A week ago, Lara Pawson came to Warwick University and read from her memoir, This is the Place to Be. “I’m nervous,” she said, standing in front of an audience of around twenty students.
It is easy to see why Pawson might be nervous about reading her book out loud. It is humorous but sometimes uncomfortable to listen to, arresting but reassuring in its honesty. She read for twenty minutes – a long time for a public reading – and yet there was no sense of the audience shutting off, of attentions straying. The book was fascinating because it was full of contradictions. It felt human; a part of the woman in front of us. Pawson existed the way she was – charismatic and striking, decked out in woolly layers and boots in order to take on the snow outside – because of the thoughts inside her head, the same thoughts contained within her book. The book existed the way it was because of Pawson. You couldn’t take one away from the other and expect the thing left behind to be the same.
But, of course, a book is not a simple representation of the person that wrote it. If that were the case, there would be no way for an author to adopt multiple perspectives, to assume different voices for different characters. They would be restricted to their own experiences which, while lending a book authenticity, would stifle any sense of creativity and no doubt result in the same book being produced, over and over again. Books exist independently of their creators. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to separate one from the other.
Now, it would seem it is not enough to write a good book. You also have to be a good author, like Pawson. This means reading the book, talking about the book and selling the book in a compelling way. This demands an ability to switch between two sides of our characters – the side that likes to entertain, educate, express and the other side, the side that likes to do all those things from the comfort of a writing desk in a quiet room, on our own.
Writer Paul Ewen attended author events using the alias Francis Plug, with the intention of poking fun at this contradiction. In the introduction to the resulting book How to be a Public Author, Plug (Ewen) writes: ‘Author events and performances have proliferated, becoming established parts of a writer’s role. It’s not that authors have suddenly become more extroverted – it’s more a case that their job description has changed.’
Jessie Burton, author of bestselling novels The Miniaturist and The Muse has written about her sudden success and its impact on her mental health. Burton wrote her debut, The Miniaturist, over four years, between working as a jobbing actress and PA in London. I spoke to her in the summer of 2014, when she was still caught in the eye of the storm, unaware of the impact the book would go on to have. She described writing it as a very private process, tapping away in secret during PA meetings, aware she should be taking minutes, not writing fiction. There was no way she could have predicted the eleven-party bidding war that would soon take place.
I met Burton for a second time in July 2016, two years after her initial blistering summer of success. ‘When something you have made in private is mass-consumed, the irony is that the magnifying glass burns even brighter on you as an individual,’ Burton says in a post entitled Success, Creativity and the Anxious Space.
For this reason, some writers may prefer to retreat from the spotlight. While this tactic might have worked for the likes of J.D. Salinger (who moved from New York to New Hampshire and withdrew from public life), in this new age of social media where information is so readily and easily available, withholding direct communication can feel at times like self-sabotage. Take the case of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the author of the Neapolitan series. Ferrante has managed to remain unknown, refusing face-to-face interviews and photo-shoots, describing anonymity as ‘a space of absolute creative freedom’. Most interestingly, in a letter to her editor, Ferrante said, ‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.’
I also went on to ask Professor Maureen Freely, translator, novelist and co-creator of the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick about the role of the author in the changing world of publication.
‘Most students come to our MA in Writing thinking of themselves as cogs in a very big wheel that they don’t have to worry about,’ she said. ‘They’re going to do the writing, put their feet up and let the publishing industry take care of the rest of it. Over my lifetime, the structure of the publishing industry has changed. We didn’t use to have literature festivals or so many independent publishers. Editors in the main publishing houses could buy a book because they liked it… The best preparation we can give to our students is to get them involved in the business of publishing work they respect and love and committing to making it better. The writer of today and the writer of tomorrow is somebody who writes but also participates in publishing, in editing, in coaching and supporting and, in a nice way, criticising and goading on other writers.’
By creating a conversation, participating in an active culture, it is possible to boost the possibility of a novel’s success, it would seem. However, a withdrawal from that conversation, if marketed well, can be equally as intriguing. Despite the changes in the industry and the apparent need for writers to become more engaged as personalities and sales-people, it seems that it is easy to lose sight of the true purpose of writing. Lara Pawson had some thoughts about her life, the things she’s experienced, and so she wrote them down and shared them with us. Jessie Burton, unsatisfied with her job as a PA, opened up another word document and created an alternative. Is this not what we’re trying to return to, even if we have to work twelve jobs at the same time to make ends meet? A feeling of speaking for someone else, writing a different path, reaching other people.
You’re telling a story. If that story is good enough, someone will listen.
Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing (https://goo.gl/3pdiB9) alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/