On being a dinner-party novelist

I was in one of those profound creative reveries which take the form of watching in very great detail what is happening on the bird-table outside my office window, when the telephone rang. It was a distant cousin from whom I had not heard for some time and he was wondering whether I could help him with some advice on a writing matter.

Here was something of a surprise. A nice enough chap, my cousin is not known for having literary tastes extending beyond the Racing Post, the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review and an occasional Dick Francis. It turned that he was calling on behalf of a friend who was working on a novel. She had a terrific tale to tell, some great characters. At dinner-parties, she would often keep the whole table gripped by stories from the novel.

As he spoke, I anticipated the request that would soon be on its way. He would want to know the name of an agent. Or whether the friend would be best advised to send the whole manuscript or just a sort of outline? I might even – every author’s nightmare scenario – be asked to “cast an eye” over what she had written and provide a professional view.

But no. Although, as my cousin reassured me, this potential writer was absolutely chocker with ideas, she had recently hit a problem. She found that the actual business of ordering the material into sentences, paragraphs, pages, all that sort of stuff, was quite a bit trickier than she had anticipated.

“The novel’s not actually written then?” At this point, a note of mild exasperation might have entered my voice.

“Not exactly written but it’s all in her head. What she really needs is someone to giver her a hand to get it down on paper. It’s basically a secretarial job. She’s never been very good at organisation – in fact, between you and me, sanity isn’t exactly her strong suit.” There was something in my cousin’s tone which suggested that mental frailty was yet another positive literary credential.

I may have been rather frostier than was entirely polite. I explained as tactfully as I could that, in the great Grand National that is writing a novel, the process of having ideas was little more than cantering down to the start; negotiating Becher’s Brook and the Chair on the way to the winning-post of publication involved words, writing, work. Gloomily, I suggested that the friend could ring me for advice but, when I heard that her favourite time for creative conversations was three in the morning, my enthusiasm waned still further. In spite of the temptation of putting a bit of profitable work in the way of one of my writer friends, I have not followed up the call.

Returning to my bird-table reverie, I found it difficult to shift the thought of this eager, would-be writer who was spilling out her creative energy at dinner-parties and who liked everything about the literary life except the writing. It occurred to me that there must be thousands of people like her who have fallen for the great fantasy version of an author’s life that appears in the press so often: the unknown housewife/supermarket shelf-stacker/single mother who sits down to write a story at the kitchen table/in the canteen/during lunch break and who, just a year later, is taking calls from Steven Spielberg.

Because the sweat, fear, frustration and boredom of completing a book is never mentioned in these accounts, dreamers all over the country become convinced that, in all but one essential – that of committing words to paper or screen – they are authors. They live a writerly life, have writerly thoughts, tell writerly stories to their friends, have writerly conversations, sometimes at three in the morning.

On the other hand, there are quite a few people, some of whom may be reading these words, who are real writers, completing their thousand words a day, but who never quite live up to the image of writer’s life. They are not falling apart in a particularly interesting way, they prefer to talk of anything but their work at dinner-parties and, if they are kept awake at night, it is by the thought of their bank balance.

In other words, a whole publishers’ catalogue of literary dream teams, one side providing the vibe, the other the words, is just waiting to be created. A literary dating agency called, say, AuthorMate, could keep everyone happy. In cases like that of my cousin’s pal, a full secretarial service, previously known as “ghost-writing”, would be available. For those who would simply like a taste of the writing life, without the stress and bother of actually writing anything, AuthorMate would offer the opportunity to sponsor their very own author.

Just as animal-lovers can adopt a dolphin or chimpanzee at a local wildlife park, gaining special visiting rights in return for their sponsorship, so this adopt-an-author scheme would offer members the chance to select a real, working author in whose life and work they will be able to share.

Of course, the scheme will have its drawbacks. It may take a while for some authors to get used to writing with a group of sponsors peering over their shoulders. There may be objections from the starchier literary festivals when a star author appears on stage with an entourage of his associate authors. Some important relaxation strategies in the daily life of authors – opening a bottle of whisky, watching Countdown, tumbling into bed with a lover – may lose some of their appeal when a small audience is involved.

But, in return for a small loss of privacy, real authors will be able to find sponsors for their everyday work while providing non-writing writers with a thought-provoking insight into the creative fervour and emotional roller-coaster that is the literary life.

Autumn 2004