On Writing Jellybird

Jellybird… aged 9½

Lezanne Clannachan(published in NewBooks, January 2013)

My first book – Jellybird – began to write itself as I travelled home after my last day at work. With my coat no longer closing over my eight month belly and no proffered seats, I took train, tube and bus from Surbiton to Islington and never noticed a moment’s discomfort; I had been transported to a desolate, windswept beach where a girl stood looking out to sea; an image that had haunted me for years. Instead of spending my first day of maternity leave washing and ironing muslins, as planned, I bought a pad from the local newsagent’s and wrote all day.

There was something liberating about the permission to spend time in my own space. I was excused from the duty of late night working, late night drinking. As I decorated the nursery with stuffed toys and pastel cartoon wallpaper, my imagination freed itself from the adult constraints of deadline, budget and clock-racing.

Obsessions and fascinations rose to the surface as the Jellybird seed stuck and thrived. The question of what constitutes infidelity hounded me – did it have to be a physical act of betrayal or merely that first, unrealised whisper of attraction? Adolescent passion was apparently another of my absorptions. What would happen, I asked myself, if it wasn’t allowed to follow its natural course and peter out? Would this overblown, candyfloss emotion mutate into something more enduring, damaging even? I threw these problems at the girl on the beach, giving her more reason than ever to stand, alone and lost, by the water’s edge.

The story, like a cuckoo’s ravenous chick, grew and grew. Only it proved to be a much more demanding, wayward and wilful progeny than my daughter Emily, born three weeks later. Whilst I wallowed in the milk and talc of new motherhood, scenes played out in the back of my head. Every time my baby slept, I sat down to unburden myself from the gathered mass of words. I let the story run wild, unrestrained by planning or guidance. A feral thing that followed all its impulses. Years later, I would pay for the lack of discipline when I was faced with the problem of kicking it into shape.

I made the mistake – a common foible amongst new mothers – of talking endlessly about Jellybird. Over the next eight years – which included the birth of a brother and sister for Emily – my long suffering friends, family and considerate acquaintances enquired after Jellybird’s health and progress. Their polite enthusiasm was excruciating.

When my youngest daughter started nursery last year, I rounded on that manuscript. Paring and carving – whole scenes, characters, and plot lines falling away like whittled wood – until it became recognisably book-shaped. Then I sent it to a literary consultancy and promised myself I would read their report once before hiding the entire thing in a drawer and forgetting it for six months. What I hadn’t expected was the rush of renewed fervour I would experience on receiving a positive report.

Time accelerated. Within three months, the literary consultancy had introduced me to my agent. My agent then found a publisher. After those nine long years, the ‘actually happening’ of it all has left me reeling.

I’ve learnt my lesson about discipline and structure, too. My second book (unlike my second child – a red-head Viking of a boy) is maturing in a calm, controlled manner. It sticks to predetermined paths, allowing for the odd distraction enroute.

And what joy to finally have news for my long-suffering friends and family.