The run-up to publication

Tomorrow, my debut novel, Missing Pieces, will be launched. I keep telling myself that the only real change is that the Amazon button which now reads ‘Pre-order’ will change to read ‘Buy now’. But it’s not working. Today, I’m an unpublished author. Tomorrow, I’ll be a published one. People I know and love will start to read my book. It will be out in the world, making its way.

The reception it’s had so far has been beyond anything I could have imagined. At the time of writing this, it has 113 reviews on NetGalley (a site book reviewers can use to access books prior to publication) and 67 of them are five stars. Authors including Sarah Pinborough, Amanda Berriman, Tamsin Grey and Fiona Mitchell have read it and said some truly wonderful things. The blog tour started on Monday, and the reviews there have been fantastic.

So I have every reason to believe that things will go well. And I’m not entirely sure what I’m nervous about. But today, I’ve been distracted and unable to concentrate. I’ve done a (very short) run, I’ve visited Rach, I’ve hung out and folded washing, I’ve packed a bag to take to London tomorrow, and I’ve refreshed my Twitter and Facebook feeds a thousand times. I haven’t been able to read and I haven’t been able to write. And whatever I did, I felt like I should be doing something else.

Two years ago today was my first chemo. It was also the day my nephew Jay was born. When I saw Rachel today, I thought a lot about that day, just two years ago, when we thought that my cancer and Elodie’s worrying start to life were as bad as things were going to get. Perhaps that was the cause of some of my inability to settle to anything.

Mid-afternoon, the doorbell rang and a man held out a box to me. Beautiful flowers and a box of macarons. I knew they were from Paul, who’s in London. The card read ‘To Laura/Mummy, Happy book day. You’ve shown us that it’s possible to achieve your dreams. That’s the best lesson any parent can teach their children. We’re so proud of you, and we love you more than anything. Paul, Joseph and Elodie xxx’ I sat down on the stairs and cried.

Before I put him to bed, I told Joseph that tomorrow was a special day. ‘Is it Mother’s Day?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s my…’ ‘Birthday?’ he tried. I shook my head. And then he said it. ‘Book birthday?’ I smiled and said yes and he launched himself into my arms and said he promised to remember in the morning as long as Daddy reminded him.

But Daddy won’t be here, so I’ll be the one trying to get him and Elodie to clean their teeth and put their clothes on. I’ll be pouring them cups of milk and walking them to nursery. I doubt I’ll have slept well. At lunchtime, once Paul is back, I’ll get on a train to London for a trip that will involve fundraising drinks for my friend Michael’s upcoming charity run, lunch with my publishers and a launch party. And when I come back, things will have shifted for good. And I’ll try to get my head down and start concentrating again, because I’ve got a second novel to finish.

The charity walk

I was doing the nursery pick-up a while ago when Kate, one of the two women who run the nursery (along with four others), asked to have a word with me. She proposed a charity walk to raise funds for my sister, Rachel. For the renovations and equipment that will be required before she can come home. I was touched. I said we’d be really grateful.

My nephew Louie started at Lime Tree nursery when he was about nine months old. When we moved to this village a couple of years ago, Joseph started going there. And then Elodie and Jay were born, and they’d been on the waiting list for months. Louie is at school now, but he still goes to Lime Tree for before and after school clubs. Since my cancer and Rachel’s stroke, the women who run the place and the women who care for the children there have been endlessly supportive. Everyone there takes the time to get to know the families, so that I can phone and say ‘I’m Joe and Elodie’s mum, but I’m calling about Jay’ and I don’t have to explain any further. I like that.

We had a bit of back and forth about the charity walk and then Kate set up the Just Giving page. The plan is for participants to do a seven-mile twilight walk, starting at one of Lime Tree’s two Sileby nurseries and ending at their Loughborough one, taking in the other three nurseries in the group along the way. People have been asked to donate £3 if they want to walk, and to donate and share the page.

