Someone came round to interview me the other day as part of a British Cohort Study of people born around April 11th 1970. Every now and then they ask me if I’m still alive and, if so, what I vote, how much I drink (oh God) and if my children are healthy.
This time the nice Zimbabwean man asked me a lot of apparently class-related questions about when I last went to the theatre (Sunday to Richard III at The Globe – wonderful) an art gallery (also Sunday, Damian Hirst – whatever) and how often I eat ready meals (never). I had to fill in a multiple choice about how comfortably off I feel and I ticked the ‘very’ box.
I was sitting on some kind of antique chair in a cottage we’ve just rented in Hampstead Garden Suburb. A black Labrador sat on my feet. He was wearing his beaded collar with his name and logo on it (Marmite), made on a Kenyan beach at a friend’s commission. Radio 4 was bickering away in the kitchen and the cafetiere was simmering on the stove. I poured it into mugs I picked up on a recent trip to Baku and the interviewer spotted books I’ve written myself on the shelves. Things don’t get more comfortable than that.
But I feel sick with fear. I lost my job last year (well, I left but I’d have been sacked if I hadn’t so it’s the same thing) and assumed something would turn up. It always has before. A book deal, a great job, a film from a book deal, a series of articles on God knows what. And it’s true that some things have turned up. I’ve written a lot of pieces I found fascinating to research for some of the most prestigious and well-read publications in the world, all of whom pay almost nothing because they’re doing you the favour of sharing in their branding – they know it, we know it. I’ve been to meetings where people ask me to contribute to their colossally well-subscribed blogs – for free.
I once got a five book publishing deal for a series of thrillers. A deal lavish enough to allow me to buy a big house and live in it for five years before worrying about ANYthing. Recently, I agreed to write a book for nothing in the hope that, once published, it might do well by ‘word of mouth’, a publishing phrase that means ‘we’re not investing in sales, marketing or publicity’. My agent isn’t returning my calls. Times have changed in publishing, in journalism, in life, apparently. Commercial fiction doesn’t sell. Literary fiction doesn’t sell. Porn? Well, it’s not what it was…
Of course, these are enviable woes and I am not suggesting (God forbid…) that any of this is worthy of sympathy – it’s all my fault. When I have money I spend it on fun stuff until it’s finished. I learnt this kind of ‘we might die tomorrow’ attitude from my father and from living in Russia. The thing is, I have never managed to put a plan together for if I don’t. All extremely silly, but I suspect it is a strangely common phenomenon – living well in abject terror. A tightening in the stomach and throat, a tremor of apprehension at the till.
My card failed to clear in the supermarket yesterday and my mobile phone bill isn’t paid. I have £6.89 in my account. I’m owed some money by various magazines (one of which claims that problems in Iran mean it may never pay me for about $10,000 of work) but I get chirpy emails saying ‘I must chase that up’ from people who can’t imagine that I need the money to buy food. Part of the culture of all this is that writers all pretend we’re kind of writing for fun – just because it’s better than sitting on our arses having our nails done. I could go for a massage or maybe I’ll write a little thing about hanging out the washing…Nobody dares admit they’re desperate – it’s career suicide. Except…what career?
I met someone at a pub in London Fields the other day (just dropping off a birthday present – clearly I am 20 years too old even to go to the area) who told me I should hang out with more losers. ‘Since I moved here from Highgate I feel much more relaxed. Most people are writing and hoping for a hit and there’s less pressure to be immediately stratospherically successful,’ he said. He is writing a new comedy for a huge American network. So, perhaps, I should hang out with people who pretend to be losers? Tricky. Especially for those of us who have perhaps (oh, let’s face it, we have) already peaked.
The trouble is that the feeling of terror isn’t conducive to doing what work there is or hustling for what work there might be. The big-paying features people just want crap from women writers – stuff about how we look, how much we hate each other, how much we need a man, stuff I’ve written so many times (to my shame) that I couldn’t keep the tone of frivolous snidery up even if someone wanted me to.
I have no idea how I’m going to pay the bills that are stacking up everywhere and that I’m too scared to open. This isn’t an exaggeration. I have hidden the scariest looking ones, which is absurd because I know what they are, who they are from and how much I owe. I just can’t pay them at the moment.
I want to tell my shrink about it (since it is a kind of madness as well as a real bank statement issue of general redness) but I can’t afford him any more. Bourgeois angst extraordinaire.
So, I ticked the ‘very comfortable’ box as I knew I must. The magazines will pay up, perhaps something will change. But the shivering horror that keeps me up all night and has me chewing my lip and fingers all day is that perhaps this time it won’t. (Not) Very Comfortable.