On writers who prefer to rest

Writing isn’t life, you know. When you lay down your pen, perhaps having received a rejection note so brutal that not even you can construe it as actually rather positive in its way, the world keeps on turning. In many ways, the life of an ex-, dormant or would-be writer is every bit as varied and rich as that of one who is still doggedly churning out the words and playing the game.

There is more time for play when you stop writing. Fewer ambitions mean fewer disappointments. You are still essentially an author, but a non-executive one. Your work exists in that pure, unexpressed, interior state which is always strangely superior to what emerges on paper. Taking physical shape, words seem to lose some of their magic.

Anyone who still needs convincing that there is life after writing should attend the next annual party to be held by the Society for WRAP, which stands for Writers Resting At Present. On these marvellously social occasions, much effort goes into recreating the atmosphere of a traditional publisher’s party. There are small glasses containing warm Bulgarian white wine, bowls of mysteriously damp peanuts, an irritating speech from a teenage managing-director who seems to speak in a foreign language, and several people have been employed not to recognize guests, to talk loudly about other authors’ bestsellers, and to remove wine glasses from those present at nine o’clock on the dot.

At the latest WRAP party – they are always held, with nice sense of irony, in the Spring – I caught tantalising snatches of literary conversation as I moved through the throng. “I used to have lunch with Ed Victor, you know – on a regular basis”. “Put it this way, the East Anglian Daily Times called me ‘Colchester’s most distinctive voice’.” “Well, it was between me and Jilly Cooper and guess who won!”

To get a stronger sense of what the non-writing literary life involves, I spoke to a few of those present. The first author I approached was an imposing six-foot figure wearing a billowing purple cocktail dress and with the merest hint of a five o’clock shadow. Her name was Freda Wills but I had to confess that I was not familiar with her work.

“In the seventies, I was spraying out war thrillers like an uberlieutenant with an MG 34 machine gun.” Freda’s voice, a mellow tenor, was something of a surprise. “I invented this fearfully butch Waffen SS character called Gunnar Rausch. Maybe you remember some of my paperback titles now. Achtung, Gunnar Rausch!The Bloody Vengeance of Gunnar Rausch were particular favourites.”

When I murmured something about how difficult it must have been when war thrillers went out of fashion, Gina gave a hearty golf-club laugh.

“Fashion had nothing to do with it. In Chapter Five of Gunnar Rausch, Satan’s Side-Gunner, Gunnar found himself looking at the indentation of flesh on the trigger finger of a young sniper and the little film of sweat around his grim, yet oddly wanton lips. Soon afterwards, Gunnar was wounded in a tank battle in Belgium and, when he woke up in hospital, he was Gina, a shapely female spy. The book became Gina Does Dortmund which, inexplicably, the publisher turned down. So I gave up writing, and put all my creative energy into forming a new character – me.”

Encouraged by this inspiring story, I approached a small, wiry man in his sixties whose face I remembered from literary parties years ago. “HT Masterson,” I said, shaking his hand. “We met once when your first novel was short-listed for the Booker. It was said that your book was so dense that it made The Bone People seem like a Cartland novel. It took an entire department at the University of East Anglia a semester to study it and confirm that it was a work of genius. What are you up to now?”

Masterson smiled happily. “When I was halfway through my second novel, I found that I couldn’t write another word. So, instead, I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books called “Opus Interruptus: The blocked artist as 20th century metaphor.” Shortly afterwards, I opened a creative therapy session centre for blocked writers called “Blocage en Provence”. Now I’m the world expert on interrupted literature and I’m compiling The Faber Book of Uncompleted Masterpieces. It’s a whole new career.”

There is a sort of heroism at a WRAP party, I was discovering. In one corner, I noticed an author who has moved from novels to novellas to short stories to sonnets to haikus and who these days has to take a valium before he can sign his name. Holding forth in the centre of the room was a retired journalist whose life had been mapped out in columns – “Me and my love life”, “Me and my family”, “Me and my pets”, “Me and my therapy”, “Me and my divorce” – until she had to cancel “Me and my terminal illness” when, disastrously, a consultant broke it to her that she was going to be fine. The disappointment finished her as a writer.

I noticed that the room was beginning to empty and soon discovered the reason. Marsha Laye, the famous figure from the Sixties whose controversial works included Morning, Darling, What Was Your Name?, The Legover Papers and I’m Not Cheap, I’m Free: The Horizontal Memoirs of a Supergroupie, was looking for a date for the night. She draped her surprisingly supple frame around me, whispering huskily, “I may not be in my prime any more but I give great material.”

Enough of the literary life. There was a life to be led, beyond words and books. Unsteadily, but aware of a tingle of anticipation that was impossible to ignore, I followed her out into the welcoming night.

Spring 2006