“What I love about this,” the director said, “is the form of the piece.”
I locked my expression into ‘polite neutral’ and tried nodding and smiling. We were in a scout hut in Kew, rehearsing a play that I’d written for a reading in a few weeks time, and the director was twiddling a pencil between his fingers in the manner of a repressed creative genius just waiting to strike that rogue comma with the sharpened point of HP.
“I love the way the form and the structure both reflect the cascading nature of the language and narrative as it builds out of control from the prime inciting incident to the moment of character curve completion.”
I kept on smiling. This was, I felt, the most polite thing I could do under the circumstances. I feel I should add that the director on this particular literary project was nothing if not brilliant. A damn good director, a very good bloke and a man I would happily write for again. But, and this was a bit of a sticking point for me, he also knew damn more about writing than I did.
This is not the same as being able to write – he confesses that he can’t write for toffee – but on the other hand, he’d had a lot more training in the area by which he was able to discover this truth. Whereas I have always just… muddled by. Working with him was, therefore, something of a painful reminder of a constant truth… that sometimes being a good writer, is not the same as being a good author.
Talking about your literary works is, I personally think, one of the hardest things a writer has to do. There are a lot of problems stacked against you, of which the first and usually most deadly, is personal bias. As the writer, I naturally know, as no one else can, that my epic, 700 page-long tome – ‘What I Did That Tuesday Afternoon When I Had Gastroenteritis’ – is nothing short of a scintillating work of literary genius. My heart, my soul, and quite possibly other bodily fluids, judging by the title, have been poured into this, along with a great deal of time and a lot of earnest thought. When, therefore, my editor turns round and suggests that it’s a light-hearted romp beside sold alongside ”Funny Jokes For Farting Fathers’, a certain blindness overwhelms my otherwise calm literary judgment. Under these circumstances, answering questions coherently about ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ and why it and it’s puce-coloured cover are sat in the Silly Section of the bookshop, and even the most thoughtful of authors struggle to see through their own bias to a clear and sensible reply.
Then there’s the other recurring literary problem – no one reader ever sees your book the same. In much the same way that writers tend to write deeper truths about themselves into their works than perhaps they realise, so the reader will often take meanings from the text depending on who they are, rather than what is necessarily written. Take one of my most hideous experiences – studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In a class of maybe twelve scarily intelligent 18 year olds, none of whom really liked Thomas Hardy, you could fairly accurately predict what the essays would be like, based on the social, political and cultural leanings of the student in question. Thus, the head of our school’s feminist society would slam her fists into the table and shout, ‘But she was raped! She was raped why are we talking about anything else!’ while the rather more romantic lady who’d just had her first kiss would retort, ‘but maybe it’s just an interpretation…?’ The girl who enjoyed the countryside would discuss the difference between urban and rural landscapes and how they shaped the characters within them; the girl who liked the city would tut and dismiss Hardy’s portrayal of country life as downright dangerous, while I would bounce furiously on my chair and wail, ‘but it’s just not very good, is it?!’ and thus earn myself a grand total of no literary credentials. The words we read were all the same, but each of us brought our own preoccupations to the table and frankly, Thomas Hardy’s original intentions were of no more relevance to us than Sputnik. “The writer,” my English teacher would declare, peering at us sternly from above her half-mooned spectacles, “Is dead. Long live the reader.”
Even if, as the living author, you come to accept this, there are still a few more pitfalls standing between you and putting on a good front as a sensible and intelligent author in a public place. One that I personally have, is remembering exactly what’s happened in my own works. The gap between writing the book and it’s actual publication is usually just long enough that I will have finished one, maybe two new books, and so sitting down to answer questions on something that happened an average of 300,000 words ago can present its own, tricky challenges. I think my personal lowest point in this regard was when I scored 8/10 on a quiz on one of my own novels – the Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle – although I do feel that the questions were almost fiendishly obscure. Likewise, whenever I talk to a producer about A Madness of Angels, her intimate relationship with the project often means she has a greater grasp of What Happened When than I do, and I find myself having to quietly reach for the paperback edition and hope she can’t hear the pages rustle over the phone…
Finally, we come back to my director. “Why does this happen here?” he’d inquire, and I’d sit there trying to find a better way of answering other than, “Because it’s right.” Learning how to answer in a way which he would accept and understand was rather like learning a new dialect – speed, tempo, rhythm, form, structure, pace, narrative, story, plot, development, ebb, flow, surge, twist, turn… often these words are describing very similar things to their neighbours, but if, like me, your background is essentially in history, physics and cake, rather than English and creative writing, it can be difficult to understand the way other people use them. I can turn a sentence, and know when a line needs to lift, and a paragraph needs to dip, and I can feel the pressure of a story and the direction it needs to go, but ask me to explain it without use of gestures and gulps, and I will fail with the worst of them.