Word for Word: the second-novel slump

Marie Phillips was crippled by anxiety about her second book and thought she would never write again

Author Marie Philips

Author Marie Philips


If there’s a downside to writing a well-received first book, it’s the pressure of producing a second. Marie Phillips’s first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, a brilliantly witty story of ancient Greek gods living in grubby 21st-century London, was a critical and commercial hit in 2007.

But when she tried to write a second book, Phillips (right) found herself almost paralysed by nerves. “It was the most difficult thing I’d ever done,” she says.

“I had so many false starts, my computer is like an elephant’s graveyard for half-finished novels. I put myself under so much pressure. Not only did I need to write a second book – it had to be better than the first.

“I was completely crippled by anxiety . . . First I couldn’t write, then I couldn’t eat. I had to spend some time in hospital. There was a point at which I thought I would never write again.”

Other authors will relate to this. When I was writing my first book I was more concerned with just finishing it than what readers would think. But when I came to wrote my second I was painfully aware that people were waiting for it, and the thought terrified me.

I eventually got through the fear thanks to many head-clearing walks. Phillips’s breakthrough came when she tried working on something completely different, collaborating with Robert Hudson on what became the BBC Radio 4 comedy Warhorses of Letters, starring Stephen Fry.

“When we sold it to the BBC I realised how hard I had been on myself and that this was something I knew how to do,” she says. “But it wasn’t only the success of Warhorses that gave me confidence; it was also the sheer joy of writing it. I had found my voice again.”

She began writing a new novel, The Table of Less Valued Knights (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), a funny take on the world of Camelot that has just been published to deservedly rave reviews.

Second novels may take time and a huge amount of effort, but for readers, at least, they’re often worth the wait.

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