When asked why he didn’t give public readings, Philip Larkin famously replied, “I don’t want to go around pretending to be me”. And for someone with no experience of the format, he pretty much nailed its essence with that. The truth is, that’s precisely what most writers do. The walking shadows that strut their stuff upon a podium aren’t the same creatures that pace a room conjuring up deathless prose (or immortal verse, in Larkin’s case); the performer is not the same person as the writer. The audience expecting to see the individual who produces the books is in for a disappointment. But they’re better off that way. Because if we could drag the actual writer into the spotlight – say, for example, the writer whose name appears on my books – and stick him in front of an audience, what would that audience see?
Well, to start with the good news, he’s dressed. There’s an American expression, a question crime novelists are sometimes asked: “Do you write by the seat of your pants?” – meaning, do you make it up as you go along? And this gets abbreviated to, “Are you a pantser?” First time I heard that, I thought I was being asked if I wrote in my pants. To which the honest answer was: “Well, sometimes…” But mostly, no, I’m dressed. Not fit to be seen on the street, but not actually naked. Jogging bottoms, which have never been jogging in their life (I have a second pair I wear to the squash court, but they’re no good for writing in, obviously), and a T-shirt from an American crime writers’ convention depicting a scary orange moon, a happy alligator and the slogan Blood on the Bayou … That’s my current get-up if I’ve tumbled straight from bed to desk, and it’s not something a paying audience needs to confront. More to the point, at that moment, or during the series of moments that comprise my working day, my communication skills barely match my sartorial elegance. Any question that isn’t “Would you like a cup of coffee?” will meet a blank stare, or uncomprehending fear.
That’s one version of the unvarnished writer. There are others, some more civilised, some less so. Not that this is specific to writers, or creative artists of any stripe – we’re all different people when we’re alone, or when we consider ourselves unobserved. But we’re not all interrogated as to the habits of that version of ourselves. And as far as writers go, most have one thing in common. If put in front of an audience, they’d be unable to function in any meaningful way.
A clean shirt
But you’ll have noticed I’m referring to the writer, not the author. It’s an important distinction because, generally speaking, it’s the latter who turns up at events; a somewhat different individual, who may or may not be fazed at the prospect of appearing before fee-paying strangers, but at least knows enough to get dressed first. (A handy definition of what makes a good author, incidentally, was supplied by my editor some years ago. “A good author,” she said, “wears a clean shirt to a public event.” True, and not accorded enough importance in literary criticism, to my mind.) And the author, moreover, will generally be operating to a script. What the paying audience sees is a set of rehearsed responses; answers that have been trotted out so often they can be delivered on automatic, and whose purpose is to provide a coherent account of a process that is, in reality, often barely-managed chaos.
That rehearsed responses are available to authors at public events is made possible by the familiarity of the questions that arise. “Where do you get your ideas from?” is the perennial favourite, of course, though isn’t asked half as often as people suppose, possibly because its function as a signifier of the questioner’s naivety is now widely known. So when it does make an appearance, it’s often cast in an ironic mould: I’m asking this so we can all have a good chuckle. And yet it remains, for me, a good question, largely because I have no idea what the answer is. I’d happily ask it of others, if I thought I could get away with it.
So the plot – the idea – is essentially just background noise made coherent
In the meantime, the response I usually come up with is that, when ideas come, I don’t always recognise them as such. They begin life as an observation, perhaps, not something that immediately suggests itself as a subject for fiction, just an in-passing thought about how the world works. Often banal in and of itself, but a hinge, nonetheless, opening a previously unnoticed door. But the bigger truth is that few of my novels have their roots in ideas. I’m mostly working on a series, which is fairly well-peopled, and with all those characters clamouring for attention, plots – “ideas” – tend to be excuses for doing something with them. I’ve had it to the back teeth with X, I’ll think. I’m going to push him/her off a cliff. So: what’s X doing up a cliff in the first place? At night, obviously; in weather of some description. Chasing someone, or being chased … And where is the cliff? All these issues, and many others, need to be settled before I can get to the fun part, which is chucking X off a cliff. So the plot – the idea – is essentially just background noise made coherent; it’s the series of alibis needed to get X into the situation I want him/her in.
But is it really? I don’t know. I think it comes reasonably close to an explanation of what it is I’m doing when I plot, but I also know that what it really is is a more or less coherent account which I can deliver in front of an audience and which will be met with understanding nods. As I say, a rehearsed response. Something like that happens, yes, and the end result is, X falls off a cliff (good riddance), and the various other strands of the narrative – the reason X was there; what the weather was like, etc – are all addressed, but what’s really going on in the moment, the creative moment I mean, is different to that, in ways that lie beyond my ability to relate. It’s to do with word choice, the way a particular vocabulary thrusts itself to the front of my mind – resulting in a paragraph revolving round a specific set of images: parts of the body, say, or forms of currency, or musical terms – with no apparent reason for doing so.
Connections are being made at a subconscious level, obviously, but all that matters to me is that I’m finding the right words for this paragraph, this moment. So much of writing can be condensed to that formula: this feels like the right thing to do this minute. And with writing, you can follow the moment, see if it works. It’s very unlike life in that respect. Unlike driving, or parenthood. If it doesn’t work, you simply press delete, and it’s like it never happened: an invisible mistake.
And the plot, anyway, is less important than readers might think; less important to the actual creation of a book, I mean. I might be wrong about that. But an analogy that occurred to me at about three o’clock the other morning was that of painting a wall. The plot is the colour you’ve chosen. Obviously there’s work involved in making that decision, and in scraping the money together to afford the tin in question, and in getting down to the shop to collect it. But then comes the act of applying the paint to the wall, and from that moment on, it’s all about the brushwork. The colour is inherent in every stroke, but that doesn’t make it crucial to the enterprise: you could be working with any colour at all. What matters is the way it attaches to the surface. It’s the movement of your hand, your arm. It’s not dropping the brush. It’s not falling off the ladder.
A middle-of-the night analogy, that, and better minds than mine will find more accurate images. But my own haziness about the process doesn’t trouble me: it matters more that I’m doing it than that I don’t comprehend the mechanics. So the initial part of this ramble, the part about creating the context in which I can make certain things happen (X falling off a cliff, etc), suffices as the answer at a public event: it’s a packaged version of what’s going on; something that I can express, and an audience comprehend. But it isn’t real, or doesn’t feel real. It’s a pretence. It’s me pretending to be me, or at least, pretending to be the me I am when I’m writing the books with my name on. And just struggling through that sentence proves one thing, at least. That when Philip Larkin decided that this malarkey wasn’t for him, he had a point.
London Rules by Mick Herron, the fifth in the Jackson Lamb series, is out now