‘Have you always wanted to write?’
My friend, Martin Edwards, has an entertaining blog with the splendid title ‘Do you write under your own name?’ I have been asked this too at parties, usually in a hopeful tone after the speaker has ascertained that they have never heard of me or my novels. I never hold that against them. I don’t EXPECT them to have heard of me. On the rare occasion when they have – the last time was a Society of Authors meeting – I am thrilled. The next question is often, ‘Have you always wanted to write?’ I usually say no, and explain how I came to start writing fiction. Bur really the answer should probably be yes, because I have always written: stories at primary school, essays and dissertations at school and university, a Ph.D thesis, academic books and articles. I just haven’t always written fiction or even wanted to write fiction. In part I think this has something to do with having studied English. I knew that I was never going to write like Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Jane Austen, so why bother? I didn’t know that there is a lot to be gained from the writing life, even if you’re never going to reach the heights or learn a lot of money. And I didn’t know that two things will carry you a long way as a writer: a willingness to learn the craft and a willingness to stick with it for the long haul.
And what about talent, I hear you say. Well, yes, but then again some people have the skill of making a small talent go a very long way, others may have a larger share, but it means nothing if they haven’t got self-discipline to go with it.
But, of course, there are simply writers of pure genius, like the ones I’ve already mentioned. In my view one of the foremost today, if not the foremost, is Jonathan Franzen and I am looking forward to reading his new novel, FREEDOM. The review sections of the papers are full of articles and interviews. Blake Morrison in the Guardian writes about the almost monastic life Franzen leads as a writer, no children, doesn’t go on holiday, locks himself away in a cell-like room. For most of us this trade-off wouldn’t be worthwhile. But someone with Franzen’s huge talent has almost a duty to nurture it and I am glad that he does.