Sarah Perry: ‘One day I found myself reciting the opening of the novel. I knew the crisis had come’

The novelist on lost notebooks, outrageous bouts of procrastination and why she’s still waiting to become a ‘proper’ writer

To be perfectly frank, I don’t write much. I never have. All my life I’ve done a lot of staring out of bus windows in tears over some imagined tragedy, or having arguments in my head with imagined antagonists, but very little actual writing. I thought one day I’d grow up and be a “proper” writer – scribbling on receipts and napkins, keeping a diary, diligently writing a daily 1,000 words, that sort of thing. But it never happened. I am, as I always was, a daydreamer; but these days the daydreaming is followed by periods of ferocious work.

So my writing day depends on whether I’m the daydreamer or the worker. I’m unable to begin a book until it feels as if I’ve already read it several times: the idea of sitting at a laptop and just seeing what transpires makes me feel mildly unwell. The bare bones of The Essex Serpent came to me on a country drive, and after that I wrote not a word for 18 months at least. I was fortunate enough to be working from home as a legal copywriter, and I simply loafed about whenever deadlines allowed. I took endless baths. I attended lectures on the history of cardiac surgery. I sat in Essex bird hides, in Essex churches, in Essex pubs. Occasionally I made notes, which I invariably lost (recently I found four cheap notebooks each labelled “The Essex Serpent”; three were empty, the fourth boasted half a dozen pages of illegible scribbles). Once, seized with some fresh development, I got very hot, removed half my clothes, and paced wildly around the living room floor explaining optical illusions to my baffled husband.

I knew the time of indolence was at an end when I found myself dashing along a railway platform, reciting a passage which became the opening of the novel (I still know it by heart, but am not daft enough to attempt it in public). It’s very difficult to convey the thrill of that moment: of knowing the crisis had come, that the book was ready to write.

I’m lucky enough to have a room of my own, and I decked it with talismans that called the book to mind: fossils, bits of blue glass, Victorian botanical prints. I never write longhand – I can barely write a postcard without exhausting my wrist – but opened a Word document, began at the beginning, and wrote until I reached the end. This writing happened in short bursts between outrageous bouts of procrastination. I rose early, drank pots of strong coffee, and watched episodes of House and Dexter on Netflix. I dawdled on Twitter, on style blogs; I ordered clothes I’d never wear. I was afraid to read, in case admiration led to imitation; but knew I must, or I’d forget how it was done.

Hours went by, and still not a word written; then at last I’d light a candle, put on a playlist of appalling ambient music, block the internet for precisely 55 minutes, and begin. Week after week passed just like this – I was a swimmer in winter circling an icy pond, summoning up the blood until finally hurling myself in. I can’t explain why I’d delay so long, because the writing, always in those 55 minute bursts, gave me indecent joy – agonies too, of course, as I butted up against my own inadequacies, and despaired of my poverty of intellect, my hopelessly diminished vocabulary, and so on – but mostly I recall the joy of it.

Ten months later I had a draft ready to put into the hands of my agent, and then my editor, grateful for their ability to guide me. By then the cycle had begun again: another book, far beyond my reach at first – another year of no writing, not of the kind you’d recognise, until one morning I found I could recite the opening paragraph, and knew the final words: the crisis had come, and I was ready to begin. Not much has changed – there is the lit candle, the 55 minutes of freedom from the internet, the bouts of Netflix – but this time I have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere, and have not yet lost.

The Essex Serpent has been shortlisted for the 2016 Costa best novel award and is the Waterstones book of the year.


Sarah Perry

The GuardianTramp

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