I wonder how many of you have asked a writer of your acquaintance what you thought was a perfectly harmless question, one intended to show your interest in that person and what they do, only to be rewarded by a mumbled response, possibly a trembling chin, or, horrors, a glower. You walk away thinking, What’s wrong with these writer people? Have they no manners? Well, sadly, some of us don’t, but it’s more likely you’ve stumbled upon one of the questions likely to leave us at…well, a loss for words.
I don’t mean to suggest that writers are such fragile flowers that no one should approach us for fear of having us break down in puddles if asked the wrong question. Really, that hardly ever happens. But if you do detect a slight twitch, or an inadvertent sigh, perhaps it’s because you’ve asked a perfectly well-meaning, seemingly reasonable question, one that if you asked anyone else wouldn’t be a problem. However, as writers, alas, we’ve probably been asked that question a thousand times before, and wouldn’t mind at all, if we had a decent answer, but we don’t, and so we mumble and sigh and twitch and go and stand behind the potted palm where it’s safer. It’s embarrassing to stand there with a drink in one hand and a palm frond up the nose. Uncomfortable for everyone, really.
So, for next time…these are some questions writers dread, in no particular order:
1. How’s the novel coming? Well, probably not very well. Novels are wild, unwieldy beasts that resist being tamed. Really, do you want to hear how Faulkner spent twelve hours writing a scene about looking at young girl’s dirty underpants as she climbed a tree? Probably not, and that was the definitive scene in The Sound and the Fury, so imagine how much less you’ll want to read about that eel-skinning scene I labored over for hours yesterday, only to erase today. To quote Oscar Wilde, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”
There is also a story about James Joyce wherein someone came round to see The Great Man as he worked in his Paris garret
“How are you, James?” he said. “You don’t look so good.”
“Is it the writing?”
“Of course it’s the feckin’ writing! It’s always the writing!”
“Can you not write then? Are you blocked?”
“I’ve written seven words today.”
“Well, James,” said the friend, “for you, actually, that’s not bad.”
“I suppose,” said the Great Man, “but now I’ve got to figure out what order to put them in.”
Thus, it’s a question for which there is no good answer, and we know it.
2. Are you writing? If I am, see 1. above. If I’m not, you really don’t want to know. The only thing worse than having writer’s block is talking about it. Having to listen to such panicked whining is recognized as torture and we wouldn’t dream of inflicting it on you.
3. Has your novel sold? Sad to say, but it’s unlikely. Publishing is a slaughterhouse these days, and even in the Good Old Days (if ever there were any), almost no one published, and of the minuscule number who did, almost none of those published a second novel. Having to answer that question over and over again is like rubbing glass in an open wound. Believe me, if there’s good news, we’ll be telling you. Heck, we’ll be telling EVERYONE! Most of us write because we can’t stop writing – it’s a sort of mental illness – and thus we do so in spite of the searing disappointments. Try not to make us talk about it.
4. When’s that new book coming out? Let’s put it this way: if, since the last time we spoke, I’ve finished the manuscript, submitted it to my agent, my agent has read it (which usually takes three months because they are busy, important folks), and loved it just as it is with no changes at all; if the agent has then in turn submitted it to editors and one of them has read it (think another few months or so, or more, since editors are also important, busy folks), and that editor LOVED it, and showed it to the sales force (the important people who really run publishing these days) and the sales force LOVED it just as it is, and made an offer……. even if ALL those things have already happened, it will still be around TWO YEARS before the book will actually come out, due to the editing and production process. So, if you’ve asked this question once in the past three years, you needn’t ask it again. Also, see 3).
5. I just love the new Dan Brown novel (or Sarah Palin’s memoir), have you read it yet? My condolences, and no.
6. How come I can’t get your books here? And by ‘here’ you probably mean America. This one may not apply to all writers, but it will to a surprising number of us. Especially if we are, say, from Canada or Britain or Ireland or Scotland or New Zealand or Australia… doubly so if we are from a country where English isn’t the first language (and no jokes about Scotland, please). Although, with some justification, America views itself as the center of the universe, people do publish in other countries, and getting published in England does not mean a writer will find a publisher in New York, which considers itself (again, with some justification) as the center of the center of the universe. Without a publishing contract in the US, the book will not be available to the US market. You could, however, go on the internet and order books from bookstores in the US or Canada or gasp, even Australia. I do it all the time.
