Clare Mackintosh: The missing link

A literary festival is a chance to leave the house!

A literary festival is a chance to leave the house! - Credit: Archant

A literary festival is a chance to leave the house! To wear proper clothes! To stay in a hotel with no children, and the freedom to sleep diagonally across a king-size bed!

In the last few years my working life has changed beyond all recognition. Then my commute was an hour each way, sitting in traffic watching middle-aged men in Lycra zip past me on bikes worth more than my car. My commute meant Radio Two, phone calls from work (I’ll be there in 10 minutes, I promise) and texts from the nanny (I’ll be there in 10 minutes, I promise). It meant stress and guilt as ambition and motherhood colided; balls in the air; apologies; regrets.

Fast forward five years and my commute takes me upstairs; a mug of tea in one hand and a basket of clean laundry balanced on my hip. Sometimes half nine, sometimes half ten; after a school assembly, a harvest festival, sports day races. Children at school, or – on a sick day – curled up in a duvet in my office, a just-in-case bucket by their side. Work life balance in action, right there.

Back then my uniform was stiff and unyielding; scratchy black trousers beneath a cheap white shirt, clip on tie and epaulettes denoting my rank. Ma’am at work, mum at home. Nowadays only the school run forces me out of my pyjamas, and even then I’m likely to default to baggy trackpants, all too reminiscent of nightwear, if the postman’s expression is anything to go by

Today’s working hours are 10 till four, with the occasional late night panic when an article’s due. No more 50-hour weeks; 12-hour days; shifts that should finish at six but go on till midnight, falling into bed too tired even to brush your teeth. Life is better now. I like the absence of appraisals, the autonomy of workload, the freedom to sack work for the afternoon and go down the pub. There’s just one thing I miss; people.

I won’t pretend I liked every one of my former colleagues, who does? But that in itself introduces a note of variety to one’s day: going the long way to the canteen to avoid another of Reg’s caravanning stories, or listening to gossip from the Superintendent’s secretary whilst formulating an escape strategy added much needed colour to a day of bureaucracy and rank. Colour that is sadly lacking from my freelance life: last week I caught myself hankering for a tale from Reg about his chemical toilet.

A desire for these ‘watercooler moments’ is why so many writers find themselves on Twitter, where they can hop onto a conversation and show off their sparkling repartee - whether invited or otherwise. Social media gives we work-from-homers the interaction we crave, however anti-social we pretend to be on the surface. Most writers I know are a strange mix of introvert and extrovert; garrulous when in company, but equally keen to slink away and write uninterrupted.

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The highlights of my working life are the literary festivals that pepper my diary. You might be forgiven for thinking that lit fests exist solely to entertain their audiences, but for the author that is a secondary consideration. A chance to leave the house! To wear proper clothes! To stay in a hotel, with no children, and the freedom to sleep diagonally across a kingsize bed! Literary festivals are of course work for an author, but they have more than a whiff of the office party about them (minus the arse-photocopying, as far as I’m aware).

The four days I spent at Theakstons Old Peculier crime-writing festival earlier this year resulted in some useful networking, excellent booksales, a barrel-load of laughs and the sort of hangover that demands a full week’s recovery. It’s not all hedonism: there are many more sedate affairs, often closer to home. I had a lovely (and not at all debauched) time at Burford festival, and toured Oxfordshire libraries without mishap throughout the summer.

This month I’ll be speaking at Cheltenham, with the promise of Guildford and the Isle of Wight around the corner. These excursions are the icing on the top of what is already a very enjoyable cake, forcing me out of my office to meet people. Real people, not just the ones in my computer feeding me tweet-sized commentary and pictures of cats.

In bookshops and at festivals I can catch up with friends, chat to other authors and get my fill of gossip before retreating to my writing cave, clad in holey trackpants and with hair resembling the wild woman of Borneo. It’s a far cry from my old working life, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

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