Writing routines: what journalist turned author Susie Steiner can't live without
PUBLISHED: 09:30 25 December 2016
Susie Steiner is an author and former editor of the Guardian's Weekend magazine. Her first novel Homecoming, was published in 2013. Her second, Missing, Presumed, is a crime novel and has sold over 100,000 copies since it was published in February. She lives in West Hampstead with her husband Tom and her sons George and Ben.
The Matt cartoon was a wedding present. It’s dated July 1 2006, which is the date of our wedding, which was also the date of the world cup final match between England and Portugal. Almost all of our guests wanted to watch the football. Rather than fight it we took a portable telly along and installed it in the side room of Burgh House in Hampstead, where we got married, so that everyone could watch the match.
Once England had lost the party could begin! The cartoon was a wedding present from Nick Garland who was a cartoonist at the telegraph and friends with Matt, and the joke is the priest saying, “If anyone here present knows the result of the England match let them now speak.”
My husband and I met at the Guardian, Tom was political editor on the website and I was the lifestyle editor on the weekend magazine. We’ve been together thirteen years.
Tom has huge input in my books. I talk to him about everything and he reads draft after draft.
Our sons George and Ben came along very quickly after we married. They’re completely delightful. They’re now 9 and 7 and go to Emmanuel School in West Hampstead. They really love school, which is lovely to see.
They’re typical boys, the little one is obsessed with Pokemon and the older one is a great reader. This summer he came to a literary festival with me and was really into it. He took part in a Bronte debate about who is the best Bronte sister. He loves Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, and all the David Walliams books.
I went back to work after Ben that I thought “I’ve had my children, what do I do now?” I think a lot of women face this when you’ve had your children and your career takes centre stage again. That was when I took six months unpaid leave to do a serious rewrite of my first novel.
I found I became far more creative after having children. Your time is circumscribed. You can’t procrastinate to anything like the degree you could before. You just become incredibly efficient because all of your time to yourself has been swept away, so when you begin to get it back incrementally you become very good with it.
I keep a notebook with me at all times. I’m a stationary addict. West End Lane books have the best selection of beautiful notebooks. I keep one in my handbag so if I’m at the school gates and I think of a line I can jot it down. I keep it by the bed because when I’m falling asleep is often the time when plot resolutions come to me. Something will unknot itself.
I’m very disciplined about work. I write every day for short amounts of time. I’m usually upstairs at my desk by half past nine and I stop between one and two. The daily-ness is what matters; it’s being in contact with it all the time that keeps the work alive in your mind. Your mind is doing it even when your trogging up the hill from school or waiting in the hairdressers. It fingers it like a pebble in your pocket.
Homecoming took ten years to write. The first draft and the finished book don’t bear any relationship to each other though, so you could say there are several abandoned novels inside Homecoming. If you work on a novel for that long you change. You have new experiences, your thoughts adjust. It had to be re-written, it couldn’t be the novel I’d started writing at the age of 29.
I wanted to write novels since I was a teenager. I took a year off between school and university and I took Victorian novels backpacking. Those are the novels that made me want to write. I found a lot of passion in those novels that spoke to me at that age.
With novels you’re always fighting the last war. The thing I felt I hadn’t learnt with Homecoming was plot drivers. Getting all the action out of the traps right from the get go. I was so concerned with that that Missing Presumed is like a firebolt. It started so fast I almost couldn’t control it. But then it lost it’s way a bit – it has a mushy middle. There will be no mushy middle in my third book! This novel has a very active middle, but I’ll have to wait and see what’s wrong with it so I can fix it in my next book.
I read the reviews. Nobody should, but all authors do. They bad ones are really depressing. They’re very kneejerk. There was one on Amazon that gave me one star because it was written in the present tense, as if that is unconscionable!
I drink way too many Tassimo coffees a day. At one point I had to go to the doctor because my heart rate was jumping and it turned out to be the coffee. I’m four years in to being a full time stay at home writer and it’s not doing my health any good.
It’s lovely taking a cup of coffee up to the attic and putting the fan heater on my feet and powering up the Mac. That is a true moment of happiness.
God, I don’t miss being in an office at all. Communal offices can go do one! There is nothing I hate more than open plan offices. I worked in them for twenty years and I’ve never functioned well in them. I’m not especially shy or awkward but I’m not an extrovert. I don’t wish to be my public self for eight hours a day. It’s completely exhausting and I don’t think it’s natural for lots of people.
Now I absolutely love being able to sit by myself for hours and hours with my coffees.
I’m extremely happy on my own. I wouldn’t be if I didn’t have a family coming home at three in the afternoon. If my aloneness went on in to the evening and bled into the next day I’d start to struggle with it, but because there’s a lot of noise and brouhaha around my time alone I savour it. It’s my comfortable place.