Where a writer is concerned, everything is raw material—which is not the same thing as saying that writing is simply a matter of re-gurgitating one’s experiences. Values, judgment, and integrity come into the picture—as does some degree of discretion. That said, it is not unreasonable to regard us scribes with some suspicion. Even if heavily disguised, and in a different context, our experiences have a habit of ending up in our writing—down to every intimate detail.
Do those experiences include confidences? I guess it depends upon the writer. I would like to think not—at least not in any recognizable form. But, in broad terms, we do use everything. But, we also read a great deal, and use our imaginations.
Friends of mine—particularly female friends—often think that they are the inspiration for this character, or that—and if they content with that—I don’t disillusion them. However, normally they are wrong because the reality is that most of my characters are composites—and then they just “grow on the page.”
The best of us are remarkably aware, observant, empathetic, analytical—and, dare I say it—judgmental. A writer has to be judgmental—albeit, I would like to hope, in a tolerant way—in that it is nigh impossible to convert thought into words unless you come to some kind of conclusions. Well, you can dither, of course, but that makes for dull writing. Entertaining writing requires a degree of decisiveness. We are in the business of illuminating the human condition—and that requires a writer to commit to a viewpoint—even if in the most subtle way.
But isn’t that risky? Yes, it is—note that one of the first moves of oppressive regimes is to lock up writers (or worse) but writing is innately a business of risk. Just for starters, you are exposing your skills and thoughts to one and all—and stand the risk of becoming a laughing stock. Reviewers may cut you to ribbons.
Has that every happened to me? Yes, it has. At an early stage in my career I received a terrible review in the New York Times. It was written by a competitor who was clearly biased and out to do a hatchet job—but you don’t think of that kind of thing when you have been publicly scarified in one of the most influential newspapers in the world.
I was badly shaken—and so were my publishers (courage is not a common virtue in the publishing business). However, since then I have received so many good reviews for exactly the same book that the incident no longer resonates. Also, I’m now sufficiently battle hardened to take both the good and the bad with a pinch of salt. I have also learned that many critics are just plain ignorant—so if you write about something that is outside their limited experience, they just plain can’t cope. In fact, the CEO of one of my publishers commented that she found my work hard to classify because she couldn’t decide whether I was writing thrillers or fantasy.
Since just about everything in my books has a basis in fact, I was somewhat dumfounded by that remark—but have since learned that ignorance in traditional publishing is not in short supply.
Quite why so many people thought the U.S. was immune from terrorism in the Nineties is a question to which I have no answer—though I think it has to do with the way public opinion is manipulated—and I’m not holding my breath for a phone call from the lady in question to say: “You were right.” I just wish I hadn’t been vindicated in such a horrendous way as 9/11—and that the U.S. hadn’t over-reacted so massively (Sadly, it continues to do so).
We writers can illuminate the human condition—but it is damnably hard to counter deliberate ignorance.
If I now react to my reviewers with equanimity, I confess my fan e-mail still thrills me to bits. I just love love hearing from my readers—and many of those I have met have become friends. A book is a revealing thing—and I have found there is no finer way to bond with another than to give them a book (assuming they read it). The pattern tends to be that when you next meet, they regard you as someone they now know well (but who, maybe, has experienced life with rather too much brio).
All that sex—all that violence—all those fascinating characters… How do you know all that stuff? and have you really done such and such and so and so—and what is it like?
Yes, I have.