10 February 2010
In a strange way publication has felt like getting married all over again, except in reverse order. First came the reception – at which the bride (ie me) went against convention by wearing black with red shoes – with that dreamlike experience of bringing together people from very different parts of your life and seeing that they do, amazingly, all get on. Then, next day, the big event. I got ready and made my way to Waterstones and Hatchards in Piccadilly, feeling just as breathless as I did on my way to my wedding. And lo and behold, the book was there, waiting for me! A week on, my head is still spinning – but in a good way, not like in the Exorcist.
Finding Monsieur Right – a book about the very, very good things that can happen to you when you move to a strange country – shuttles between Paris and London and tells the story of two heroines, English Daisy and French Isabelle. I remember very clearly how it all started, one day that I found myself in a fairly advanced state of pregnancy and incapable of doing any real work. I was daydreaming and for some reason an image lodged itself in my head. There was a girl in a designer ball-gown stuck on the roof of the Paris Opera House – she had been locked out. That was all I knew. So I sat down to write in order to try and work out how events had conspired to put her on to that very cold roof.
At this stage, the whole thing felt like a problem-solving exercise. I was sketching out lines of flight – who? where? why? what? It was a fairly detached pursuit – something to stop my brain from grinding down completely. And then, after a few weeks’ writing, I suddenly found myself crying actual tears at my desk – because a French boy I had made up was being mean to one of my heroines. I knew then that a line had been crossed. Yes – I know I was pregnant, and those friends who have known me longest might say ‘But she cries at anything’ and they would be right, but this was something else. I’d become sucked in by the story I had invented – a strange feeling.
As to what happened afterwards, it was really down to my husband the critic first of all, because he read the thing and thought it was OK, and convinced me to look for an agent, which I did. Enter the fantastic Teresa Chris, who, without even pausing to put down her amazing statement handbag, seized the manuscript with one hand, picked me up by the scruff of the neck with the other and propelled us expertly into the world of publishing. Then the doors of Ebury Press opened before me with a great blast of trumpets – I suddenly had an editor of my own, Gillian Green, who was more than happy to engage in lengthy discussions about the dos and donts of delivering a love letter or just how fast a girl could move from a first kiss to having clandestine sex in a cupboard. I’d found my people. And there is no sweeter feeling than that.
I’ve also been incredibly lucky with my improvised and fairly dishevelled focus group – the friends who took the time to read the book before it was published, and for some of them in manuscript form and before the jelly had quite set, so to speak. The funny thing is that I really believed, when I decided to write fiction, that I was taking myself out of the equation. As it turns out, it doesn’t really work like that, because thanks to my readers’ feedback about the book I also learned a couple of things about myself.
The first wave of reactions went something like: ‘Hey Muriel, there’s a lot about fashion in this! I was really surprised! I had no idea you knew about this stuff!’ To which my response was a relaxed: ‘What? Excuse me? What do you think all this is, huh? That’s from Marni, for a start!’ Then, while I was digesting this and managing to rise above it brilliantly (still only just a little bit twitchy) came the second wave of feedback – from those brave souls who spoke in praise of my carefully honed and never ever gratuitous sex scenes. There was the odd bout of embarrassment, as when a very outspoken girlfriend told me in no uncertain terms about the electrifying effect of the aforesaid sex scenes upon her married life. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say apart from a prolonged ‘Um’ sound, but really, it was so sweet of her to share this with me.
And then it occurred to me that nobody had said: ‘Hey Muriel, there’s a lot of pretty saucy sex in this! I was really surprised!’ So that was it – the great lesson in self-knowledge. The author of Finding Monsieur Right is perceived on the one hand as tragically unfashionable, but also, on the plus side (I guess…) as a blatantly obvious mouth-breathing pervert. I can cope with that for the sake of literature.