued. ‘I know lots of sheep farmers, but I’ve never met an author. Except you.’ She turned to another customer who was waiting to be served. ‘This lady’s an author,’ she said. I felt as if I had two heads, but I smiled and agreed that I should sign all the books of mine that she had on the shelf.
People certainly seem to like to have a book signed by the author, which is why booksellers are keen for you to do so. Without the signature a book can feel like an artefact, produced far away by someone you can’t envisage. It may have a function and even bring pleasure in an impersonal disembodied way. Perhaps the signature makes the author seem more like a real person.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, first at school when I was taught to make marks on paper, then copy words and finally to think of the words in my own head before I wrote them down. Then for the next fifty years or so my writing was about my work, dictated by experience and reality, but all that time what I really wanted to do was write fiction – stories, dialogue, descriptions of people and places and events that I made up. It took all that time to carve out the time and energy and stop worrying about not making any money out of it. Non-fiction writing was part of the job, but fiction would be part of me.
It was much harder than I anticipated. You don’t just write sentences, then paragraphs, then a scene or a chapter. You have to have an idea of where you’re going, and why. It took me a long time to figure that out, which is why the first novel took four years and was frequently dropped – or hurled – into the ‘too hard’ basket. Once I found out what I needed to do, then it became a process to follow, with countless hours spent tapping away, staring at the screen, thinking, changing things that seemed false or unnecessary. At some point the changes begin to feel like sliding back down the hill you’ve just climbed, and then it’s time to stop.
Being an author doesn’t feel like a mystical process, worthy of the awe of the lady in the bookshop. I couldn’t call writing a job for me, more of a hobby, like growing sweet peas or knitting. And when you self-publish as I do, writing is the easy part. After the writing is done the book has to be produced, and people persuaded to part with their money in exchange for it, which is much harder. But still they want you to sign on the author page, and when the new book comes out in a couple of weeks I’ll sign away until my hand aches, because it’s the scribbled name that makes the author seem like a real person.
(If you buy a book via my website, by the way, I’ll try to sign it before it’s sent out, if that’s OK with you.)