During my creative-writing classes, mixed in with the prosaic and the pedantic (“kill all the adverbs,” “write at least as long as you read, read at least as long as you watch TV”), there’s one piece of advice that inevitably results in a roomful of confused expressions among my students: “Savour being unknown: these might be the happiest writing days of your life.” It’s one of the most valuable pieces of advice I can give, and it comes out of hard-won experience.
Writing Before I Wake, my first novel, was a sheer joy – a blur of solitary early mornings and a steadily growing stack of pages. I wasn’t writing for anyone, and I honestly didn’t think the book had a chance of getting published. I was writing simply for the sake of writing. The first draft of Before I Wake was done in just over three months. It took me more than two years to draft Bedtime Story, my next novel. Two painful, unpleasant, stressful years. What had changed?
I had been published. And not only had Before I Wake gone on to have a certain amount of success, but it had landed me a two-book contract. I was living the dream.
But sitting down to write the second novel, I was no longer alone. I had other voices in my head, expectations. Every piece of positive feedback made me doubt my ability to do it again. Every piece of negative feedback suggested I shouldn’t even bother trying. I felt like I was a charlatan, and that exposure was inevitable. If it was that bad for me after the limited success of Before I Wake, I wondered, what might it be like for a writer who was actually successful? What would it be like for, say, the most successful writer in the world?
That was the question I had when J.K. Rowling released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July, 2007. While everyone else was speculating about what she would do next, I was having sympathetic anxiety attacks: if you’ve just written the fastest-selling book of all time, a book that literally millions of readers were waiting for, what could you do next? There was no way anything Rowling wrote could sell as well, or be as well-received critically, or be as loved.
Rowling herself recognized this as a consequence of her success long before the release of Deathly Hallows. In a 2005 interview with Time magazine, she told Lev Grossman, “the first thing I write post-Harry could be absolutely dreadful, and, you know, people will buy it. So, you know, you’re left with this real insecurity.”
The publication last year of The Casual Vacancy seemed to bear this out. It wasn’t a dreadful book by any means, but the middling reviews revealed a critical bitterness, as if this was an opportunity to bring Rowling back down to earth. It sold well, but I haven’t heard anyone say they loved it. Even those readers who liked the book did so somewhat warily. Pretty much as Rowling had anticipated.
The publication of The Casual Vacancy also raised a question, at least among those who had been paying attention: What happened to the mystery? According to her friend, the writer Ian Rankin, a month or so after the publication of Deathly Hallows, Rowling – the first person to earn more than a billion dollars through writing and a devoted reader of mystery novels – was back in the Edinburgh cafes where the Potter series had gotten its start, working on a crime novel. So what happened to it?
We found out last weekend: It (or something like it) was published as The Cuckoo’s Calling this April, under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, allegedly a retired military detective with stories to tell. In the wake of the London Sunday Times’s revelation about the author’s true identity, and Rowling’s confession, we learned, among other things, that the book had sold less than 500 copies in the U.K., less than 1,500 copies in the U.S. (both respectable numbers for a debut novel from an unknown author), and that Rowling, as Galbraith, had shopped the novel around to a number of publishers and been rejected.
Stepping back, a picture begins to emerge: the world’s most successful writer returns to her roots and recreates herself as an unknown, letting the work be judged on its own merits rather than as an offshoot of her celebrity. If she had been feeling like an imposter, the positive reviews received by The Cuckoo’s Calling, and the fact that it sold respectably, but unremarkably, likely went some distance to grounding her: she wasn’t just J.K. Rowling, who could publish something “dreadful” and people would buy it; she was a real writer after all.
This perspective has been supported by other writers in the past few days, including Stephen King, who is thought to have adopted his Richard Bachman pseudonym in part to address his own questions about his writing and career. In an e-mail to USA Today this week, King wrote, “Jo is right about one big thing – what a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it. Now that I know, I can’t wait to read the book.”
The significance of The Cuckoo’s Calling becomes most clear, however, in the reading, and when it is held up against The Casual Vacancy.
The Cuckoo’s Calling doesn’t break new ground, but it doesn’t need to: it’s a solid, charming mystery, well-plotted, well-paced, with characters who reveal their depths and intricacies naturally and organically. Strike, the former military policeman turned down-on-his-luck private detective is the sort of protagonist a reader can easily imagine spending a lot of time with: flawed and complex, whose depths and complications this book – purportedly the first of a series – only begins to explore.
Most crucially, though, The Cuckoo’s Calling feels easy, unforced, natural. Reading it is a pleasure, and one imagines the writing of it was pleasurable as well. In contrast to this ease, the staginess, the deliberateness of The Casual Vacancy is thrown into sharp relief. It is a “bigger” book, a more “serious” book, a more “important” book – all of which comes across as deliberate, self-conscious.
The Casual Vacancy reads like Rowling was trying to prove herself, as if the voices in her head – from the critics to the uncritical Harry Potter devotees – were driving her to push for legitimacy, to demonstrate that there was life after Harry.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, in contrast, reads like Rowling doing what she does best: telling a story that only she can tell, in the way that only she can tell it.
That’s another piece of advice I give my writing students, and the evidence is right there on the page: regardless of whose name is on the spine, The Cuckoo’s Calling is Rowling all the way through.
Robert J. Wiersema’s next novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.