When my novel The Emperor’s Knife was released by Jo Fletcher Books the day after my mother’s eighty-first birthday.
Three weeks earlier she reminded us. ‘My birthday is coming up,’ she said, ‘I can always tell from the colour of the leaves.’ The nursing home had given her an awful room, an awful bed, but she had a nice view of a field and a line of trees, and sometimes children came to play football there. It was her favourite season; she delighted in the bright oranges and yellows of autumn, the cooling of the air from summer’s highs and the beginning of the holidays. Preparation of the Christmas cake started the process – once her province only, but in recent years done by all of us siblings together as she directed from her kitchen chair like a master of ceremonies.
‘Three weeks to go,’ we told her, thinking of how we might manage a birthday celebration within her tiny room, crowded by an oxygen tank and a wheelchair, but not too pressed yet, as we still had time to plan.
She died a week later.
My mother was a teacher, an avid reader, a lover of words and a writer. She’d had only one short story published, but she had many writing projects, scattered now across defunct computers and paper-filled boxes. She was proud of me, but she never saw my book.
I imagine most people throw parties on their release day, or at least go out for drinks. The day before The Emperor’s Knife was released – my mother’s birthday – I went down to the pub intending to eat some of her favourite foods, but I wasn’t hungry enough, and had a salad instead. It was only myself and my spouse.
I know that I have ten times the good luck of most people. To have acquired an agent and seen my book published is beyond fortunate. Everyone keeps asking me, ‘How does it feel to hold your book in your hands? How does it feel to get reviewed? How does it feel to receive money in the mail for something you wrote?’ Well, quite honestly, I feel a little numb. Everything that happens is one more thing my mother has missed, and I can’t shake the anger and regret I feel at her absence.
Anyone who has had a loved one in the hospital knows the long stretches of time in uncomfortable chairs, the constant buzzing of alarms and machines and the changing faces of the nurses and doctors who move in and out of the room. Fewer of us come to know the difference between having someone who’s barely there – who wakes up and speaks to you for a minute, or a few seconds, before fading – and having that person just disappear. How fast it happens. How little you are prepared for it.
Or the kindness of others. The nurses, your relatives, your friends. People who take anything from a few minutes out of their day to disrupting their entire lives to help you. I am astounded by the generous behaviour of those who were there for me, and I am determined to return their generosity.
I am now certain that to be present for those you love – even for a few, fleeting seconds – is the most important thing in the world. Yes, there is a lot more business involved with being published than I expected. Interviews to do and giveaways to arrange, reviews to obtain, and general schmoozing. But I try not to let it get in the way of being the person I want to be, the parent I want to be, the friend I want to be, and one day, the author I want to be.
The Emperor’s Knife came to print at what was for me the end of an era, but hopefully it is the start of something too. At the funeral, my cousin who is also an author said something to me about writing eight books before deciding whether I liked it – a quote from someone famous that I was too drunk and grief-stricken to entirely absorb. But it has stuck with me, even in its fragmented state.
I hope that I do get to write eight books, and that I do like it, and that others like me doing it too. But here and now it’s The Emperor’s Knife that carries my hopes and its sequel that occupies my attention. I don’t know what mother would have made of my book, but I like to think that she would find some merit in it, in the strength of the language, in the characterisation, and in the recurring theme of hope amid loss and grief. Also perhaps she might have laughed here and there, maybe at an old assassin who claims to speak fluent camel. I hope so.