At work recently I made the mistake of letting slip that I write occasionally: normally I avoid having that conversation because it leads to awkward questions about whether I’ve been published or nor (“Yes, but not for a really long time,” because “I self-publish” does sound rather like an admission of uselessness or intense interest in collecting stamps), and because I’m in the process of writing something I would rather not discuss (“It’s a … story … about two men … who like each other … physically … often.”). This time, I was writing something innocuous and my co-worker specifically asked why I had the notebook with me, and it just popped out.
The ensuing conversation raised some useful questions, so I’m going to repeat an edited version of it here, this is more-or-less exactly what he asked and how I answered him.
What’re you writing at the moment?
A short story about a man who wakes up on a spaceship and everyone else is dead; he is incredibly lonely, so he uses the computers there to create the perfect person to be his friend, but the computers are decaying as well as the ship, and what they end up making is actually more kind of an inhuman monster, and then he has this moral conundrum if he should kill this thing he has created or let it live or if he should end his own life. [Ed. This is how I talk in real life – in endless run-on sentences, like a five-year-old]
So do you mostly write sci-fi, then?
I write all sorts of things!
And what do you like, what do you like to read?
Again, all sorts of things, I don’t like to limit myself.
What have you read recently?
One of the books I read most recently was this, it was quite unusual, about a man who had been sent to a mental hospital as a teenager and he was trying to deal with it but instead of talking about it properly he was talking about Black Sabbath a lot, but kind of talking about how he felt at the same time – kind of using the music reviews as a sort of therapy. It was strange but really good, very sad to read. [Ed. Master of Reality by John Darnielle]
And now I’m reading a book by Forster, which is mostly about English manners and is all very twee and has a lot of people failing to tell each other how they feel about each other! [Ed. A Room With A View by E. M. Forster]. So I go about, I read a lot of different things.
Do you ever write about people you know?
In a way yeah, because you end up taking little bits and piece of the people around you and little events – I don’t write about specific people but sometimes someone says something you think is funny and you think “ah, I’m putting that in a book!”, I think sometimes my friends worry when they’re telling me things about their lives, “is she going to write about this?”, and I don’t, but you do overhear things and think “that is a very interesting argument you’re having there – you’re having your heart ripped out by your boyfriend this will make an excellent story”.
So when do you think you decided that you wanted to write, was it when you got published? [in reference to me mentioning I’d won a writing competition when I was 16 and been published in an anthology]
No, before that, I think – I was about seven or so.
Seven! What was it that made you interested in it?
I think I just liked the idea of being paid to make shit up, honestly.
Did you ever think about going into journalism?
Oh no, no. Journalism is about, mostly at least, trying to tell people the truth as much as you can, unless you write for the Sun. I like having the opportunity to make things up, and to take little bits from people to create something new – a lot of the things you have to write about as a journalist, I think, “how is that anyone’s business”, “so and so had an affair with someone else”, no, that’s no one’s business. Also, I don’t think I’m brave enough.
[digression on the subject of war photographers, Marie Colvin, addiction to trauma, bravery, the coverage of the Arab Spring, what motivates people to work in those situations]
So would you say it’s harder to make humour in person or in writing?
Definitely in writing – in person you can adjust what you’re doing because you can see how people react. I did a bit of stand-up, and you get used to kind of, you see what people like and you chase after that, you judge what you’re going to say on the audience, like you know what you can get away with saying and what you probably shouldn’t say, and there are some people you can just push and push and push it with… with writing you’re not in the same room, they’re distanced from you, the people performing it might never meet you, so it’s hard to judge where to push it. And you have to be very disciplined.
[digression on the subject of stand-up comedy, plagiarism, and comedy styles]
Do you think to be a writer you have to be a very creative person?
I think you have to be very observant, you have to be willing to watch people a lot, to see what they’re doing and what they want, so this — this job is good for that. How people interact. You can’t just pull things out of thin air. Your brain’s like a machine, you put in things, books and real-life experience, into it and then you kind of print out the results with our own specific colour of ink. I used to think, before I went on all those writing courses, that you could just cut yourself off and produce things out of nowhere but it turns out better if you have something real to put into it – it turns out more realistic.