I’ve caught the Booker bug

Guilty pleasure
It's not the done thing to show pleasure at being caught up in the Man Booker Prize whirlwind, whether by being longlisted, or shortlisted, or (heaven forfend) by having one's life disrupted by winning the thing. Well, call me a wide-eyed 40-year-old ingénue, but I'm enjoying every minute.

I'm a grateful first-timer, never having been even longlisted for an international prize before. On the other hand, I'm a veteran, as Room is my seventh novel and 16th book, so again - knowing all too well what it feels like to publish a book and have it disappear into a cultural black hole - I'm grateful.

That said, I've found the Booker experience somewhat like a rapid-onset, lingering virus. From that first call from my editor when I was in a taxi (squeezed in with Chris, our smalls, old friends and their smalls), telling me that Room had somehow been longlisted before being published, it's been . . . all go, to put it mildly.

I've had days that include ten phone interviews back to back, which leave my right ear swollen and throbbing. (I should buy a headset, definitely; I will, if only I can find ten minutes.) My ear's not the only part of my body that's been protesting: I seem to put my back (or shoulder or neck) out once a week, which I can't deny is some indication that unaccustomed success is making me tense. (It's not that I'm fretting over who'll win the Booker, it's that I'm afraid of saying something libellous or plain stupid on air.)

There have been days that begin with breakfast TV (where it always feels as if they're inserting make-up under your eyelids as well as on them) and end 12 hours later, alone in a tiny radio studio, rubbing the mascara into raccoon-circles, trying to stay alert for a live, down-the-line, dinner-time interview. Glamorous photo shoots that become less so when domesticity intrudes: I've posed for photos in my garden shed with a rigid grin while waiting for our six-year-old's principal to ring me back and explain why the school bus arrived without him on it.

Head over heels
One irony of the Booker hoo-ha is that it can transform intellectuals into airheads. In pre­paration for the ceremony on 12 October, I've been looking up YouTube to see what other authors have worn, I've practised walking round the house in heels (well, at five foot eleven, I've never felt the need for them before), and I'm seriously considering getting my first manicure. I do hope this effect is temporary.

Ask a silly question
Many interviews these days are done by email, which is convenient, in that I can do them at my own convenience - but in practice that can mean typing answers to "Where did you get the inspiration for this novel?" (yawn) or "What do you think of the state of contemporary literature today?" (argh!) as our three-year-old bounces in my lap at 6am. I've been pleasantly surprised by many interviewers, especially the ones who bring in the Wombles or Wittgenstein, John Fowles and Plato.

Occasionally I have been irritated by their failure to do research, even on Wikipedia (a Dublin journalist began with "So you're Irish, are you?"). Sometimes I've been startled by their crassness. (One BBC journalist pressed me on exactly how much my advance was and whether, "given that you've made no secret of living with a woman", I feared people might see Room as an attack on men. I always aim to stay ladylike in interviews, but that time I was seized by l'esprit de l'escalier afterwards, and wished I had said: "No, actually, you're the only one who's implied that lesbians are man-haters.")

Grand tour
I don't mean to gripe: I remain grateful not just for the international exposure the Booker shortlist has given me, but for the endorsement - the badge of literariness - it's put on Room, which the media often misrepresent as a fictionalisation of the Fritzl case. I'm just back from a two-week US book tour, and American readers are almost as fascinated by the Booker as those who live in the Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries whose authors the prize celebrates.

Freed from the net
The success of one book always means less time to work on the next: for a few months there, it seemed as if I had neither the time nor the mental capacity to progress an inch on the next novel, which is about a murder in San Francisco in the 1870s. Oddly enough, though, on tour I found I was able to get a bit of real work done, at airports and in hotel rooms, probably because I didn't have internet access 24 hours a day. (Jonathan Franzen says no good novel can emerge from a house that has broadband.)

One thing that puzzles me is, where's the begrudgery, the tall-poppy syndrome, the famed hostility to those who are doing well? From the novelists (especially Irish and Canadian ones) who've been flooding my inbox with good wishes, to the old friends tracking me down on Facebook, to the neighbours who hold up their crossed fingers to wish me luck as I walk past their porches, I have received nothing but the milk of human kindness since the first time my name was linked with the Booker.

London calling
At this point I'm a bit tired by - but not tired of - talking to people about Room. I'm still enjoying the debates over narrators and tenses, genre and ethics. Yes, the Booker brings a lot of ballyhoo, the betting is absurd and there are inevitably great books that never make it on to the longlist. But it gets people talking about literary fiction as if it matters as much as sport, which has to be a good thing. I don't envy the judges this gruelling stage of their job. But as for me, I've got my long frock, and Chris has her tux, and we're heading off to London to enjoy the party.

“Room" is published by Picador (£12.99)
The winner of this year's Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday 12 October
Peter Wilby is on holiday

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit