‘So, what do you write about?’ Is there a worse question to ask a writer? What do I write ‘about’?
First, some context. I spent Saturday at a friend’s wedding in London. The day was fantastic, the lovely couple were just that, the people were all great company, the food, the drink, the whole atmosphere was brilliant, and everyone had a whale of a time. As we all mingled, introduced ourselves, made small talk, and generally relaxed as the day and the booze flowed, the questions started as to what we all did. I had been asked to read a poem at the ceremony, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, I was delighted to be part of the day and the fact that I am a writer was probably a good part of why I was asked. So the guests would know I write, and so they would be interested, as much as we were all interested in what everyone else does, in what it is I actually write, and what I write about.
I know in this modern world of ours we’re all meant to have a soundbite, or a tweet-long summation of everything we do, anything else is old fashioned. But what do you actually say? Maybe it would have been easier when I still thought I was a crime writer, at least I could say I write crime stories, and wait as the questioner pictures whatever version of crime fiction they have in their heads. But as I’m now writing in the ‘literary’ genre, what do I say?
I could try to expound on the great themes I perceive in my work, but as I don’t have the academic facility for language and the subtleties of critical thought I’d probably fall over myself, plus I didn’t want to come across as a prick. So I mumbled, said I write short stories, tried to refer to the stories I recently had published in gorse and The Stinging Fly, and hoped they’d ask me something else, or just move on.
Maybe it’s an easier question for people who have been published, and by that I mean have had a book by themselves published, a physical thing, sitting somewhere on a shelf? So when someone at that stage is asked they can always just refer to their book and move on. But when you’re reliant on disparate stories appearing here and there you don’t even have that luxury.
I mean, what do I say? Do I say I sit myself inside the skull of my characters (usually just one, and usually just me) and describe what I see and feel as events transpire, or not? Do I say I write of desperation, or longing, or try to capture fleeting moments before they disappear? Do I say I try to write about the vagaries of love, or just its sheer impossibility? Do I say that a tryst in a temporary space like a hotel room is more real to me than the fantasy of a life-long commitment, of domesticity, of an aspirational happiness? Do I say any of the not particularly happy, not particularly friendly, not particularly cheery ideas that float around inside my skull and find their way onto the page?
Do I say any of these things, and watch as my fellow wedding guests beat a polite retreat to another part of the garden where the seats are that bit more comfortable, the wine flowing that little bit easier, the canapes that little bit tastier, or the purely coincidental fact that just as I speak they spy the arrival of an old friend they just ‘have’ to say hello to and I’m left to contemplate the flight path of a passing jet and my empty glass? Or do I squirm and try to find some way out of the question as soon as possible and a way of changing the conversation to something that feels less like it comes with thumbscrews?
Did you know, the bride and two of her friends,
who are both here too, used to make dresses for the Queen!?
Maybe I just need to rehearse something, have a soundbite in my back pocket, something?
It’s interesting that when writers meet we often ask each other if we’re working on anything at the moment, usually just saying you’re working on a short story, a poem, an essay or a novel is more than enough. We want to be polite; we want to be interested, we want to be friendly, but most of all we don’t want to be asked what we’re writing about, so we skirt around the question until we can find anything else to talk about.
‘I was at this wedding recently, and you’ll never guess
what the bride and two of her friends used to do?’
Over the weekend I read an article on the Death of the Novel, a fairly common theme, and one that’s probably been around since shortly after the first appearance of the novel. Anyway, I’ll put a link below and you can read it, or not.
For me, I suppose, all the claims about what the world of social media does to our ability to communicate leave, if you want, a question as to what the novel is actually for anymore? If we can say anything we want and have it circle the world in nanoseconds what is the point of slaving for years for some ink stains on slices of dead trees instead?
My own opinion, and one I did tweet (so like the rest it’s circling the world somewhere still, like a dead satellite), is that novels give us the space to write about what we can’t, or won’t, speak about anywhere else. They allow us to explore those interior spaces that the arc lights of social media will never be able to reach (or maybe I just shouldn’t have been reading Clarice Lispector on the plane home).
Anyway, maybe that’s what I say the next time someone asks me what I write about, I’ll just make sure that I’ve stocked up on plenty of prosecco and canapes first before I open my mouth, it could be a long, lonely afternoon after that!