People are asking me questions.
‘Yes,’ they say, ‘it’s all very well, all this business with burgling and urine portage and the lesser-known works of Danny DeVito, but didn’t you used to be an unrequited novelist?’
‘Well—’ I say, but they interrupt me.
‘Didn’t,’ they interrupt, ‘you promise us a unique window into the life of a jobbing writer trying to make good?’
‘There’s no need to use bad language,’ I say, and there is a brief but animated discussion over the subtler definitions of the word ‘job’, but they have already won the argument.
I began this blog a year ago to try to describe what it is like to throw caution and a regular pay check to the wind and essay a career as a novelist, and I now feel that have somewhat strayed from my brief, in life as well as in print. Since I finished writing The Last Monk at the beginning of this year, things have changed in ways which I will shortly describe in detail in these pages, but which for now can be summed up in the following job descriptions: sport journalist, poker tournament director and, ominously, university administration flunky again.
None of this is to say, however, that The Last Monk has stalled. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and at this point I can reveal that there is a very good reason why it is today that I am returning to the subject here. But in order to explain properly, I am going to take you back two years and transport you to a truck stop just outside the rural town of Healesville, where a dozen groovy young Melburnians, an Englishwoman, my wife the Evil Sulphura and I are sat around a large table, observing with horror the coffee-table sized hamburger which has been placed before each of us.
‘What is it?’ the Englishwoman asks.
‘I’m not sure,’ says our mutual friend Iris, ‘but Noel said we would all love them. I think he might be torturing us.’
We are on a winery tour of the Yarra Valley, and Noel is the driver of our hired minibus. When he picked us up a few hours earlier in town, he gave us a look which I took to mean: ‘Huh. City folk’. We had all been very good about not asking for soy lattes and demanding to know if everything was organic, but still Noel had set us up in this giant-hamburger trap. He is standing over us now, looking grimly satisfied at our reluctance.
Being from the outer suburbs, I feel I have more experience with meat snadwiches than Noel has anticpated, and I lead the way by picking up the entire assemblage with barely a grunt and, my eyes never leaving Noel’s, taking a large bite.
The Englishwoman, whose name is Daisy, nibbles at hers experimentally.
‘God,’ she says, ‘someone’s put beetroot in this one!’
‘That’s normal here,’ Iris says.
Daisy pauses. ‘Did you hear me say beetroot?’
‘I heard you say beetroot.’
‘So it’s normal to have beetroot here.’
‘In a hamburger, yes.’
‘Oh.’ She nibbles a little more. ‘Actually, now that I try it it’s not all that — Christ, there’s pineapple under the beetroot!’
‘That’s normal too.’
Daisy levers up the pineapple with a fork. ‘I’m just checking for ice-cream,’ she explains.
Later, in the bus, while I am trying to work out how Sulph managed to switch our plates when I was nearly finished, Daisy turns to introduce herself. ‘Hi,’ she says. ‘I’m Daisy, fearless consumer of exotic delicacies. When I’m not doing that, I’m a fiction editor in London. I’m here on holiday, visiting Iris.’
I know all this, because Iris had told me the day before that Daisy would be here. Iris had also ensured that we sat in the same part of the bus. Iris is trying to set us up on a sort of professional blind date.
‘Is that right?’ I say. ‘Lovely.’
‘What do you do?’ asks Daisy.
I had told Iris I wasn’t going to mention to Daisy that I am a writer. It would, I said, be selfish and unprofessional for me to network Daisy when she was on holiday. She must get hassled at parties by wannabe writers all the time at home. She deserves some peace.
‘I’m a writer,’ I say. A few seats away, Iris lets out a moan that has nothing to do with indigestion.
‘Oh yeah?’ says Daisy.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’m a writer. A novelist. I’m writing a novel.’
‘Great,’ says Daisy. ‘Tell me about it.’
‘I shouldn’t,’ I say. ‘You’re on holidays.’
‘It’s okay,’ says Daisy. ‘Tell me about it.’
I tell her about it. ‘But it’s not finished,’ I say. ‘It’ll be better when it’s finished.’
‘It sounds good,’ says Daisy. ‘When you’re finished, send me a line, I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Wow,’ I say. ‘I will.’
‘Is this the next winery?’ says Sulphura next to me. ‘Ah yes, here it is — Kissarse Hill Estate.’
‘Wow,’ I say.
Two years later The Last Monk receives its first rejection from a major Australian publisher, I fire my agent for unrelated reasons, and suddenly I find myself searching for options. Then, two months ago, I find myself sitting listlessly in my local fish and chip shop, wondering what to do next, when the chef calls out: ‘That hamburger with the lot, mate — you want beetroot on it?’
I run out of the shop, which is presumably not the kind of reaction to beetroot the chef normally gets, and race home to write an email. Several emails later — just two hours ago, in fact — I received the following email:
Matt [instantly forgiven – ML],
Sorry not to get back to you earlier — the last few weeks have been hectic. But, I finally read your novel this week and I am pleased, and surprised (this never happens!) to say that I loved it. Congratulations! I think it’s a brilliant, extremely funny, well-plotted, clever, pacy and, I dare say it, commercial novel. I’m recommending The Last Monk to my boss Nick, who’s our Publishing Director. I’ve given you a rave review and let’s cross our fingers that he likes your stuff as much as me. Publishing first novels is a tricky business but I really think you’ve got a shot with this. If Nick decides against taking a punt, I’m more than happy to recommend you to agents over here – I can think of a few who would love your work – so keep in touch.
Keep me posted, and if I hear anything, I’ll keep you posted of course!
I am publishing this (in slightly edited form for propriety’s sake) despite the gross immodesty it might imply because it simply doesn’t seem real.
I’m also worried that publishing it like this may expose me as a rank amateur to the real people involved, but the fact is I made a committment. This blog is a record of what it is like to be an unrequited novelist. There is nothing worse than one of those films where, after ninety minutes of emotional investment, the romantic leads pull down the window shade to enjoy the climactic kiss in private, and I won’t do that here.
There are no guarantees. Today I am a semi-requited novelist. Next week I might find this whole situation has an unexpected slice of beetroot or pineapple ring tucked quietly in the middle. I hope that, if I do, someone will be on hand to tell me that’s normal here.