What Now? So What? And the Empty Nest

My novel Beyond Billicombe is in print and also available as an ebook (go ahead, buy it now; I’ll wait).  Three years after I wrote most of the first draft during a three-week blitz at my home in Devon while my husband and daughter were visiting the States, then finished the draft and began revising it during weekly sessions in a friend’s supposedly haunted attic, finally polishing it upon my move back to Connecticut, it’s for sale and waiting to be read.

I should be elated, right? And part of me is. But that excitement is battling it out with a gnawing anxiety that has teamed up with a shadow of sadness, and so far the excitement is coming out the loser.

Bear in mind that I’m an obsessive-compulsive dysthymic. Rather than relishing any accomplishment or stroke of good fortune, I automatically think, What now? followed by So what? 

What now? Now I have to convince people to read the book: flog it to bloggers, tout it via social media, beg folks to leave a review on Amazon. All things that I don’t really enjoy doing. I enjoy writing, not promoting.

And so what? Thousands of books are published every week. All the energy and time I devoted to Beyond Billicombe—beyond the immense pleasure it gave me, does it really matter?

Especially if no one else gets the same pleasure from it?

Aside from a few agents, who praised the writing but felt the manuscript wasn’t something they could sell, nobody has read all of Beyond Billicombe but me. My husband has been stalled at chapter eight for months. (“It’s good, I like it, I’m just not a fiction reader.” Then again, he hasn’t even bothered to look at the images of the book cover that I posted here and on Facebook weeks ago, so it’s safe to assume his lack of interest is no reflection on the quality of my work.)

I obviously think Beyond Billicombe a well-written, absorbing, moving story, better than at least a few other books I’ve read this year, but what if nobody else does? What if I’m deluded, in the same way that a doting mother is convinced her child is precocious and adorable, when in reality the sprog is an unattractive, unexceptional bundle of drool and dribble? (Two other novels I’ve written in the past few years have a schizophrenic as one of the protagonists, so delusions are something I spend a great deal of time obsessing about.)

And back to what now? I feel a bit like Jax, the missing brother of Suzanne, one of the protagonists of Beyond Billicombe. The last time she saw him, he’d been in rehab and sober for several months. But he doesn’t see getting straight as a crowning achievement:

“Hear me out, okay? I’m not saying this to get a rise from you, I’m not saying this because I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m saying it because it’s true, for me.” [Jax] turned toward [Suzanne]. His face was all sharp, piercing angles, and his skin sheer enough to be bruised by a gust of wind. “I don’t want you feeling, I don’t know, guilty. Or angry. But the thing is, I could get out of here tomorrow, stay sober the rest of my life, and I could never catch up with you. Or undo the shit I’ve done.”
“It’s not a competition.”  
He took a last drag, then pinched the lit end of the cigarette between his fingers before putting the stub in his front jeans pocket. “I know that, here.” He rapped the side of his head with his fist. “But not in here.” Now he thumped his chest.

“Jax, if you stayed sober, that would be better than anything I could do.”
He lifted one corner of his mouth. “For me, yeah. But let’s face it, most of the world manages not to become junkies or drunks, and they don’t walk around expecting praise for it.” He mustered a grin. “Obviously this is something I still need to work on.”
And at another point, when Suzanne found Jax using after months of being straight:
“Zee,” [said Jax, calling Suzanne by a childhood nickname,] “remember when I told you to start caring a little less? This is why.”
“I can’t.”
“You have to. Because I can’t stop.”
“Come on, you did. You were clean for months. What happened?”
He shook his head. His hair hung lank, hiding his face from her. “Nothing happened. That’s just it.”
She crouched beside him, softened her voice. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, nothing happened. One day became another. I didn’t drink. I didn’t use. And I didn’t do much of anything else.” He paused. She waited.
I wrote my book, it’s published, and now, aside from getting the word out, I can’t do anything else with Beyond Billicombe. I love the finished product, I loved getting to know the characters, I loved lavishing hours piecing together the right words to best get their story across. But now it’s over.
Maybe what I’m really feeling right now is mournful. The writer’s equivalent of empty-nest syndrome.
Which means filling the nest again—in this case, answering what now? by plunging into the next book, and ignoring so what? altogether.

Cover Time

Mockups of the covers of Beyond Billicombe, by my favorite English designer, TimTim Design. It's a bit darker in the images than it will be in real life.

