the guardian Fri 03 October 2008
At some point during the summer of 2000, I had an idea of writing a novel about a love affair between a woman teacher and her teenaged pupil. The infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case had recently been in the US news, and a lot of things about that story had intrigued me - not least the amount of journalistic cant it inspired on the subject of female sexuality and "appropriate" sexual relationships. The line that I had in mind when I began writing - the motto for the book, in a way - was one of WH Auden's: "the desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews".
I made a number of false starts with the book - writing it from the teacher's point of view, from an omniscient, third-person perspective and so on - until, a couple of months in, it occurred to me to tell the story in the voice of Barbara, an older colleague and friend of the badly behaved teacher. Philip Roth once described novel-writing as a process of "problem-solving", and for me, the discovery of Barbara offered a solution to several problems all at once. It was a great "aha!" moment. I felt straight away that I knew Barbara inside out, that I "had" her voice. It was one of those rare instances in my writing life when I was positively eager to get to the computer and start work every day. Perhaps the most useful thing that Barbara gave me was a way of opening the book up and complicating things. Suddenly I had a new way of showing love's crooked ways, but I also had a weird, charismatic narrator, and a new range of Barbara-related subjects - childlessness, loneliness, old age - to write about.
One often hears critics praise particular novelists for being "in control" of their material - by which they mean, I suppose, that the novelists in question have marshalled their themes and characters and so on, in a confident, surefooted way. As a writer, though, I am wary of feeling too in control. If I know exactly what I'm doing and what a book is "saying" at any given moment, the chances are the thing I'm writing will be dead on the page. Ideally, I want to feel as if I'm overseeing a big, unruly classroom and only just managing to keep order.
It took me two years to finish Notes - I am a pathetically slow writer - and during that time, I showed it to no one but my husband. When I finally sent it out to publishers, I received what is politely known as a "mixed" response. My loyal editor at Viking, Juliet Annan, made an offer on it, but seven or eight publishers in the US rejected it. And I received an awful reader's report from somewhere that ended with the heartbreaking line: "With a lot of work, this could be a quite interesting book - but only quite."
Many of the first readers objected to what they saw as Barbara's unmitigated unpleasantness. Several people expressed the view that "there was no one to like" in the book. I was then - and I remain - unsure how to answer these complaints. Part of me feels that I have failed if I have not managed to conjure any sympathy for my flawed, difficult characters. And part of me feels that the complaining readers are the ones at fault for bringing to fiction misplaced expectations of finding "nice people".
Happily, Notes went on to find a publisher in the US, although, rather maddeningly, it ended up being published under another title: What Was She Thinking? (I hated the idea of giving the book two different English-language titles, but the Americans were adamant that Notes on a Scandal sounded like a non-fiction book about the Clinton presidency.)
Looking back now on some of the early, unfavourable responses to the book, I suspect that they had a rather salutary effect on me. Having your work occasionally rejected - or poorly reviewed - is not a bad thing for a writer. Naturally, it's horrid at the time, but it does toughen you up. It also forces you to decide whether you're in the game for the long haul or not.