How does a book begin? I suppose all writers have different ways of approaching a new project, just like all writers have different ways of working or researching or thinking. In the last month I’ve been embarking on a new book due to be published by Simon and Schuster in Spring 2021. It’s called Kicking at the Door of Fame and is a look at the social rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. It explores their stories and their lives and attempts to revise some of the lazy stereotypes that have become attached to both of them over the years. It looks at their friendship, mutual respect, and rivalry. It places them in their historical and cultural moment – and the legacy that endures.
The first stage for me in any new project involves writing and walking. My dog George is essential for this stage (actually he’s essential for every stage) but he’s enthusiastic for long walks while the initial thinking takes place. I live on the coast so I go to the beach twice a day. There is something about the sea, the sand, and the shingle that helps order my thoughts for the day. George swims while I think.
If it’s rainy and windy I grumble, but it still makes me feel better. Then I get home, make a pot of tea, and head to my writing shed. On cold days I have the heater and fairy pom-pom lights on; warm days I open the door onto a small paved area with a cherry tree and potted plants. My desk is big enough for a laptop, piles of books, and notebooks. My wifi stretches to the shed so I can email and organise archive visits, look at finding aid catalogues, and make lists. I eat a lot of crisps and George often lies with his head on my feet.
In these early days, often it looks as though I have done very little, since most of the work is going on internally. I just think and think. But any project I work on begins and ends with the sea. Plath spoke about the sea always being with her in some way, either physically or as a sea of consciousness, and this resonates. There’s something a little bit suffocating to me about not being by the sea. I love the smell of brine and mudflats. I love the sea-mist that rolls in while the buoys clank. I love the sound of seagulls and skylarks. The sand dunes are full of beach-roses, butterflies, caterpillars, and small purple flowers. Little whorly snails with stripy shells are hidden among the sea-grasses. The gorse is pungent and on hot days, it steams. The ponds jump with natterjack toads and tadpoles.
After a day thinking and note-taking, I go back to the beach. Sometimes I watch the sun go down turning the sand orange. The moon comes out. The sky is always big. George and I sit on the stones. The tide comes and goes.