You’ve written the book – what next?
7 June 2013
My first biography, The Woman Who Saved the Children, about Eglantyne Jebb, the controversial founder of Save the Children, was a labour of love, and ‘labour’ and ‘delivery’ became the keys words when it came to finishing the book. I had started my research when I went on maternity leave from Save the Children, where I was working as a fundraiser, thinking I might be able to trot the book out before the baby arrived.
Six years, two jobs and two children later, I finally had most of a draft manuscript, an agent and a book deal. What I didn’t have was the last few chapters. By now heavily pregnant with what turned out to be daughter number three, my agent put a bet on which would be delivered first, the book or the baby. Baby won. The final chapter was written with her mainly on my lap (moving her even slightly seemed too risky), and typing away with one hand while she was latched on the other side. To say I was becoming slightly unbalanced was putting it mildly at this point, in more ways than one.
The irony is that Eglantyne, the wonderful founder of Save the Children, was not even fond of individual kids, ‘the little wretches’ as she once referred to them and never had children of her own. It seemed slightly wrong to be dedicating so much of my time to her story, just when I should be most absorbed in my own children. Although I had loved researching and writing Eglantyne’s story, and felt the full weight of responsibility for my precious book, it was with no slight relief that the manuscript finally went off and I believed I would be free.
Oh no. For a book to flourish, it not only has to be well researched and well written, it needs to be well promoted.
Now began a series of book tours. Some were wonderful; I met some fabulous people actually interested in what I had written, and sat next to ‘other authors’ in the odd green room. Other events were less so, such as when I spoke to two people and a dog in a small London library – and they were only there to shelter from the rain. A highlight was being interviewed on Woman’s Hour. A low moment was when the email I had received from ‘Richard and Judy’ turned out to be from a local WI group, run by Judy and her husband Dick. Wish I’d realised that before I replied.
I wrote articles for everything from the Daily Mail to Save the Children’s newsletter and the British Thyroid Association magazine. I spent hours traipsing round bookshops offering, slightly embarrassed, to sign any copies they had, and I blogged. My first blogs went up on the Save the Children blog board, and the response was great. Later I was invited on blog tours. In a way I felt as though I had not deserted the book after all when it left home; the teenage book needed plenty of support too. But after a year or so it was definitely time for us both to let go.
Book number two, The Spy Who Loved, the secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of WWII, was written much faster, with no new-borns or other jobs to distract me. Writing the life of a secret agent contained new challenges however. Christine had been taught not to leave a paper trail, and proved good at covering up her tracks. Fortunately, though, she also liked to tell a good story, as did the many men she dazzled in her sights as she made love to the cream of the British and Polish secret service while fighting the Nazi advance across Europe.
In the end, as is traditional with a second child, the delivery was easier, and I was not so shocked to find the finished book staring up at me in all its helpless innocence. This time I have gone into the book promotion phase with my eyes open and I am enjoying (almost) every moment. I have poured my heart into this book, and I am proud of the result. I am not going to let Christine’s story go into the world without all the support I can give it. It is worth the work, both professionally and personally. I am speaking at several literary festivals, as well as at museums and societies ranging from the Imperial War Museum to the Special Forces Club. Women’s Hour has invited me back, and last week I was on Radio Four’s Today programme and ITV news. I have given interviews and slogged round bookshops and spoken to an awful lot of members of the WI and Rotary clubs around the country.
Once I was given a loaf of home-made bread by one fan of the book, another time when I was showing some slides of Christine and her fellow agents in the field when a voice piped up from the back of the room saying, ‘blimey, that’s my dad’. I have even been introduced to the woman who censored the files I ordered at the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act, although she refused to tell me what was in the missing pages. It has been great fun, and I am just joining The History Girls to blog among friends about the things that we love: history, writing and people. But I know that ultimately I will have to let Christine go, just as I did Eglantyne, and watch to see if she survives in the crowded book-place on her own merits, or at least – since her own merits are not in doubt – if my books do these wonderful women justice.
What happens next? Well I have three children who I love very dearly – I think that is a full complement. But I have only written two books… I am now looking at other remarkable, unsung women, with whom I would like to share my life for the next few years.
Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of two biographies and a contributor to The Arvon Book of Life Writing. She is a seasoned public speaker and occasionally writes for publications including History Today, The Spectator, The Express and The Church Times, perfect titles for a historically minded, left-wing atheist.
The Spy Who Loved: the secrets and lives of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of World War II
‘Highly atmospheric… scholarly and tautly written’, The Economist
‘Compulsively readable… thrilling’, The Sunday Telegraph
‘Engrossing… as thrilling as any fiction’, The Mail on Sunday
‘A nerve-shredding read’, The Lady
‘Sterling biography… a fitting tribute’, Country Life
‘Scintillating and moving… one of the most exciting books… this year’, The Spectator
‘Riveting… Hollywood should sit up and take note!’, The Good Book Guide