The story was picked up by the Loughborough Echo, who put it on their front page, and then the Leicester Mercury. A local charity, The White Horse Wishing Well, got in touch to offer to provide refreshments for the walkers. The original target of £500 was quickly reached and, at the time of writing, the page has raised £1,444. I’m really touched by this because a lot of the names on the donations list are unfamiliar. These are local people who don’t know us but have read Rachel’s story and been moved by it.

The walk is in a couple of weeks, and it’s a busy time for us. It falls between Elodie and Jay’s second birthdays and is a week before the publication of my novel. Mum and I are going to walk while Paul looks after our children and my dad looks after Rachel and Scott’s. Scott is hopefully going to arrange to bring Rachel to the starting point so that all the walkers can meet her. I don’t know when I last walked seven miles. Mum keeps telling me that I’ll need some proper shoes. She’s right, I’m sure.

But my thinking is that I’ll be carried round those seven miles by the generosity of the people who are walking alongside me and the people who’ve donated to the cause. Rachel can’t walk; she’ll never walk again. But I can, and I will. And every step will be for my brave and beautiful sister, who’s been away from home for far too long.

The return to the breast care centre

A couple of weeks ago, my Mum mentioned that Rachel had an appointment for a mammogram coming up. Mum and I have tested positive for BRCA2, and Rachel hasn’t been tested, so they’re starting her screening early. It was on a Wednesday, which is my visiting day. Could I go? I said yes, of course. The appointment was at 12pm so I was to be at the care home for 10am. That’s how it works, with ambulance transport.

The appointment was yesterday. I woke up wondering whether it would bother me, to go back to that place where I was diagnosed and operated on. I wasn’t sure, and it was too late to back out anyway. I posted about it on Twitter, and people were kind. Someone said it was very supportive of me to do it. And I thought, needs must. Our situation is hard, and we all have to do our bit.

I drove to the care home in the pouring rain and dashed inside. Rachel had had breakfast and was pleased to see me. We chatted a bit. I told her that I’m reading a memoir, Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, and that the author mentions not being allowed to have a drink with soup, because soup is a drink, and she laughed. That’s one of our mum’s rules, one we spend a lot of time teasing her about. A member of staff who’s on maternity leave came in with her baby; the physiotherapist came to take Rachel for her 11am physio session. I said I’d wait and let them know if the ambulance arrived.

The appointment time came and went. This is how it is, sometimes. A nurse called the breast care centre and was told that Rachel’s appointment was at 1.30pm. I looked back at the letter I’d been given. 12pm. At about 1pm, the ambulance arrived. A member of staff had just made Rachel a sandwich for lunch and asked if I wanted to take it with us. I said yes, and she disappeared to wrap it up, and returned with it on a plate and covered in clingfilm. I juggled my coat, my bag and the sandwich while the ambulance team wheeled Rachel into position.

When we arrived, I braced myself for feeling emotional, but I was fine. I explained the confusion over the appointment time. Rachel was asked her date of birth and her address. She gave her home address. The computer record showed the address of the care home. I explained. And I think that’s when it started. An unshakeable feeling of sadness.

I still don’t know which appointment time was right, but we were seen almost straight away. It wasn’t straightforward. The mammogram had to be done with Rachel in her wheelchair, and the angles were pretty impossible. With a lot of patience, the two women managed to get two of the four images they needed. They went to talk to a radiographer, and when they came back, they said that they didn’t feel it was going to be possible to get the others. They’d try again in a year’s time, and in the meantime, we should report anything unusual.

I thanked them, and we went back to reception where I asked about transport back to the care home. Someone made a call, and we sat down to wait. Rachel ate some of her sandwich. An hour or more passed, and when the man at reception saw we were still waiting, he said he’d call again. It was about 3pm at this point, and I started to worry about whether I’d get back home in time to pick the kids up from nursery, which closes at 6pm. Paul was in London. I sent a message to the What’s App group I set up for exactly this kind of scenario, and offers of help started to come in. It was reassuring.

