Giving birth to a book
Between everything else, I’ve spent the last two weeks putting the final touches to my Pompeii book which is coming out in September in the UK and in November in the States (dont be confused by the different titles -- it's the same book). I haven’t done this as often as some – but my experience is that however much time you leave for checking the proofs etc, it never feels quite enough. And, no matter how many times you’ve looked things up, there always seems to be more to be done.
Mostly, it is the ‘have I left the iron on?’ phenomenon. Although you are at some level quite confident that those references to Pliny are actually right, once you’ve raised that tiny doubt in your mind, all you can do is check them again. And, of course, just like with the iron (which I did once find burning away, after I’d driven back from work) , every now and then, there really is some howler waiting to be discovered.
My own particular Achilles heel is the town of Cnidus.
I know perfectly well that Cnidus is on a peninsula on the Turkish coast, and that it’s not an island. All the same, every time I have mentioned it in a book, I’ve always found at the last stage some phrase like ‘the island of Cnidus’. ..and caught it only just in time. It's just happened again.
How on earth does one make mistakes like that -- what self-destructive impulse is to blame -- when one really knows the right answer all along?
But it is not just the fact checking that causes the problems. At the final stages it’s like playing with a load of dominoes. One thing gets changed, and everything else gets thrown out of line. I only noticed today (though my sharp-eyed editor had spotted it yesterday) that we had ended up with two colour plates numbered ‘10’. So more that half the references in the text to ‘see Plate 11’ and so on were wrong…you were in danger of looking up what you thought would be a picture of a Pompeian grandee, only to find an image of a couple bonking. Don’t worry, it’s been sorted.
The plans are another nightmare. It’s terribly easy to get a scale printed next to the ground plan of a tiny house that makes it look as if it is as big as a decent sized palace. When you come to check it, you find that most people get around this nasty problem in the obvious way: they just don’t print a scale. I must have looked at a good half dozen books with plans of the Pompeian brothel before I found one with a scale to check against mine. (OK we might both be wrong….but short of flying out there with a tape measure, what else do you do at this stage?)
As for the index? You can’t win either way here. I moaned on this blog some time ago about how difficult it was compiling one – so I decided that for Pompeii, it should be outsourced to an expert at the trade. Big mistake, as it turned out. I don’t know what planet the indexer was on (or what was keeping their mind off the job), but when I saw one entry reading “Romans, the 35”, I collapsed. The whole damn book’s about the Romans for heaven’s sake. But again, don’t worry; that too is being really expertly fixed as I write.
So is it worth it? Were those 20 hour days I spent on the finishing touches at the weekend worth the exhaustion (and accompanying bad temper, and unfairness to the family)? Well – the truth is, it is worth it, and it was. It’s not just the drive to get things right…it is actually fun, despite everything, seeing what you’ve worked on turning into a book.
It wont be the same giving birth to a kindle.