It's probably best to get the big confession over and done with straight away: writing books isn't really my idea of fun. To borrow a quote from Dorothy Parker, I hate writing, but love having written, especially when readers say I've made them laugh. I quite like editing, too, but as for the first part, when it's just me and a blank document on my computer - well, that bit's terrifying. It's also when I always develop a passion for spring cleaning and any other form of displacement activity that I can think of.
Being a published novelist is very different to how I imagined it would be when I decided I wanted to be one at the age of eight. I thought writers had fully-formed stories in their heads, and all they had to do was to calmly sit at a desk and type them up, in a quiet room that always - always - had a view of the sea. God knows where I got any of that nonsense from, but none of it's proved even remotely accurate so far. My writing life tends to involve sitting at my desk and staring hopelessly at a blank screen, while frantically racking my brain for a good idea. (Usually to the accompaniment of both my next-door neighbours hammering.) The lack of a sea view's the biggest disappointment, though. Looking out across the pub car park opposite my house doesn't have quite the same effect.
I started out as a blogger, writing a blog called "Mid-Wife Crisis" under the pseudonym of the main character, Molly Bennett. It was an experiment to see if I could write something people might actually want to read, but I didn't expect it to take off the way it did. In its first year, the blog was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, and then I got a literary agent and a book deal with HarperCollins. My first novel, Diary of an Unsmug Married, was based upon that blog, and I came to love the characters in it so much, I'm planning to write a sequel at some point.
My latest book is called Would Like to Meet, and I had the idea for it after talking with friends who'd split up from their long-term partners and who were struggling to find themselves after spending so many years as one half of a couple. One of the things they mentioned was how hard it was to stop themselves from stalking their exes on social media whenever they'd had a few drinks or were feeling particularly miserable - and that got me thinking about how it must feel to come across your ex-husband's profile on a dating site, and what you'd do about it if you did.
I'm not a very organised writer. (I'm not very organised at anything, if truth be told.) I love stationery and buy tons of notebooks, only to get totally outfaced by their super-shiny newness. Surely I should wait for something worthy of being written down before defacing a clean, blank page in a brand-new notebook? Obviously, the answer to that should be "no", but I'm one of those people who never learns. When an idea strikes - usually in the middle of the night, or while I'm eating dinner - I write it down on the first thing that comes to hand, rather than "ruin" the first page of a notebook. As a result, I end up with hundreds of barely-legible notes scrawled on the backs of envelopes and receipts, or across important documents. When I'm finally ready to start writing a book, my first task is to unearth all these notes from wherever I've buried them, and then to organise them into something more coherent than a pile of random bits of paper - and that usually takes hours, if not days. (The second task is to reply to all the urgent letters I ignored by accident, because I'd written notes on the back of their unopened envelopes, then "filed" them either in a heap, or somewhere out of sight.)
I can't write a thing until I've got the names of my characters right, so first I rule out the names of anyone I don't like in real life - unless I want readers to hate a character, in which case I might be tempted to give them the name of someone real that I can't stand! Then I look at baby naming websites and books, and choose several possible names for each individual character, and after that, it's on to the really obsessive part. I've got a thing about making sure my characters' names are all age- and background-appropriate, so once I've chosen a number of potential options, I then check all of them against lists of baby names by country, gender and year of birth to make sure that I don't give a fifty-year-old character a name that was only in common use decades before or after he or she was "born", or a name that's usually only ever associated with a particular social class. Choosing my children's names was a doddle in comparison to this long-winded rigmarole, but although I did follow my usual bonkers process when I chose the first name of the heroine of Would Like to Meet, I completely ignored it when I chose her surname. She's called Hannah Pinkman and, although Hannah meets all my freakishly-anal naming criteria, Pinkman is just my homage to Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. (Another of my obsessions. Now I'm probably starting to sound quite mad.)
I start working on a new book by writing a short opening chapter, but the next thing I write is always the ending. I think that's because I find it hard to work out what's going to happen in the story until I know how it's going to end. It's a bit illogical, because it's the opposite of the way I behave as a reader, as I wouldn't dream of flicking to the back of someone else's novel to find out how that ends, but it might also have something to do with the fact that endings are my favourite things to write. Once I've written one, it usually stays pretty much unchanged throughout the editing process, though I do make lots of changes to other parts of the book at that point, and I also tend to scrap the original beginning and write a new version (or two, or three) before I finally decide the book is finished. I think the reason for this bizarre way of working is probably because I'm a weird hybrid of two different kinds of writer: the planners, and the ones who fly by the seat of their pants. While I like to have my main characters clear in my mind, and to know where their story's going to begin and end, I usually only have a very vague idea of what's going to happen in between, until the characters lead me to it. The result is a ridiculous numbers of drafts - which all get edited numerous times - so I'd be a much more prolific writer if I wasn't so hopeless at the planning part.
I live almost completely in my head when I'm writing, which makes life a bit of a challenge for family and friends. They're all quite used to me drifting into a room looking distracted, making a cup of tea while shaking my head to discourage conversation, and then wafting out again - usually still in my dressing gown at 8pm, and having forgotten to brush my hair for the last ten days. I honestly have no idea how any of them put up with me, though I'm relieved they do.
My husband hasn't read any of my books all the way through. He did read the first few chapters of Diary of an Unsmug Married, but became so paranoid that readers might think the character of Molly's husband was based on him, he couldn't face reading the rest. (He was right to be a tiny bit paranoid, but I don't mention that!) He makes up for this apparent lack of interest in my work by the amount of time he spends patiently listening to me wittering on about certain characters as if they were real people - and by answering endless questions about what they might do or say in any given situation. His insights are particularly useful when it comes to working out how a male character might react to something, and he helped a lot with the writing of Would Like to Meet, especially by pointing out how men and women often have totally-different interpretations of the same situations, and of what they mean by the things they say.
Finally, to return to my childhood preconceptions about being a novelist, I should probably mention another of my half-soaked theories that now seems even more ridiculous than my sea view fantasy. I believed that, once you were a published author, you'd be famous and people would still remember your name long after you were dead and buried. This theory was proved totally misguided last Christmas, during a game of "Five Second Rule" with my closest relatives. When they were asked to answer the question: "Name five authors", not one person said "Polly James". Not even one.