How long does it take to write a book? How long is a piece of string? In the case of string, the answer is simple: twice as long as half. In the case of books, it can be really complicated.
My novel, The Unravelling, took me three months to write. But it also took thirty years. I started writing at school, mostly fantasy or science fiction, but an early draft of The Unravelling was my first attempt at contemporary social realism. I started it, writing in biro on an A4 pad, when I was about 30, and I got at least 30 pages in. Then I stopped. I put it aside and started something else instead.
Sometime later, having progressed to an Amstrad word processor, I made another start, because it seemed too good an idea to waste, and I got as far as chapter 5. Then I stopped and put it aside, to work on something else.
Periodically, over the following years, I picked up the idea again and kept restarting. I couldn’t repeat, word for word, what I’d written on the Amstrad, because it was by then on a rubbish tip and the disks (were they called disks?) were unreadable. But I knew what it was about, who the characters were, what was going to happen, so it all reappeared on floppy disks for my second-hand laptop with Windows 3.1. And I stopped. Next time I started it, I was on a magnificent PC, Windows 97, with rewritable CD Roms. The next time it was a new laptop with Windows XP and a memory stick. Each time I made a start, I just stopped.
I don’t know why, because although the characters and events are pure fiction, the book is built upon a foundation that was crystal clear in my head, from day one, needing no research. The foundation is my own childhood in the 1960s and all the images I carry from it – the council estate, the prefabs, the gully that was half-brook, half-sewer, the old farm track and the bridge with the iron pipe, the daisies in the school playing field and the skin on the pink custard, the parade of shops where you could buy marbles and sherbet flying saucers, the cotton frocks, the scabby knees and the nit nurse, the skipping games and the urban myths.
It all sat there in my head, aching to come out, and for some reason it was always the next thing I was going to do, when I’d done something else.
Then I had lunch with my editor. ‘Any ideas what next?’ she asked, so I mentioned various ideas, including the plot of The Unravelling. ‘Write it,’ she said. So I did. As simple as that. I don’t know what spell she conveyed in her command, but I wrote the first three chapters, the fourth, fifth, sixth… they kept flowing. Of course I had to do a fair bit of adjusting to accommodate an entirely different time span, and in the thirty years years of writing it, the world had galloped through incredible technological changes , but the book that had always been there just spilled out. A swift and painless labour after a thirty year gestation. What a relief.