Many thanks to David not only for inviting me to contribute but also for all the amusing blog entries which I’ve been catching up with. Thanks also to all the rest of you for your posts which i've been enjoying – you are an amusing and talented bunch of people. Faye and Aliyah – looking forward to meeting you in Cambridge in January!
Anyway, as it’s my first post here (though you can catch all my deranged daily thoughts on my own blog) I thought I’d go for the novel-writing jugular…
Why do we write books? We all get asked it and, despite our protestations, I’m sure a most people who ask think it’s for the money. Let’s face it, whenever novelists are in the news it’s for some massive advance or huge sales - novelists plying their trade after a full day at work or barely making enough to keep up the payments on the garret don’t tend to feature much.
But we don’t do it for the money, do we? (Just as well, we’d be poverty-stricken fools if we did.) So, do we do it in the hope of money? I think not; unless you are a champion deferrer of gratification the pay-off is way too long term. And, if you factor in all those years of struggling and try to work out some sort of annual pay-rate…well, it would be well beyond depressing…
Then why do we do it? I can’t answer for other novelists, not even others here at MNW, so lets narrow the field a bit - why do I do it?
Like everybody who write books, I’m often asked ‘Did you always want to write?’ But the answer is that I didn’t. I wasn’t a child scribbler or a precocious juvenile novelist.
Early on, my passion was not writing at all but reading. I read my way through anything anybody gave me and the entire children’s section of the little library in my home-town. Don’t be too impressed, the children’s section was a bookcase roughly the size of an Ikea Billy-and-a-half.
I loved the other worlds that books created. I wasn’t picky. I read historical fiction, Jennings, sci-fi, Enid Blyton, me-and-my-pony stories… I lived in a farming community in rural west Wales, even books about ‘ordinary’ families living ‘ordinary’ lives seemed exotic to me.
I read in bed, at the table, at school, on the bus to school… if there wasn’t a book to hand I would take refuge in any print – the back of the cereal packet at breakfast, the ketchup-bottle label at supper, information on posters in school, rules of behaviour on the school bus, anything.
Was real life so boring or so awful? Not at all, it just didn’t seem as real to me as the life I read about in books. It was as if I couldn’t engage with reality all the time; I had moments of intense self-awareness when I saw myself and my immediate circumstances very clearly but the rest of the time the world I met in books was far more comprehensible.
I think a lot of reality, for me, is unregistered, that a lot of my life goes on beneath the radar of consciousness. I don’t ruminate much, I’m not one of those people who is always thinking, always teasing away at some problem or another. I often don’t know what I think until I’ve said it – either out loud or in print. And a lot of what I find I think is a surprise to me, or at least, the fact that I have such well-developed thoughts and opinions about stuff just sitting there waiting to be articulated is a surprise.
I’m notorious amongst my friends and family for being monumentally unobservant. Unless things are pointed out I’m likely to miss them – I have driven past accidents on the road without registering their horror, walked past people dressed as giant rabbits in the High Street without noticing that they were there. And yet, when I sit down to write, details which I must have been filing away come flooding out. I can describe somewhere in minute detail: architectural flourishes, reflections in windows, the smell of a little-used church hall, the precise discordance of a poorly-tuned paino... It’s weird. I’m clearly storing all this stuff away without any conscious awareness that I’m doing it.
So, do I write to find out what’s in my head? Not consciously. Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be funny, but perhaps it illustrates how little I understand why I do what I do. Consciously, I write because I am happiest when writing fiction, when I am feeling my way into another world, waiting for people to reveal themselves to me, to tell me their story. Nothing else I have ever done matches up in terms of consistent excitement; my other half can always tell when it’s been a good writing day because I’m so totally wired when she gets home.
But, exciting or not, revelatory or not, writing for me is much more like hide-and-seek than show-and-tell. Often, I feel that I am sneaking up on my story and reading it over its own shoulder, sidling up and catching snatches of conversation, seeing fleeting glimpses of people and their actions before they move away from me. Obviously, it’s my own subconscious I’m actually sneaking up on so the question is, why don’t I have access to it all the time? Why do I have to play grandmother’s footsteps with it and rush back shrieking when I turn around and catch myself looking?
Maybe it’s that mystery which keeps writing so exciting and interesting for me – maybe in writing my books I’m also finding out who I really am.