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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

My obviously never to be published novel

Only as I compiled these last diary entries for publication did I realise an extraordinary coincidence: when Nèlleke de Jager of Kwela phoned to accept my novel Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart for publication on my daughter’s birthday, 10 September 2010, exactly a year had elapsed since I started writing it on September 10 2009.

11 June 2010
I have got as far as “new message” in Outlook Express, and have rejigged my introductory letter to suit a UK rather than an American reader, but doubts are creeping in. Maybe the book is a failure. I have also been wondering whether I shouldn’t eat humble pie and approach [-], the agent I met two years ago when he was in South Africa, and who said (not sincerely, I thought) that I should send him my next book. He was the one who suddenly lunged across the table to take a praying mantis or a bug off my cleavage and then said “My wife’s not with me on this trip.” And then I left very shortly afterwards, saying I needed to fetch my daughter from school. A last resort? Not a resort at all. (And I gave that dress away, too.)

15 June 2010
When I have finished writing this, I’ll send a sample of my manuscript to the Dorie Simmonds agency mentioned in ND’s email. I was invited to do so yesterday following my email of enquiry and introduction. (After sending the sample, I received no further correspondence from this agency, hence no further reference in my diary.)

2 July 2010
Last night I was at a party filled with publishers, writers, artists and altogether gentle people. It was pleasant, but I felt the strain of socialising quite acutely — especially speaking to new people. I know that this social awkwardness, the result of a feeling that I’m not truly communicating myself as I stand there with a glass of wine thinking of my next polite question, is in fact what drives me to the page. I must communicate, and the more I fail at cocktail parties, the more I want to succeed in books and poems.

19 July 2010
My computer has just arrived back. No novels lost. When it wouldn’t come back on after Thursday’s power cut, I thought the worst. Two entire unpublished books, neither properly backed up. My computer man said “the news is not good” when I phoned, but then went on a tangent about other computers he’d fixed recently so that I was left imagining a total wipeout of my data. I got down onto the floor of my study while he spoke, ready to faint if I heard that the C drive was gone. But “the bad news” turned out to be only the parts that needed replacing, and an apology for the expense.

2 August 2010
At T’s party I spoke to K about my book — about how I don’t know what to do next — approach more agents (having heard no reply) or choose a South African publisher. K said he had one piece of advice for me: “Remember that not making a decision is also a decision”. So I have decided to go through the manuscript one more time and then blitz about 5 agents all at once. Lots to do.

11 August 2010
I need to stop feeling so apathetic and send my novel to people.

12 August 2010
I probably wouldn’t approach Jacana — more likely Kwela or Jonathan Ball since I already know the publishers there.

Yesterday evening B and I went to an exhibition opening at Kalk Bay Modern — ceramics and various types of etchings, aquatints and drypoint on paper. G’s friend [-], who makes ceramic plaques with doll figurines emerging from them, and who likes to press doilies into wet clay, was prominently displaying his status as artist by wearing a kind of cockatoo wig. He gabbles away, saying anything as long as he can fill up the space. He says he likes to get visits from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses whom he then lectures until they itch to get away. He tells them he is the incarnation of the Doily Lama.

It’s as if spring has arrived — beautiful clear weather, with the mountains cut out in all their detail and not just some distant hazy mass. A lazy whale waves at us.

13 August 2010
I felt quite depressed yesterday. [-] came in, crowing about his wonderful new carefree life and his plans to travel. I know I’ll get out of this slough and see the bright side again. I need a big job or contract or at least an offer for my novel — which means I must send it out there.

17 August 2010
Yesterday I read through my (mostly readable) novel again, made a few changes and sent it to N at Kwela. It has some strong parts, some good things, felicities even, and a slightly intractable wodge of badness somewhere in the middle. Some of the links are weak. I have decided that I can’t face the experience of sending sample chapters to multiple overseas agents who have never heard of me and who are being inundated with manuscripts anyway. N is at the Joburg Book Fair, so I’m not sure when she’ll get a chance to print the book or even if she’ll do the reading herself. Maybe I’ll even be rejected by my SA publisher who knows me.

That took most of the day.

18 August 2010
My book has gone to a reader, says N.

25 August 2010
Tonight I rehearse with J. No news about my book. I fear failure.

8 September 2010
I’m dreading a photo shoot with [-] magazine, the people I avoided last month. They tracked me down in mangled English, demanding that I pose for them in Simonstown, and bring “lots of options” for clothing changes, “neutral shades — white or beige”. They will provide a make up artist. I hate, hate, hate all this image manipulation. I hate being treated like an object. It’s so strange because in my obviously never to be published novel, my character goes through all of this, plus a visit to this very spot in Simonstown. Life imitating art. Now I can’t have my morning walk because I can’t arrive with windswept hair.

10 September 2010
I bought cake ingredients and delicate cake decorations (little bees, a flower, lettering, numbers) and B and I made a birthday cake for her to take to school today. The cake decorating shop is in Fish Hoek, and as I approached my car with my little polystrene tray of sugared letters, a gust of wind took a letter “E” and blew it down the drain. I stood there saying “Oh no, oh no.” A man came by and stood next to me, also staring into the drain, and said, “I’m sorry I’m too old to help you.” He thought I’d dropped my keys down there. I went back to the shop and for 50c got another E.

While we were baking, N from Kwela phoned and said they would indeed like to publish my novel.

Well, what can I say. Thank you SO much for sending us your new novel. I finished reading it in one sitting, and absolutely loved it. (So did our one outside reader; still waiting for feedback from the second reader). So, yes, definitely, Kwela would love to publish it. I do think there is some work needed still. But we’ll talk about that in more detail later.

That’s it. Except it isn’t. The book that will reach the shelves in May 2011 isn’t this book exactly. The process of editing and proofreading was yet to come.

Front cover of Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 17th, 2011 @23:00 #

    Have been meaning to say, that's a lovely cover for the new book. Yay for Nellecke, who knows a good thing when she sees it. I am very much looking forward to May.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Chris Thurman</a>
    Chris Thurman
    February 18th, 2011 @16:09 #

    "I must communicate, and the more I fail at cocktail parties, the more I want to succeed in books and poems."

    It seems to me that this captures, almost comprehensively (if the cocktail party is taken as a metonym for all forms of social interaction), what it is that drives any of us to write anything ...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    February 19th, 2011 @11:12 #

    Funny you should mention that quote - a friend of mine just emailed me with the same line. It really spoke to her.


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