The Highs and Lows of Writing a Book: By Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh tells it like it really is: from falling in love with your subject to the long, hard (yet fascinating) slog of actually writing a book. He talks about the reality of shutting yourself away in a room of your own, the need to finance the book with other work (even with the benefit of a big advance), and the creeping fear involved in publishing a book in a market that seems to be dwindling as you write.
‘So, what are you working on?’
‘My book, The Office.’
This is a memoir about writing – about how deeply you can grow to detest it. From a purveyor of nonfiction, this might come as a surprise. It’s the novelists and the poets with the inner lives and the psychic wounds, right? We’re meant to pursue writing as an exercise of the rational intellect, except perhaps a permissible enthusiasm for our subjects. It’s partly such assumptions that compel my describing the emotional trajectory I took in compiling my latest book, The Office.
What would you expect to be paid for three years of your time? Here is a disjunction in Australian publishing: the most enthusiastic and imaginative publishers are the ones with no money; caution grows with size. One independent publisher whom I really liked and who immediately twigged to the book’s possibilities offered $5000. From the bigger end of town, meanwhile, I can summarise the response as: ‘We like your work but, you know, what we’d really like is to publish a big book by Gideon Haigh.’
This expression I heard again and again, a big book being either one written by Peter FitzSimons, or one concerning an already overexposed athlete, media proprietor or warrior. The Office was huge, but it was not big: it featured no well-known celebrity or public figure, and it was nobody’s idea of fun. ‘I spend most of my time trying to get out of the office!’ joked one publisher. ‘God, that’s funny,’ I said.
I could not point to a personal track record of commercial success – quite the contrary. I could not point to a similar book that had succeeded – which always makes publishers feel better. Worst of all, perhaps, I was proposing a book that was not particularly Australian – the kind of book that multinational publishers rely on from their parent companies. Australian non-fiction authors are meant to interpret Australia, or at least guarantee a decidedly Australian angle. The Office was always a long-distance romance. I had not understood the taboos until I tried to breach them.
To boil it down, a field of about 15 publishers with whom I shared the idea steadily shrank to two who could make a business case in the hope of a foreign-rights sale – in other words, selling it abroad, coals to Newcastle. I settled on Melbourne University Publishing – whose commissioning editor, Foong Ling Kong, I knew, liked and respected – and it proved a good choice. MUP offered by far the largest advance I had ever accepted, and arguably far more than I deserved given my prior sales, the state of the economy, and the uncertainties besetting the publishing industry. It was also, when spaced over three years, less than two-thirds the minimum wage, and after the expenditure of approximately a third on various research activities, it would work out to an hourly rate of … Well, if you ever did those sums you’d find a vocation more lucrative, like holding stop signs near roadworks.
That’s okay, by the way: they are the rules, and have been for the 25 years since I first became a published author. I’m luckier than most in being able to turn my hand to newspaper and magazine journalism to subsidise my writing of books. But I do so of necessity: it’s the equivalent of taking in washing or waiting tables, done for continuity of cash flow. Let’s just say I had a few needs. In the year after signing my contract, I squeezed in three experiences that sit high in the rankings of those regarded as life-altering: I wed Charlotte, became a parent to Cecilia, and abandoned the closest thing I had to a job, my role as a regular contributor to The Monthly, because of its scurvy treatment of then editor Sally Warhaft. I had, in short, halved my income while multiplying my responsibilities.
I partly remedied the former by accepting offers to cover the 2009 Ashes series in England from Business Spectator and The Times. Charlotte and I had always intended making this a form of honeymoon, then visiting Europe and the United States on the way home as a kind of field trip, taking in places of historic office interest. We ended up doing so during Charlotte’s second trimester, which made it all the more bonding an experience. Otherwise, we economised. We took no more holidays. We bought no gifts. We drove a bomb. We made do and mended. My only breaks would be to report the Test matches of the 2010–11 and 2011–12 summers; Charlotte had none. She had married a man already in a torrid relationship with his book.