Rachel dozed a bit; she usually has a sleep in the afternoon. At about 4.15pm, the ambulance arrived. ‘Are you coming?’ the driver asked. I nodded. ‘I don’t have any record of you.’ I was ready to break down. The hospital was in Leicester, my car was in Loughborough, my children were at nursery, my husband was in London. Luckily, she made a call and I was allowed to go in the ambulance. We passed a homeless man outside a shop. The driver and her colleague tried to engage me in a discussion about homelessness. They said ‘I always check their fingernails’. They said ‘they get extra benefits for having a dog, you know’. They said ‘he’s wearing Nikes; I can’t afford Nikes’. I said nothing.

As we approached the home, I told Rachel that I was going to have to rush off to pick up the kids. She said she was sorry it had been such a long day, and I felt like crying. And then in the car, sitting in stationary traffic and watching the minutes tick ever closer to 6pm, I felt like crying again. I collected Joseph and Elodie with five minutes to spare. Elodie was the last baby in her room for the first time ever, and I chided myself for feeling guilty about that. Someone has to be last. On the way home, I told Joseph that I’d been at the hospital with Rachel all the time he’d been playing with his friends and it had been a horrible day. He said ‘Don’t be silly, being with someone you love is better than playing with people you just like.’

And he was right. That’s why I was so sad. Because in the past, I’d have loved to spend a day with Rachel, even if we were waiting around for an appointment or for transport. But now, it’s exhausting, and I class it as a horrible day, and that’s the saddest thing of all.

We got home, and I gave the kids milk and farm animal-shaped biscuits. Elodie held them up. ‘Baaaa!’ And then ‘Moooooo!’ Joseph bounced on my tummy as I lay on the floor and I laughed, and then he hit me in the face with a teddy and I told him to go upstairs. He cried, and I cried. And I was almost grateful that I finally had.

Today I’m back to working on my second novel. I’d left my computer on hopefully when I left the house yesterday morning, but by the time I got back, I was just too tired. I need to get this draft to my editor before we go on holiday in two weeks, and it’s going to be quite tight. So I’m hoping to get lost in someone else’s world for the day and shake off this sombreness that’s still hanging over me.

The days when cancer looms large

Some days, I can almost forget that I’ve had cancer. I’m busy. I have a novel coming out and I’m editing the next one. I am a mother to two children who are still young enough to be endlessly demanding. Last night, as he was supposed to be going to sleep, Joseph sat up in bed and asked me to make him a sword and shield out of paper. And Elodie has taken to standing in the kitchen, pointing at the cupboard where I keep snacks, or opening the fridge to point to the milk. They’re forever bringing me shoes to put on or turning my bed into a throne (I have no idea, but it involved moving all the pillows and the duvet cover) or asking me to make a den out of blankets and pegs. I run an online book club that has almost two thousand members, and it involves a lot of reading and a lot of emails. I have a husband, and a house, and a severely disabled sister. I’m too busy to think too much about cancer.

But sometimes, it looms large. Two weeks ago, a woman called Amy Mattingly died of bowel cancer. She was thirty-two. She was a Canadian living near Bath, who learned she had cancer after delivering her stillborn son, Leo. I never met Amy, but we talked on Twitter sometimes, and I marvelled at her from afar. She was so frank about her condition, and so funny. She did a lot to raise awareness. She organised charity walks and wore a gold cape to take part; she had a photoshoot done in which she wore only underwear and her ileostomy bag. Amy was the most alive person I’ve ever seen. And now she’s gone.

And today, I’ve read the stories of two women. One who died days after giving birth to her daughter. Another who has a tiny baby and has been given months to live. It’s hard, on hearing or reading these stories, not to feel overwhelmed. With sadness for these women and their families. With relief that I was so much luckier. With fear that their story could still be my story, in the future.