7. Is that story autobiographical? Until my parents are all dead, the answer to that is no. I’m joking, really Mum, I am. However, it can be a bit insulting to a writer to have everyone think that a) you really were a junkie porn star homicidal trust fund baby and just kept it a secret, or that b) you haven’t the imagination to MAKE THINGS UP, which is, after all, what fiction writers are supposed to do, mostly. I will paraphrase what W. Somerset Maugham said, though, in that writers are not God, we cannot create out of nothing. Everything is inspiration and fodder, even cocktail party conversations.
8. Oh, you’re a writer! Have I heard of you? Do I know your books? I have no idea, but if not please don’t make it sound as if I’ve failed. Might I suggest, if you’re interested, you note one of the titles and buy a book?
9. How big an advance did you get? How many books did you sell? Now really, didn’t your mother ever tell you it was impolite to ask someone what they make for a living? It will either be shockingly low by your standards, or shockingly high, neither of which is useful information. People in France, where I lived for many years, never ask these sorts of particularly American questions. They ask instead, “Where can I buy one of your books?” Which is a lovely question, since it implies they are a) interested in your work, and b) interested in supporting your work by actually BUYING a book.
10. What’s the book you’re working on about? Two problems with this question: the first is that if I talk too much about it, I won’t write about it, so I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to answer that question. (Most people are pretty good about that and don’t take offense, but you’d be surprised, perhaps, by how many do.) The second problem is that I may not know. I write a story that pops into my head, but I may not know what it’s really about until a long way down the line. When I was writing The Radiant City, it wasn’t until I was through the first draft, and heard Rev. Ernest Hunt, the Rector at the American Cathedral in Paris, say, “Cynicism is the last refuge of the broken-hearted” that I understood I was writing about precisely that – whether disillusionment, the kind that breaks your heart, like terrorist attacks, or war, or genocide, damns you to a life of cynicism, or if it’s possible to continue to walk through the world with a compassionate heart. (The quote became the epigram of the book. Thanks Ernie!)
And although it’s not a question, there is one statement that’s almost guaranteed to send a writer scrambling to a safe nest behind the potted palm: “I’m going to take six months off from my job and write a book.”
Legend has it this statement was made to either William Styron or Margaret Lawrence, depending on who’s telling it, by a heart surgeon at a cocktail party. As in, “I just loved your book so much, and you’ve inspired me. I’m going to take six months off from my job and write my own memoir.” “Really,” replied William/Margaret. “Well, you’ve inspired me as well. I’m going to take six months off from writing and become a heart surgeon.”
I wouldn’t have the guts to say that, but I admit it, I do think it from time to time. It takes as long to learn to be a good writer as it does to do anything else – play the violin, perhaps, or architecture, or yes, heart surgery. And just like those things, having just a soupcon of talent doesn’t hurt.
So at this point you might be asking yourself what you CAN ask a writer. Well, we love talking about books we’ve enjoyed, as well as anything else that inspires us. And as writers we tend to watch the world pretty closely, since you never know when a story worth writing about may pop up, so current affairs are just as interesting to us as to anyone else. Then too, if we’re well-brought up, psychologically stable folk (and some of us are), we probably think YOU’RE pretty interesting. You might not want to answer questions about, say, how much you make for a living, and I wouldn’t dream of asking you, but I’d be fascinated to learn, for example, what you believe and how you came to believe it. I’d like to know how you met your spouse, and what you think about the death penalty, and why; and what you think about censorship, and that story about fly-fishing, and the one about the rescue dog, and what you think it means to be a good person… oh, there’s a world of things out there to talk about, isn’t there?