I'm a bit knackered, so I don't know if any of this makes sense. But here goes.
When I was very little I wanted to be a vet. I loved lambs in particular, kittens and ducklings. My rationale to become a vet was that I liked to cup these creatures in my hand, to keep them safe and warm, to feed them and listen to their quirky cheeps. In reality, it was Aslan and Mr. Tumnus, Ratty and Mole, and Mathias from Redwall that I loved. Those animals in my hands and the ones in my head had made a seamless connection, animated by the power of being read to, and reading on my own.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actress. As an adult, in between office jobs, I managed, in part, to fulfil that dream. I took such pleasure in it; it would be disingenuous to deny that a crowd laughing at your comedy is one of the greatest highs ever to be experienced. But the other side – scrimping for auditions, repetitious office work – wasn’t as freeing and fun as once it had been – when I was twenty-one and never going to age.
And yet. This is no sob story, as by now you know.
Nope, I didn’t go to a ‘posh’ school, and no, my dad didn’t sort me out with an internship at a publisher, and I never had a trust fund, and I’ve been working for my own money since I was 16 (shout out WH Smith and The Body Shop) – but none of these truths can be turned into ‘girl done good’ stories.
It has been my right, my privilege and my luck to write this novel.
I am lucky that I could entertain thoughts of being a vet or an actress at all. In fact, I am privileged from all corners – I am white, straight and cis, so have never experienced racial, sexuality or gender-based discrimination or abuse. I am educated to the hilt, at the state’s expense. Yep, I have had my fair share of street harassment and male condescension, but within my inner life I am in health, financially capable, and from a family and group of friends who have always held up a glowing yet measured portrait of me, reflecting back a constant message that I had a right to try and achieve whatever I wanted.
This cheerleading didn’t mean I’d actually achieve those dreams, of course – and the difference is important here: the mentors I had never told me that I would automatically be whatever I wanted to be, or have whatever I wanted to have, simply from my sheer act of desire. That would be poison in the ear to any child, lazy thinking, leading to mortified disappointment and therapist’s fees. No. I repeat: they taught me, as society and TV and novels taught me – that it was my right, as Jessica Burton, aged 12 and white and able-bodied and not suffering any bullying, to go out and have a go. And they would be waiting, ready to catch me when I inevitably fell.
Not everyone hears that message down the years; have a go, try your luck! Some people face profound adversity, and have no choice but to make that message themselves. Their decision to do this is far more admirable than anything I have achieved this year. I know this sounds a bit pious, but shit, according to my Top Trumps card, I should have written ten bestsellers by now – and I went to a comprehensive! A boarding school attendee should have written ONE HUNDRED bestselling novels. This is reductive and binary, and I am being flip – but I do wonder why people congratulate themselves for getting some job or promotion when they have been socioeconomically advantaged in every way over everyone else in their society from the very off…
This group exists in a protective cocoon, it likes to think it made its journey on its own, that it has earned its glories entirely itself, and that good fortune is a moral justice. This is reductive and untrue. We do not exist independently of other people. For most of us, there has usually been a whole, often intangible network that has kept us at our dreams, whilst even barring others from theirs.
We play our part, of course, we dreamers who work hard – but who first handed us the script? Who suggested that we take the lead? Who keeps us going when we want to quit? You think it’s you, but ‘you’ don’t even exist. ‘You’ are the fragments of everyone and everything you’ve ever known and seen – both real and fictional – both the villains in your life and the wondrous queens.
Yes, you work hard, but what the hell else is there to do, when no one is going to do it for you? And alas, working at something does not mean you will be rewarded in the way you thought you would be. But this does not mean that when you do find reward, you should think it was only because of your hard work. You also got lucky. The world is enormous and brimming with misfortune. We should not be ashamed of luck. We should try and pass it on. I intend to do so in 2015.
A novice in these things, once my novel was published, I thought my job would be done. Such an uphill climb it had been to get to that point, I was unaware that this was merely the beginning. Over seventy events later, talking about the book, I can tell you that the view is astounding.
I get asked a lot – ‘how does it feel?’ – the no.1 Sunday Times slot – twice now, once in the summer and then we managed to take Christmas no.1! – the top ten for over two months, over 140,000 copies sold in the UK, holding my own against astonishing big-hitters, the National Book Awards New Writer of the Year and then Book of the Year, and finally Waterstones Book of 2014 – and I often find myself responding with clichés. Amazing, wonderful, incredible. Life-changing. The last phrase is nothing more than a sleeve, brushing my hand in the dark.
Here is the best description I can give of what I will take from the last year: I am glad, looking back now, that I did not set the West End alight with my Ophelia, my Stella, my Perdita. In fact, failure was the greatest gift I gave myself. It encouraged me to think harder. Many people have helped set me on the path I find myself today – and I am grateful to each and every one – for the chances withheld as much as given.
Let me stop now, and remember how melancholy the fate of Humpty Dumpty used to make me as a child. (Yep, just re-read that, and I’m keeping it in. Last day of the year and everything.) I hope that life is long, but I picture Humpty, a fragile vulnerable egg, just sitting on his wall because he bloody wanted to. That’s all he wanted, his shining happy eyes! And then he fell, and no one could put him back together. No one. Not all the king’s soldiers could let him have another chance. This is a very serious, very awful thing.
I have been put back together, several times, and though it’s inevitably been a bodge job, as we are all bodge jobs, and we will never be as innocent as once we were – at least I was allowed to crawl back onto that wall.
Gratitude can sound cloying, so here I am, talking about fictional eggs. They are gargantuan, the gifts of this year, and my words will not be enough. Thank you, Juliet Mushens and Sasha Raskin, my wonderful agents, for all the hard work and laughter. Thank you, Francesca Main and Lee Boudreaux for the extraordinary editorial care. Thank you, Sandra Taylor, for an astonishing publicity campaign that you executed to perfection over months and months. Thank you, Sam Eades, for grabbing the tiller of The Good Ship Min and making the last few weeks so enjoyable, with more to come! Thank you Jodie Mullish, Catriona Row, Lauren Welch, Paul Baggaley and everyone else at Picador, especially the design team who have now come up with 7 iterations of The Miniaturist, each one more beautiful than the last. Thank you to all the incredible hand-selling booksellers around the country who gave my book so many legs-up I can't even count them anymore. You are all brilliant. And thank you most of all to you, the reader: for those who didn't like the book, I'm sorry, and there are lots of other books for you to read. For those who did, THANK YOU for taking the time, for sharing your pleasure, both with me, and with other readers. I am privileged to have you, and I am so grateful – you will just never know quite how much.
All that remains is to thank god for my early failures, eggshell egos, false starts and people telling me that I had a right to try. As Beckett said, Fail Better. It is a privilege, to try and to fail, to turn up and be lucky.
A Sparkling and Happy New Year, to you all. If you’re careful on those brick walls, the views are excellent.