The blurb on the back cover reads:

Suzanne has come to Billicombe, a faded English resort town on the Bristol Channel, for one simple reason: to find her adored older brother. A recovering addict, Jax had moved to Billicombe after completing rehab, but it’s been six months since Suzanne last heard from him.

Her search, however, turns out to be anything but simple. For one thing, Suzanne is a former child actress, well known for her role on a long-running TV series, and she needs to avoid being recognized while exploring Billicombe’s seamy underside. For another, Richard, a local man Suzanne turns to for help, has problems of his own stemming from a car accident that cost him much of his memory. Suzanne’s quest for Jax and Richard’s attempt to put his life back together collide in ways neither could have expected.  


You Can Go Home Again

For better and for worse, I have a damn good memory. The better: When my husband asks “Where are my keys?” (a near-daily occurrence), I can always remember where I last saw them. In fact years ago, about six weeks after I moved to England but when the rest of the family were still in the States, he called me to ask where one of my daughter’s swimsuits might be, and I was able to tell him the exact spot in the closet where he’d find it. Also, I’m a whiz when it comes to trivia games.

The worse: Try as I might, I can’t forget being called Gorilla Arms in second grade, the humiliating incident in 10th grade when I had a meltdown while giving an oral report on “Diary of a Madman,” and every slight from every employer since my first job at McDonald’s as a teenager.

So though it’s been more than two years since I had to leave north Devon, England, and return to the States, images of the seaside town where I worked and of the market town where I lived remain vivid: how slippery with rain and seagull droppings the alleys off the High Street were in spring, so that you’d have to walk with mincing steps to avoid slipping and rolling into a mound of dog crap; the smell of methane while waiting at the bus shelter alongside one of the farms that dotted the main road between the two towns; the way the setting of the sun over the channel picked up speed the closer it sank to the horizon.

Nonetheless, editing Beyond Billicombe, the novel I’m publishing this autumn, has jogged details of the area that I’d forgotten.

Beyond Billicombe takes place primarily in a town on the Bristol Channel whose glory days were during Victoria’s reign, when it was a flourishing resort area; several key scenes are set in the nearby market town. Both locales are based on the towns where I worked and lived while writing the first draft. Although I changed the names so that I wasn’t beholden to journalistic accuracy (once a journalist, always a journalist), I’m certain people who know the towns will recognize certain aspects.

No matter how precise your memory, though, a recollection is not as acute as the reality. (Which is fortunate, because really, if women could recall in living detail every moment of giving birth, would anyone ever have more than one child?) Reviewing Beyond Billicombe brought back to me so many of the scents and sights and sounds of Devon so accurately, at times when I was finished with revising for the morning and drove back from the park where I work to my house, I’d have to pause while getting onto the road to confirm that I was meant to drive on the right side rather than the left, or once back in my home office and writing an email for work, I had to remind myself not to spell color with a u.

The revision process has almost been like a physical return to those two towns I love so much—though a bittersweet one, as ultimately, of course, I find myself not back in Devon but in the nondescript Connecticut town where I now live, in a house I don’t really like, unable to just walk a few doors down to buy a chicken pie from the butchers for lunch or to one of the numerous greens to hunker down beneath a tree and write while being serenaded by the wood pigeons I’d originally thought were some sort of daytime owls. (Unable to walk pretty much anywhere at all, really, as exurban living in the States is all about hopping in the car.)

My first book, which I wrote years ago, took place in a particular neighborhood in Philadelphia, not the one where I grew up but one where I did spend a fair amount of time. A friend of mine from a writer’s group visited Philly for a weekend, and when she came back she said that at one point she knew exactly what neighborhood she was in (Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods; a native won’t say she’s from Philadelphia so much as from Parkwood, or Mayfair, or Frankford), thanks to the descriptions in my novel. That was one of my proudest moments as a writer.

Hopefully Beyond Billicombe will make me just as proud, even if my readers haven’t been lucky enough to experience north Devon for themselves.  And at least they’ll be spared the scrim of homesickness and nostalgia that falls over me when I read those some of the scenes again.

How important is a book’s setting when you’re choosing your next read? I’ve read books simply because they took place in north Devon (granted, I haven’t been able to find that many) or Reykjavik, another of my favorite places on earth. And what books have you read that have been especially masterful in transporting you to a location? I’d love to hear in the comments.

The photo above is of the Ilfracombe High Street, as seen just steps away from the office where I worked while in England. The photo doesn’t do it justice. God, I love that town, in all its gritty, gray-tinged, seen-better-days patina.