Hello, friends. I’ve been hard at work on the UK page proofs of The Agency: The Traitor and the Tunnel, and had a scalp-crinkling moment yesterday. (Scalp-crinkling for a novelist, I hasten to add; not so much for, say, an ER doc or a firefighter. Yes, Writerly Melodrama R Us.)
On the very first page of the prologue, I describe “a leathery stick of a man rolled in shreds of rotting cloth”. It’s a strong image, but yesterday it finally hit me: I pinched it from W. B. Yeats! In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats writes, “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick”. Ahem. Yeats said it better than I. But my point is, I know that poem well. I’ve even taught it to undergraduates. So how could I slide it into my own manuscript without instantly recognizing it?
Part of it is the intensity of the writing process. I wrote the prologue quite late in the timeline, when I was feverish with words and ideas and images and time pressure. (This was in June 2010.) Then I edited it for clarity, continuity, consistency – but clearly not a readerly eye.
My two editors (one at Candlewick Press, one at Walker Books) read it (July 2010) but probably assumed I knew what I’d done. It then passed the scrutiny of a copy editor, as well (August 2010). There were a few more editorial queries about the ms in November 2010, but I haven’t looked at it since. It’s only in this last pass that I’ve had the leisure to read the book as a relative stranger – critically, even somewhat dispassionately. As someone who literally hasn’t looked at the book for 4 months.
And that’s the infuriating, miraculous, transformative nature of page proofs. I read them differently for a few reasons: because of the time lapse. Because the page layout is set up as it will be in the final book, so things look official. Because in a different font, the words seem less like mine. There are moments of recognition, of course – occasional pride in a bit of dialogue, but more often shame at a clunky phrase or word repetition. I’m so glad to have this last chance to fix things, every single time. I also try not to dwell on the errors that will, inevitably, escape me.
As for my Yeatsian image, I haven’t decided what to do about it yet. I’m all for self-conscious homage. In past books, I’ve included jokes about Mary Wollstonecraft and Sherlock Holmes, and quoted Dorothy L. Sayers, among other things.
But this one? Not sure. I’m very glad I caught it, but still feel startled that it took me so long to do so. So I’ll sit on it for now, work through the remaining pages, and see what I think tomorrow or the next day. Maybe a few days of self-consciousness will transform it from theft to homage. Or maybe not. 🙂