|Photograph by Nicola East|
People keep asking how it feels. It’s the first thing everybody says to me. Moreover, it’s not really a question. They have their own ideas on that point. The word ‘must’ seems to be getting thrown around quite a lot. ‘Wonderful’ crops up a bit. As far as they’re concerned, it’s bloody obvious how all this feels.
“It must feel wonderful,” they say. “I know, walking into Waterstone’s. Seeing your book on a shelf – all those people saying nice things and asking when the next one comes out. What does it feel like? It must feel amazing ….. Go on, how does it feel …?”
I don’t know. I’m a writer. I choose my words carefully. It would be easy to nod and grin like a fool and confirm that yes, it feels bloody wonderful. But does it? I’m not sure there is a word for the mixture of awe, insecurity, giddiness, bafflement and frustration that is sloshing around in my skull and ribcage, and which has been for as long as I can remember. The Germans probably have a word for it. They’re good at that, the Germans. But I don’t. It’s just, well, “aaagh!” followed by some rocking back and forth.
I’m happy, of course. A few weeks ago, I walked into Waterstone’s, and seeing the tower of books with my name on them did strike a feeling within me that probably required musical accompaniment. Then I began to wonder why it was still a tower. Why hadn’t they sold? Why weren’t people rushing in to snaffle copies for their friends and relatives, delivering headlocks and kidney punches to anybody with the temerity to try and get there first? Would they ever sell? Was it all going to end in tears? Oh Christ, I need to get out of here …
And there it is. That’s being David Mark, the writer. I’ve been David Mark the journalist since I was just turned 17. I’ve seen my name in print for half a lifetime. Nobody else ever looked at it, of course. The by-line is just something to show newspaper readers that a real person actually went and knocked on doors and made some phone calls and risked a kicking on some horrible estate. Nobody really cares.
It’s a bit different, now. I’ve got a book out. A book! Which rather means that my single, abiding and all-consuming dream has come true. I’ve wanted to be a novelist my whole life. As a kid, the games I played with my He-Man figures had sub-plots and a twist at the end. The yarns (and by this, I realise I mean ‘lies’) that I would spin my mum as a teenager were worthy of a Booker. I was a nightmare. My brain didn’t see people – it saw ‘characters’. I used to pause movies halfway through and see if I could write the ending. When mine was better, I’d know that perhaps, one day, I could create stories for a living. When mine was worse, I’d retreat to the shed and smash planks with a hammer. I was weird. Moody, philosophical, over-analysing, obsessive, creative, always late, bit of a twat – my school reports were an indictment on more than my academic performance. I lived inside my own brain. I read compulsively. I’d got through Agatha Christie’s back catalogue by the time I was eleven, and on the Carlisle estate where I grew up (coupled with the fact I played the clarinet) that was like sticking a ‘kick me’ sticker on your forehead. Thankfully, I boxed too. Asking somebody to hold your clarinet case before a street-corner scrap is a surreal experience.
I’m rambling. Sorry. It’s just, well; I’ve got a book out. That’s what it’s all been for, hasn’t it? All those years. All those words. Typing until my fingers were numb and drifting onto motorway hard shoulders while lost in internal story arcs.
How did we get here? Well, I put the final full stop on a finished novel when I was 21, and sent it off to a few agents. Nobody liked it. I don’t blame them. It was shit. Undeterred by my shitness, and with four years of journalism under my belt, I wrote another. This was a bit less shit, but so dark that there was a good chance it would one day show up in court as Exhibit A. Again, the agents said no. So I wrote another. I don’t tend to give up, really, unless there are stairs involved. This one was far less shit. It was, however, slightly psychotic and vile. Nevertheless, one agent liked it. He phoned me up and said nice things. For a moment, there were fireworks, stars, sparklers, and heavenly choirs. He said he would like to represent me and that he had a good feeling. I sat in an armchair with a whisky and waited for my dreams to come true. But they didn’t. The publishers he showed it too like the writing, but said it was “too dark”. I didn’t really know what to do about that, and my suggestion that we drop in some passages where the protagonist played with a puppy and took a stroll on the beach at Bridlington, were not met with real enthusiasm. After a while, it sort of fizzled out. That was it. It wasn’t going to happen.
So, I did what I always do. I wrote another book. This time, I decided to keep the darkness to a minimum. What was more important was the story. The characters. The setting. It wasn’t about showing what a great writer I was. It was about writing something people couldn’t put down. My brain handed me Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy; a giant, timid, humble Highlander, living and working on an elite crime squad in Hull. It handed me his wife, his boss, his nemesis. In a flurry of activity and a sense that something important was happening, I scribbled it all down before it leaked away. The story came together in one evening with a notepad and a bottle of Jameson’s. Sole survivors. People who walked away when everybody else died. What if somebody was bumping them off in the way they cheated death? Hmm. My fingers were shaking when I started to type. That was probably the Jameson’s.
In stolen moments, I wrote what would become The Dark Winter. When I put the final full stop, I knew this one was different. It wasn’t shit at all. It went to my agent, and despite some soothing and appreciative noises, we didn’t really get anywhere. To be fair to him, he was a decent sort and he suggested that perhaps I find somebody else. One of the editors I’d got to know during the previous round of submissions, had been a fan of my work, and was a colossal help when it came to advice, suggestions and doing all those bits that editors do so much better than I do. He gave me the name of somebody he thought would like it. And so poor Oli Munson at Blake Friedmann received an email from the washed-out, wrung-out, very nearly down-and-out David Mark, journalist, beseeching him to take a look. He did. He liked it. He liked it a lot. And within a month, there were several publishing houses bidding for it, and it was being snapped up in Italy, Germany, Greece, Turkey, and cor blimey, America.
That was just over a year ago. Since then, I have experienced more emotions than I can name. I’ve lost my mind a few times, lost my temper frequently, and been a bloody nightmare for my long-suffering partner and kids. I’ve discovered that journalists move quicker than publishers do. Tectonic plates and the Arctic ice-shelf move quicker than publishers do. I’ve done rewrites, amendments, nodded sagely at front cover ideas and written the second in the series. I’ve answered lots of questions and people have said very nice things. I’ve sat at work and taken a phone call in which Val McDermid called me ‘exceptional’. I’ve shivered with both delight and fear. My every insecurity has bubbled to the surface and through a combination of Oli, my publishers, my family and a lot of whisky; I’ve survived the longest year of my life. I’ve been launched. I’ve been reviewed. The word ‘shit’ hasn’t cropped up in any of them. I’m appearing at festivals and people are asking me to sign things.
And now, I can walk into Waterstone’s. I can see my book on a shelf. How does it feel? It must feel wonderful. It does. Just frigging mental at the same time.