Unaccustomed as I am

In Books
February 5, 2008

I went to a wonderful Women Novelist’s salon a little while ago, which is the sort of event that always makes me feel that I am Actually a Real Writer, and perhaps not Just Pretending. Much of the chat revolved around horrible evenings giving readings to unappreciative audiences. From what I can tell, I’ve been lucky: I haven’t had any really awful experiences, but I expect they await me eventually.

I also recently had a chat with a friend who’s trying to arrange a big education event.
“Can you imagine,” she said, “I tried to invite Mr Very Well-Known Writer to speak at my charity event, and he asked for £20,000! For one night!”
The thing my friend failed to understand was: this isn’t a way of asking for a lot of money. Really, it’s a way (a very English way) of saying “no”. Let me break it down for you.

Writers are by nature usually people who are capable of enjoying time in our own company. We often prefer imaginary people to real ones, and get childishly attached to our own chair, our own desk, our own routine. If we’d wanted a life of glamorous foreign travel and meeting new people, we’d have become management consultants.

Admittedly, there are times when it’s dead exciting to be asked to speak anywhere. It’s the Real Writer thing again: even accumulating horror stories makes you feel more writerly. But then, time goes past and the new novel really does need to be worked on – there’s nothing, after all, that makes you feel more like a writer than writing.  And you do reach a point where you’ve frankly said all that can be said about the old novel not once but many times.

But still you get invitations to do things. I love getting these invitations. Every single one still fills me with happiness that someone actually liked my book enough to ask me to speak. But, *accepting* any invitation means time away from writing, or away from spending relaxing time with friends, or with a book, or at the gym, or with anyone or anything that doesn’t ask me the same questions about my book that I’ve heard so often before. (It’s no one’s fault – those are the questions everyone wants to know the answer to. But it does get tiring.)

So, I think to myself: is this an interesting event? Will there be interesting people there? Is it somewhere fun? And, more personally: am I really in a mental place where I’ll be able to enjoy doing this, or will I, however fun the people are, be longing to get back home? I’m *very much* more likely to do it if it’s come via my publisher and has thus already been vetted. If it’s far away and would entail staying over, it depends on when it is, what else is going on at that time (I’m not going to do anything over the Jewish holidays, for example), how much I want to go to the place and how much I desperately need to spend concentrated time with my next book.

So it’s when I get invitations to speak in places that are far away, that are at inconvenient times, that would mean at least a week of disruption (and it is a week, at least, with planning, packing, unpacking, exhaustion, organisation, re-entry into normal life) that I find myself thinking, in a rather cowardly way: “I don’t want to have to say no. It’s a privilege to be asked. But… I don’t want to go. So how much money would make it OK to spend time doing things I really don’t want to do, going places I don’t want to go, realising that my novel was growing cold again? How much would make it really OK?”

And so, though I’ve never asked for £20,000 (or anything in any way like it), I can understand that that’s when you do it. Perhaps Mr Very Well-known Writer regularly gets £20,000 a night. But perhaps he asks for it because he knows it’s ridiculous, that no one would ever pay it, and that this lets him get back to his tricky next chapter. And if someone turns out to have much deeper pockets than he expected… well, at least he knows when he’s on the plane facing the jetlag that he can pay for a writing holiday somewhere sunnier to make up for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *