My cleaner berated me last week: “Why do you leave me with nothing to do?”
Yes, readers, the sad truth is that I would rather clean my toilets than write a book. I would possibly find it easier to commit a murder than to write one. If procrastination were an Olympic sport, I would surely be a gold medallist.
When I’ve run out of toilets to scrub, I turn to the next best procrastination technique: socializing. I make new friends almost every time I leave the house. Anyone who tells me that they like my books/husband/shirt/etc. is an auto-friend. I strike up chats with the cashier at the check-out counter. The hairdresser doesn’t have to ask me where I’m going on vacation because I’ve already told them, usually before I’ve reclined my head into the sink. I am a chatty hugger, and this makes me a lively panellist at festivals or on TV and radio. I don’t particularly like my own company, and therefore I am eager to accept every invite that comes my way, whether they are to book launches, writing festivals, parties, publisher promotions, civic receptions, embassy events, book tours, coffee with friends, or indeed strangers asking for advice (God help them). I will do anything to avoid opening the laptop.
This makes me just about the polar opposite of Sally Diamond, the eponymous heroine of my new book Strange Sally Diamond. Sally is a recluse who pretends to be deaf in order to avoid engaging with other people; throughout the story, readers slowly learn the roots of Sally’s strange behavior. Sally, as a result of a traumatic past she does not remember, is never lonely. She has learned to navigate the world without any need for human connection. In this respect, and probably only this one, I envy the character I have created. Toilets and humans are my distractions from the blinking cursor.
The first time I really committed myself to writing a book, I went away to a beautiful writer’s retreat, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in the beautiful wilderness of County Monaghan. Apart from the stunning scenery surrounding the house, there is nothing to do but work. No radio, no television, and, when I first went there in 2010, no phone signal and no Wi-Fi. I could either read or write, so that was where I wrote the vast majority of my debut novel.
Things have changed a lot since that debut novel, Unraveling Oliver, won the Irish Book Awards’ Crime Novel of the Year in 2014. Nowadays, it’s harder to access that isolation and loneliness that made it possible for me to produce my best writing. Loneliness encouraged me to create imaginary friends and enemies – and the more scandalous their stories the better. But now there’s this thing called the internet, and I often feel that I won’t write another word until I finish reading it. The greatest enemy of the modern writer is social media.
For the first few years I resisted Facebook—I just couldn’t understand what it was all about… until I did. I reconnected with old friends, stalked ex-boyfriends, and blocked mortal enemies. After I got my publishing deal and about a year before I was published, I attended a free information day on how to publicize your book. Twitter, they said, was key. Maybe it was, maybe it still is? I really don’t know, but I look at my friend Tana French, another Irish crime fiction writer, who does perfectly well without it. John Grisham doesn’t need it. I can only guess what a Donna Tartt tweet would look like (maybe a cool joke in Latin?). And it’s not just the writers who were established before social media became a thing. Sally Rooney has done rather well without it. And now I’m on Instagram, though I don’t really know how to use it. This time, I’m less keen to learn. I have drawn a line underneath it all now. No more platforms. I’ve already noticed it hindering my ability to write, which is already tenuous given my procrastination habits.
For example: Over the course of the week I have taken to write these mere 1,400 words, I have digitally thanked every single person who has tagged me and said something nice about Strange Sally Diamond on social media. I feel like it’s just good manners. My husband despairs of the time I take to do this, which he sees as a waste.
So I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear from other writers that “it practically wrote itself” or “I don’t even remember writing it; the character took over and told his own story.” Recently, I heard a writer say, “I stumbled on a story that just demanded to be told. It forced its way out of me and there was no work involved.” Really? When exactly is that going to happen to me? I can, when pushed to the absolute limit by agent or editor, arrange words into coherent sentences that, when linked together, can tell a reasonable story, and maybe over the 11 years I’ve been doing this, there are isolated hours here and there where I lost myself in the tale. I’m not calling this Writer’s Block. I’m not sure I believe in the concept. It’s not that I can’t write — it’s that I won’t. When I’m ready to write, the words will come, but they will have to be hewn from my brain with an axe in terrible, awful slow-motion. For a job that is completely sedentary, I find it bizarrely exhausting.
Like Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Yet somehow, despite all my toilet-scrubbing procrastination, I have managed to write five bestselling books. Once they are published, I breathe a sigh of relief and reward myself with at least a month off, and maybe an extra month because the whirl of publicity, while enjoyable, can be draining. And perhaps another month to allow the well of ideas to refill.
The fact is that I don’t like writing and yet it is the only realm in which I display any talent. I show no skill in any other area of the arts. I cannot sing, paint, act, dance, or design. I can teach a bit, but only if I can tell each student that their work is flawless. I am not a good colleague in an open-plan office setting. (I never had my own office back in the day.) Besides writing, my skills are few and far between. I am, as it turns out, pretty thorough when cleaning toilets. But so far, there are no toilet-cleaner festivals. There damn well should be.
So perhaps you’re wondering one thing: Have I written one word of my next novel? The answer is YES. I have written 13 words—the opening sentence. I have a rough idea what type of character my narrator will be. Ideas are percolating in my head. No plot yet, but then again, I have never plotted. When I get back to the (now fully connected) Tyrone Guthrie Centre next month, I will splurge the rough first 20k words onto the page after I disable the Wi-Fi on my laptop. The house is always spotless, but perhaps I should pack some detergent just in case.