Updated: Feb 18, 2020
The holiday period is a time when you meet up with lots of people you haven’t seen, sometimes since last Christmas. Previously, we caught up by asking each other about our families; bigger children, shrinking parents as well as shared interests and work.
This year the first thing a number of people asked was not, 'How did your youngest’s exams go? Or, 'Do you still think Brexit is a good idea?' This year it was straight in with ‘How’s the book?’ It was Christmas, I was relaxed and often somewhere on the scale between tipsy and pretty sloshed. Each time I was asked this new question I was as perplexed as the last. What did it even mean?
With every asking there was something in the tone which told me this was a normal question to which I should know the answer.
I knew instinctively that the response to the ‘How’s the book?’ question was not, ‘Still inanimate objects.’ Even though this is objectively true. The book in question, like all others, is an amalgam of paper, ink and glue. The invention of printing means that all the copies are exactly the same (a couple were delivered with covers that appeared pre-cloth-eared - I sent them to reviewers), nor do they take exams, get over nasty illnesses, win elections or get promotions. A couple of my friends sell beautiful pots. Despite my love of their pots, the first question I ask them is, ‘How are you?’, ‘How was your holiday?’, that kind of thing. How is ‘How’s the book?’ a good way to open up a dialogue? The first time I was asked I told the boring truth; I wrote it, I published it, it’s paid for Christmas, how are you? Being some-one who is supposed to be a keen observer of facial and bodily expressions I learned that is not the right answer.
It’s not like other jobs where you go places or even leave the house, meet people, have exchanges, or spend or make more than negligible amounts of money. Sitting typing all day on your own may be interesting for me, hopefully the end product is interesting for you, but the actual job is the opposite of interesting; at least paint dries after a few hours.
Despite the fact that 20 books an hour are published in the UK alone I do still have many friends who have not written one recently. Many people, most in fact, do work that I haven’t seen and know nothing about. Only one actually works for something that touches my existence; The Inland Revenue. Formative years with self-employed parents and stories about smugglers has taught me to be very nice to people who work for The Revenue. I’m not sure if they still have pistols but The Revenue can demand, penalize and seize with a power that reaches beyond the grave. Sorry, enough of childhood nightmares where massive veiny tendrilled Bayleaves [bailiffs] loom in to take away all my toys because my playthings are not classified as ‘tools of the trade’.
In post-industrial London people work sitting down in front of computers with job titles that obscure what is often already a rather particular function. Society is very complex and has a division of labour to match. While most people don’t take advantage, they could tell you anything they like at a social gathering. I was once got totally pissed and pissed off at the pretentiousness of exactly all of the people at a dinner party at which I was a new boyfriend’s plus one. When someone finally stopped talking about themselves and asked me what I did I said I was a Bestial Prostitute servicing the needs of over indulgent dog owners mainly, but also the odd horse and once, very carefully, a
crocodile. The relationship did not last.
Now I am a respectable married woman, a fair few of the people I see socially, not only know what I do but they are in a position to judge it’s worth. I have been there, I know how awkward it can be. People I know have produced books and/or music and been in plays. Actors are well known for their neediness but are suspiciously easily placated; pick a bit you like and go on about that, morph/ change the subject, sorted. If you haven’t seen something by a ‘creative’ live on stage you have more leeway, with books and recorded music you can always not bring it up at all, or ask how’s the music/ book?
Does ‘how’s the book?’ refer to the number of books sold? This is Britain and while the reason we don’t talk about it has changed, we don’t generally talk about selling or money unless the number is unimaginably big or mind numbingly small. As I mentioned in this blog before, I have not sold very many books. I spent yesterday doing some sums including the Revenue’s Home Office Tax calculation, which is such an ‘ add your birthday without decimal points and take away the number your electricity bill was last year when averaged by the number of rooms in your house’ type of calculation that it brings the old word Byzantine bubbling back into usefulness. I’m not complaining, especially in such interesting times where change is in the air. The Empire of Byzantium and its complex, layered and immensely bureaucratic system of Government lasted 1,100 years, Britain has only been going a few hundred, so there is some comfort in Self-Assessment. And it is also safe to say that, pistols or no, a massive tax bill is not coming my way.
People may have been quizzing me about reviews. I have been rather pleasantly surprised by the uniformly positive reviews I must say. It’s understandable; I know or nearly know nearly all the reviewers in question and I know or nearly know some very nice people. Also, I am sure I have spent a lovely evening with people who have read my book, thought it was awful and said nothing about it.
While a possibly useful critique might not be the best way to oil the gears of a Christmas/New Year/any gathering it is quite frustrating. And contrary to one’s first impulse, writers are not like actors. We work hard and feel committed to our work but our lips won’t tremble if someone says they didn’t like what we did. Besides, I’ve been through several OFSTED inspections; they are properly harsh. The words that have blasted into my ears, the accompanying spittle that has reached my cheeks and the blows that have mainly missed me altogether, as part of my willingness to express doubts and opinions on subjects ranging from anti-racism in 1970s Bermondsey to the anal dilation test in 1990s Newcastle, certainly improved my arguments. But it was knowing an OFSTED was due, preparing for OFSTED, going through OFSTED and all the while managing to also do my job of actually teaching that forged an inner strength so great that my true danger is not being able to take beneficial criticism on board at all.
So did I spend an otherwise lovely day/evening bitching about how a writer can’t improve if everyone who speaks about it just says your writing is good? That, personally I thought my first novel was quite slow going at the beginning, a bit confusing in places and I could have clarified some of the themes much better? Do I get all self-obsessed and defensive and bang on about how I could have kept writing and rewriting but life is just too short and there other books to get on with. Or did I sip my sherry/wine/port/whisky/ bubbly while I sat/stood/lurched in my best dress/trousers and say that people have been very kind and move the conversation onto the person who asked the question? They were guaranteed to be a lot more interesting than an inanimate object.
Why can’t people be content with thinking they might be material for my next book? We would all have better conversations at parties that way. While the ‘writing process’ is sometimes misunderstood as lifting people out of reality and planting them in stories, and it is true that friends from Chingford or called Sue were among the first to buy my book, that is not actually how it works. Writers like to absorb the thoughts, sensations and experiences of other people into their psyche where they will dwell and mulch and sink or surface as and when required, like every-body else. We also make stuff up.
Of course I was not successful at deflecting all the time and a couple of people managed to pierce through to the question of a follow up book. There are people who want to know what happens to Sue Duggen next. I won’t dwell on how I killed her off in all but the last draft because, now that I am giving myself a break from marketing, I will need something else to blog about, but the next one is totally different.
Meanwhile, a very close and dear friend’s birthday is coming up and I am more ready to answer ‘How’s the book?’ at a social gathering; People have been very kind, how are you?
P.S. Would you like a lovely and dear person to have a wonderful birthday present, help pay for her dinner and simultaneously find out if Changing the Subject is slow to get going? If so click here.