The shopgirl wipes the spittle from her face as a man in a long black coat beflecks her with the bitty remains of his Full Monty breakfast.
“No. Sorry, sir. Still no date on the new Game of Thrones book.”
“Well, can’t you have a word?”
“With George R R Martin, the author?”
“No, sir. We don’t do that. We try and leave the authors to it.”
“Are you sure?”
A shorter pause.
“Yes. George expressly told us to stop calling. It was putting him off.”
Bookshop girl awkwardly sidles out sideways grinning like a cardboard cut-out, then scurries off into a safe corner of Crime.
This is my other life. My bookshop life. I’ve worked part-time on and off in the same bookshop for eight years. It feels like home and I love it dearly, but like all homes it can get on your wick sometimes.
Like the other day, with The Sci-Fi Spittler: “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to put up with this shit”, I found myself thinking as I answered the same question for the thousandth time. “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to make excuses for lazy bestselling authors at tillpoint. I wish that George Reginald Ronnie Whatever would pull his bloody finger out.”
But Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to keep anti-bacterial wipes in her pockets in case of close-up face-flecking, because Caitlin Moran’s a proper writer and doesn’t have to sell books about dragons to elf-haired dribblers to keep her in cardigans. Because Caitlin Moran’s…well, good.
It’s hard to try and think of yourself as a proper writer when you work part-time in a bookshop. All those books, all those words. Not even one of them yours – not even one of the small rubbish ones that don’t sell. I mean, you could use all of those words if you wanted to, they belong to everyone – but the fact is you haven’t used them, not in that order, not to that end. You are not George R R Martin. No one’s coming in off the street literally (LITERALLY) every five minutes to be belligerent with a bespectacled Converse-wearing bookseller for your latest literary profferings.
Every now and then I allow myself to think I might be getting there. Getting to ‘be a proper writer’.
There are little props that help. Nice pencils and notebooks, naturally. Pockets stuffed full of half-written notes of ideas I jot down blindly inbetween book queries. Halfway through a line about some facet of human nature, when…
From nowhere a Benson & Hedges wheeze…
“‘Scuse. Has Jordan got a new fing. I might have seen it in Heat. Something about love in a car. It’s a book. Do you have those? I dunno. Anyway, where is it?”
“Katie Price doesn’t have another one lined up for a while, sorry. Maybe she’s between ghost writers. (Private bookseller chuckle.) No – no madam, don’t choke – she’s not dead. I meant… I’m sure she’ll write another one soon.”
Madam leaves looking like I have just asked her to recite Pi. I pick a scab and wonder what Zadie Smith’s up to.
There is the odd success to make you feel like you’re getting there; ‘Being a writer’. Getting funding to do your plays in Edinburgh. Getting close to the end of a book that’s driven you half-mad that you might try and find a literary agent for at some point, if only you can stop faffing and let it go. Getting asked to contribute to an exciting new magazine. Getting nominated for a columnist of the year award. But it’s easy to not let it feel real when you’re surrounded by the work of others, writers much better than yourself. (And much worse; most of Towie have slender tomes out and I’ve a feeling none of them will be making any shortlists soon – unless it’s an overlong guest list for Sugar Hut or wherever it is they go to totter about with their tits out. But that’s just the men. The women are secretly reading Naomi Wolf in the lavs.) You have to let yourself actually enjoy your successes inbetween feeling like you’re being terribly silly trying in the first place.
I’m lucky, though, in that I love my bookshop. And I love my bookshop friends. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by nice bookish people and thousands of books and all their endless inspiration and resources for a couple of days a week? Far more talented people than I are working less fun day jobs while also slogging at their less remunerative ambitions. Some of those day jobs are well paid. Some of them are not. None of these people would choose to keep their day jobs if their other careers took off. Most recently I’ve been speaking to musician friends – amazing wonderful songwriters – all working ridiculous hours to make it happen, to keep it all ticking over. Photographers and artists and writers and composers and designers and actors and illustrators too. None of them quite free to do what they feel in their souls that they should be doing with their time. We’re all doing five million things at once, feeling utterly stretched and schizophrenic, and almost none of us are without money worries. An artistic life is a gamble with few wins. There’s certainly strength to be found in talking to each other, if not much money forthcoming. Our riches come from other things, not least each others’ understanding.
I guess it’s what keeps everyone humble. And hungry. And productive.
And on occasion a teeny bit mischievous…
A customer walks in.
“New Game of Thrones book out? George just called actually. It’s not good news I’m afraid. There’s no easy way of saying this, but……..(deep intake of breath for effect) he got bored and is going to leave it there. Said something about having a great idea for a taut political thriller set in one office with a shortage of mythical creatures. I’m sorry. Er. Would you like to wipe your nose on this new Katie Price?”