It's a two episode week! In the industry we call that a two-ser!
The Promising Young Women audiobook is out, and I'm reflecting on the book for probably the last time
This week we have two episodes going out, one with Tessa Coates about Postcards From The Edge by Carrie Fisher, and the other about High Fidelity by Nick Hornby with Alan Maguire. This is not because I have to temper the presence of a man on Sentimental Garbage with a woman, although that’s a nice idea. It’s because Tessa has done the audio book for my first novel, Promising Young Women, and we decided to do a special episode. You can listen to that episode here or in your pod catcher of choice.
Like a lot of people, I only really like my own work when I’m in the act of writing it, and when I’m reading it over a loved one’s shoulder, willing them to laugh.
“WHICH BIT, WHICH BIT?” I yell, as soon as I see a hint of a smile. “WHICH BIT ARE YOU ON?”
“Oh, the bit where she… has a scone,” they reply and I will giggle sweatily and go “oh yeah! The scone bit! You know, that’s based on a real scone I had!?”
I don’t usually enjoy my own work but I do, however, have an out-sized view of the work my friends do. My friend Tash wrote a play and it was not just a great play, but the best play in the history of plays. My friend Ella is releasing a poetry book, and it’s not just a wonderful poetry book, but will change the face of poetry itself. My dog is not just a dog, she is the dog, shitting and eating and shitting her way through London with talent and grace.
So I’m in an incredibly unique and enviable position to have Promising Young Women, a book I completely despise and wish to throw into a tarpit, read by my friend Tessa Coates, a genius. Tessa is a performer and a podcaster in her own right, and because I’m a huge fan of her, I was able to listen to her read my book on Audible all the way through without vomiting. This is the first time, since I finalised the copy in October 2017, that I have been able to read it. Even then, reading something in chunks on your laptop isn’t really the same as reading something as a book, so, you could say this is the first time I have ever really read my own book.
And y’know…! It’s an ok book!
I don’t think my publishers will get angry at me for saying any of this, particularly the bit about the tarpit, because I think they understand (or, they tell me they understand) that it is very normal to feel this way. A friend of mine once put this dilemma beautifully (see? My friends can’t just put things “well”, they put things beautifully) when she said of her own book’s release: “I simultaneously want to rip it out of everyone’s hands and also demand why the book isn’t on the six o’clock news.”
Surprisingly though, the hardest bits of revisiting the book through Tessa’s voice wasn’t the writing. I think I have come a long way in my prose since then, but I’m not mad at the standard I was working at in 2016. The most difficult part of revisiting this book was having to deal with how badly I wanted to punish this character, and by extension, how badly I had once wanted to punish myself.
Promising Young Women is not a memoir. It’s a story about a woman who has a breakdown following an affair with her older married boss. I have never had an affair with a married person, or a boss. I did, however, have a lot to say about the kind of men I had rubbed up against professionally, and had observed a huge amount about how they treated me and the women around me. I spun it all out to its natural conclusion, which eventually became a kind of quasi-supernatural conclusion, and there you have it. A novel.
But that’s not to say that there weren’t autobiographical aspects. In fact, about 70% of the first chapter is straight autobiography: like Jane, I had found myself suddenly single with nowhere to live on my birthday. I had been living with an extremely good man who, I had thought, I might marry one day. It didn’t work out. I ended it, for good reasons, but through bad methods. I was miserable, and I was mad at myself, but underneath all of it I had a sense that there was something vaguely cinematic about crying at work on your birthday, so I held onto the image and began working on it a year later.
Even though, by the time I was writing Promising Young Women, I was in a wonderful relationship with the man who is still my partner, I still hadn’t really forgiven myself for what had happened. Frankly, I thought that I hadn’t suffered enough, and that I deserved to suffer more. My ex-boyfriend had helped me with rent, with job interviews, with my writing career. We had both bonded over the shared project that was me, and I had abandoned him. What kind of person did that make me? Why did I deserve to get away, scot-free?
So I invented a girl to punish. Who implodes her relationship, and is driven to madness by her subsequent decisions. In the original draft of the book, there were a helluva lot of scenes about Jane and her ex-boyfriend Max, who I used as a stand-in for my ex-boyfriend. There were countless scenes of him being reasonable, logical and likeable, while she shrewishly paraded around, being a bitch and getting slammed for it. Scenes of her apologising, and having her apologies rejected. Grizzly self-harm scenes, that were eventually cut back. I had a note from my editor, saying, very tactfully: I realise this might be important for you to write, but it may not necessarily be important for us to read.
I took her advice. It was good advice. Once I cleared the deadwood of listing all the reasons I was a bad girlfriend, I got down to the business of writing passable fiction. And I’m glad I did. I just finished my third book and I’m comfortable in saying that my writing improves with each one, and that I want to keep on doing this for as long as I’m allowed to.
But it’s still uncomfortable, going back to Promising. I don’t like seeing the masochistic side of myself, the one that thought breaking up with someone made you a bad person. The one that invented a girl to be a sort of voodoo doll of all the things I thought I deserved.
Interestingly enough, the two Sentimental Garbage episodes I have going out this week sort of cover all this. Postcards From The Edge, where Carrie Fisher used the character of Suzanne Vale to metabolise her own experience of addiction, and High Fidelity, where Nick Hornby explores the regret and shame we feel around our exes, and how we’re destined to repeat the mistakes that we don’t outrightly address. I think they’re both really good episodes. I hope you like them.
But more than that, I hope I’ve learned what both those books have to teach me. One, that self-flagellation via literature only works to a point, and two, once you’re done self-flagellating you actually have to grow up and hold yourself accountable for your own behaviour. Not “accountable” in the sense that you go around saying “god, I’m the worst” a lot and hoping people find it charming enough to excuse you; “accountable” in the sense that you can acknowledge your own bullshit and try to deal proactively with it, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes you.
This, I’m told, is what growing up is. The events that inspired the first chapter of Promising Young Women happened when I was 24; were first written about at 25; were published at 28; and now are in audio at 29. It’s impossible not to view the book as a snapshot of my mid-twenties, when self-realisation and self-punishment felt like the same thing. Still, writing it got me through a tough moment, and my sole hope for the book is that it helps other women through similarly tough moments, regardless of who they’re shagging or not shagging.
Please don’t be too hard on yourselves: things are hard enough as it is.