My sister once sent a fan letter to Anne McCaffrey. She received, to her amazement, a typed reply (and I mean typed, with awkward spacing and ribbon smudge: this must’ve been ~1985) answering each of her 20 questions in turn, clearly from Anne herself. I remember being impressed, jealous, but mostly confused. I liked books, not the people who wrote them. If I could’ve written to Lucie Pevensie or Mrs Twit, I could see the point, but writers were probably waffly old ladies who’d tell you to eat your greens and pull your socks up and – most worryingly of all – might tell you to sod off and stop bothering them, thus ruining their books by associated disappointment for eternity.
Now that I am writer, I know that we love to be bothered by readers. Sometimes you say heartskippingly kind things that we remember when it all seems a bit pointless and impossible. Even when you don’t, replying to you means we can put that niggly bit of Chapter 7 off for another ten minutes. And of course we’re all infinitely more accessible in the post-typewriter age. Publishers expect their charges to have a website, a blog, an online presence, well before their first book ever touches shelf – and swathes of us already tweet and blog our writerly woes, because that niggly bit of Chapter 7? It’s still there.
I’m struck lately, however, that I’m meeting more and more writers online (and occasionally in person: lucky me!) before reading their books – which means I’m often sitting down with a pristine new tome, and the eeriest sense that the writer is sitting opposite me: watching, poised, hopeful, waiting to footnote any pause or lip-squinch as I go, and glowing whenever I smile, or cry, or (let’s not get too demanding) fail to throw it out of the window. What does that do to the reading experience, exactly? And do other readers do that too, now that we’re so much more likely to have a face to put to the name on the book?
What do you think?
Me, I’ve worrited over it as a pernicious influence (not least because I can think of one writer whose online interactions have made me firmly decide never to read his books, and for all I know they’re wonderful). But you know what? In my experience, writers tend towards the lovely. If you encounter them on Twitter, or their own blog, or someone else’s, you can probably gauge whether they’re the type of lovely you’d want to invite round for tea and nonsense, and if they are then you might want to read a book by them too. All this online interaction is like an extra, perpetually updating, ultra-nuanced, personalised, everchanging book cover. And that writer you’ve seen online, who is now sitting, ghostlike, across from you waiting for you to start reading the book you hold in your hands with their name on it? They’re not frowning or tutting or squinching their lips. I like to think they’re reading the book to you. And who doesn’t love a bedtime story?
WOW. I’ve found my Catcher in the Rye. I thought Frank Portman’s King Dork might be it, because it’s almost exactly the dry witty sincere hip-not-hipster late teen novel I wanted to read when I was 17 – but now I’ve found Simmone Howell’s Notes on the Teenage Underground, and that, my friends, is the real shiny deal right there. It’s not only that it’s ‘girls and films’ instead of King Dork’s ‘guys and bands’ (though I’m sure that’s a chunk of it: all hail Gem, a female protagonist who is beset by all the standard friends/virginity/absent dad/what next? trauma of a teen era ending, but who gets the most empowered line of any teen girl in the history of teens and girls without it feeling for an instant like a cliche or a reach or a lecture). Make no mistake: this is a bible of cool AND an emotionally honest, enticing, snort-your-cola funny read. All those how-to guides that tell you to focus on ‘voice’ when you write? This is what they mean. I’m rereading bits already. (I met Simmone a few weeks back, and when reading I can entirely see her impishly grinning from the pages. She’s @postteen on Twitter, and her website is here: go fangirl at her, she’s aces.)
I’m…writing. I don’t even know what I’m writing, or if any of you will ever see it, but I am writing. It is a mite worrying how many words I can wring out of describing the Tower of London gift shop in lieu of plot, mind.
Realising that a British barbecue is actually amazingly delicious and involves none of the trad food poisoning/burnage when you put a Galician in charge; getting very flaily indeed at the prospect of going to Canada in 5 weeks (hooray! oh no, bears! but hooray!); inventing a new approach to cooking which involves making normal food and then putting peas in it. I do like peas. They are a bit weird in a bacon sarnie though.