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The face behind the book

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.


14 thoughts on “The face behind the book”

  1. Mmm, quite embarrassed now. The letter must have been hilarious to receive – as you say, 20 numbered questions, laboriously handwritten. Questions about how she started writing and how authors get published randomly mixed in with trainspotter-earnest questions about plot details. The reply was charming. I can remember how utterly, utterly thrilled I was to get an answer at all, but especially to have my questions dealt with absolutely seriously. I think now that every TV show has a fan website and there’s actually a WORD for fanfic it’s hard to remember the extent to which printed and published books were Other.

    I don’t know that I’d have thought to write to an author if I hadn’t been doing a library project, though. I wouldn’t have dared if I hadn’t had ‘an excuse’ to get in touch.

    I think there’s a diary entry from when I was about the same age which goes something along the lines of…

    ‘Went to the library as usual. Raining this afternoon so played cards with Susie. Dr Who is trapped in a space-time vortex in Castrovalva’. I think my 11-year old self made relatively little distinction between my actual and fantasy lives, and I think I probably would have placed an Actual Author on the side of Doctor Who, rather than school, homework, card games etc… As you say, another thing the internet has changed!

    1. Feh, no guilt required: I know the size of your TBR pile! But do make sure it floats to the top sometime soon: it’s a real peach.

      My sister seems quite embarrassed about it now (sorry J) but I think it’s marvo! Hooray for the teacher who set that as their class project and gave her the idea.

  2. Oh, it was just all so very earnest.

    I don’t think the library teacher can take any credit – we had to do a book project, but writing to an author was my Very Own Idea, which had to be its own reward. I spent many hours labouring over my project, letter included, and the teacher clearly never opened them. I got a red tick and ‘Good’ on the coversheet and that was it!

    To go back to the actual question, I’m not sure I really want to know too much about authors – it’s so hard to shake off what you know about them (beliefs, relationships etc) when you’re trying to pay attention to the story or the voice of the character. And I’d be more worried about the opposite problem to what you suggest – if you think they’re lovely and enjoy their personal writings, it might be harder to be properly critical. (Not that I have this problem with your books, I hasten to point out. A) because they’re very good and B) on the rare occasions I’ve had the chance to comment it doesn’t seem to have inhibited me in actual fact!)

    1. Aww, poor small you – though you did get a very fabulous reward that was much better than some disinterested teacher’s red pen response anyway. And I’m sure it made yout think about the books differently in order to come up with… no, there’s no getting round it, that is a bit rub. Hooray Anne McCaffrey!

      Your second concern is basically what made me write most of a PhD about Virginia Woolf, so I hear what you’re saying. *resists urge to quote some essays from the 1970s* Is that why publishers are so keen for writers to do school visits? (And what happens if the kids DON’T like the personality that visits?) It’s certainly possible that a visible author-persona interferes with the reading process instead of helping it. But at the same time once we’ve decided we like an author, we often choose to keep reading them (even forgiving them a blip or two). We rely on the assumption that there will be some similarity between one book and the next because they’re written by the same person – so even if we don’t actually encounter details of their personal lives or pursue them as individuals in any way, we still connect name to book. We, erm, anthropomorphise that name by default.

      I am v grateful for your critical contributions, and only cry about them well out of your hearing. 😛

  3. Susie I think I’d love your books even if I didn’t know you but might not pick them up in the morass of other books available for picking up! What I love when I know an author either personally, via internet ‘friendships’ or through reading their other work, are the resonances between what I’m currently reading and what I already know. It adds a dimension or depth to the book. It only works if I like what I already know, though, so some books could be spoiled by a knowledge of the author that I’m not happy about. I’d give the example of finding out that a beloved children’s author was a child molester. I could never read his books in the same light again.

    1. Your book definitely felt like I was being told the story by you! But then again, there were also moments where I left that behind completely, and was simply immersed in the story. It’s almost a different form of reading, though: like you’re Worzel Gummidge, swapping heads for the day.

      Intrigued now! Hope you aren’t referring to JM Barrie: think the consensus is he was just a bloke who had a miserable and odd childhood and was sort of compensating.

  4. 🙂 wasn’t really referring to anyone there, though if pushed I’d mention Baden-Powell or Lewis Carroll. Sometimes it’s better to see the magic of the story and not know the author.

  5. I never thought of J M Barrie other than as an incredibly generous individual who paid the boys school fees etc. Though it does sound as if he was a bit odd and lonesome.

    I never thought of writing to a writer as a kid. Didn’t they inhabit another planet and they were adults. Whoa way to scary. Oh the thought that you might not like them. It would destroy all the stories.

    1. I know! Never crossed my mind – and now you can just chuck an email to someone and might get a response within minutes. I think I assumed everyone I read as a kid was already dead, though, and if not, far too important and writerly to bother.

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