It’s strange that all this melancholy has come on such a beautifully sunny day. It’s been a long winter, and every time it seemed like it was ending, it came back. Like those trick candles that reignite every time you blow them out. Today, there’s no denying that spring is here. Nine years ago today, Paul and I got married in London on a day much like this. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Yesterday, I sent the first half of my second novel to my editor at Ipso Books. And today, I start editing the second half. I’m itching to get started after thinking about my main character for a long time. She’s come alive in my mind, and is starting to answer back when I tell her what I have planned for her. The trouble is, cancer is one of the big themes of the novel, and I feel like cancer is surrounding me, crushing me. I wonder whether my editor will read this blog post. I wonder whether she’ll see it as an elaborate way of excusing my lack of progress.

I wish that Amy could have seen this sudden and complete transition to spring. I feel sure that she would have opened up all the windows and put on some music and let the sunshine seep into her bones. She can’t do those things, but I can. So I will. And I will go back to my work in progress, because at least I’m in control of what happens in that. Cancer is scary, and it’s cruel, and it’s everywhere. But for now, at least, I don’t have it. And it doesn’t have me.

The Missing Pieces proof

Since the lovely Ipso Books decided they want to publish my three novels, we’ve been busy working away at getting the first one ready. There were edits, and then copy edits, and then a proof read. None of it was too arduous, as this is the one we all felt was the closest to being ready. But regardless, there are more steps to getting a book out in the world than I’d realised. We changed the title from A Sister-Shaped Gap to Missing Pieces, I wrote the acknowledgements and the dedication, they sorted out the formatting. And then there was the cover. I was very nervous about this aspect, because I’ve heard authors often don’t have much say, and despite knowing nothing about design, I know what I like (and what I don’t) when it comes to book covers. But I needn’t have worried. We started the process with me sending over some examples of covers I really like and really don’t like, and then they briefed the designer.

Next, the designer came up with about six concepts, which we discussed, and then she developed our preferred ones further. And all of a sudden, somehow, one of them changed from being a nice image with some words on to being a book cover. We all agreed, and it was done (I’m probably massively oversimplifying this process that I don’t know much about).

Seeing the finalised cover was a special moment, but what really gave me pause was when Ipso sent me a photo of the first hundred proof copies to be printed. I couldn’t stop looking at it. One hundred spines with the title and my name printed on them. And now, some of them have been sent out to book bloggers (along with some tea, a pack of tissues and a bar of chocolate). It is out in the world, and no longer only mine.

On Tuesday, my friend Shelly came over to take my author photo. She was here for a couple of hours, and we talked a lot (it’s the first time we’ve ever seen each other without our children present, and we had a lot of half conversations to finish), and as we talked, she took photos from various positions and in different lights. I was nervous about this part, as I’m much bigger than I’d like to be these days and I’m growing my hair out after my drastic post-chemo cut and it’s at the worst possible length. But Shelly is an artist, and she somehow captured something pretty great, and I’m incredibly grateful to her for that.

On Thursday evening, Missing Pieces became available to pre-order on Amazon. I shared the link on Facebook and Twitter, and watched my notifications explode with people saying they’d ordered it, or shared it with their network. It wasn’t too nerve-wracking, because none of them will be able to read it until it comes out in June. It was just nice to know that people were behind me, supporting me. It was wonderful, in fact.

Paul arrived home from London that night a little after ten. He had a proof copy of the book in his bag. Ipso had left it at reception for him, and he’d called in to collect it between finishing work and getting a train home. They’d wrapped it up. And I opened it, this present that is the thing I’ve wanted all my life. I took a photo of me holding it. I put it on our bookshelf. I looked at it, over and over, still not quite believing.

I’m excited about the next couple of months, about the people those proofs are being sent to reading it. About hearing what people think of this world I created and carried with me for so many years. About watching it be released, and seeing what happens. I have hopes: that it is well received, that people have nice things to say about it, that it sells. But to some extent, none of that matters. Because I have a book here that I wrote and that someone else chose to publish, and that’s enough.