Some years ago now, the Bookseller printed a cartoon about the writer’s life. The first ten frames were identical: a figure hunched over a computer, alone. The eleventh showed the same figure at a signing mobbed with people, a camera-flash going off in his face, a microphone thrust under his chin. In the twelfth and final frame, he was back at his desk, alone.
For me, that cartoon captured it perfectly: eleven months a year – literally or metaphorically – writing is silent, solitary work, and then for a brief period around publication, the world rushes in. Though pretty manquée now, I’m a classicist by education and the binary nature of writing work always makes me think of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of doorways, who looks both inward and out, god of beginnings and ends. (Appropriate that his month, January, is when so many people make a new commitment to their writing.)
I’m a Gemini, famously double, and though it gets a bad rap – when it comes to people, people want consistency – I cop to my duality unashamed. That kind of two-facedness, the ability to look inward and out, is essential for a writer. You need a deep interest in people if you are going to write but you also need to be able to go long periods on your own, or at least alone in your head, to get the work done.
With apologies to anyone who met my voluble, raconteur self at a party on Friday night then encountered my preoccupied, lost-in-my-head avatar on Monday morning, I hold up my hand.
In fact, several deplorable personality traits are extremely useful for writers. Self-absorption’s another. A question I’m often asked is whether I base my characters on real people. The truth is, apart from the occasional mannerism or style of dress, no. I’d feel very uneasy about writing a ‘real’ person into a novel. For a start, I’d hate anyone to recognize himself in my work – given that I write dark psychological suspense, there’s a strong likelihood that any portrait would be unflattering.
Also, I’m possessive (I begin to see what a monster I am…) and I want my characters to be mine. For that reason, and because I think the person one can best understand is oneself, I spend a lot of time analysing my own feelings and reactions, fears and enthusiasms, so that I can write the most honest fiction I can. Self-absorbed? Absolutely.
Perfectionism, that old job-interview standard, is another useful character flaw. Of course, it has drawbacks even here – witness Joseph Grand in Camus’ The Plague, forever rewriting the first sentence of the novel he’ll never finish – but, confined to the editing stage of the process, that tenacity and will to go over and over one’s work until each sentence rings right and each image is as strong as possible is invaluable.
Bloody-mindedness is an excellent defect, too. When I was flat-sharing in London, I had a housemate who took up marathon running as a bit of light entertainment (really) while studying for financial-services exams. Hour after hour, weekend after weekend, we sat at our respective desks, meeting downstairs in the kitchen for regular sugar fixes. ‘I’ve concluded,’ he told me, ‘that writing novels is your marathon-running. It’s an endurance sport, isn’t it?’
Talking it through, we found a lot of parallels: the enthusiasm and resolve at the start; the bursts of euphoria when the work seems effortless, but then – and most especially – the Wall, which Patrick McCrann on active.com (I have to take his word for it) describes as ‘that period in a marathon when things transition from being pretty hard to being really, really hard. It is the point where your body and mind are simultaneously tested.’
In marathon-running, that point apparently falls somewhere about the twenty-mile mark, and, for me at least, it comes at that approximate spot in the writing. But wherever it comes, there is always a point where the task ahead seems impossible, where one hits a plot snag that seems insurmountable or where, simply, the idea of finishing is unimaginable. This is where bloody-mindedness comes in. The difference between finishing a novel and not is gritting your teeth and keeping going.
For a writer of psychological suspense, a different sort of bloody-mindedness is of the essence. ‘Can’t you think of something nice?’ is a question I’ve been asked by key players in my life and the truth is, I can (see above: two-faced Janus). When it comes to fiction, however, my antennae are tuned for darkness. I imagine the worst in people – their shameful secrets, their failings – and appalling behaviour: deception and cruelty, violence, murder. I spend my workdays thinking about the worst aspects of humanity.
And yet what story doesn’t have darkness? Even the lightest, most amusing pieces have conflict because without it, there can be no development. All writers need the ability to look at and understand darkness; after all, Et in Arcadia ego – ‘Even in Arcadia, here I am.’ Who is speaking here but Death?
More broadly, being flawed and recognising one’s own failings are the first steps towards understanding and having empathy for other humans, an essential – perhaps the essential – ability a writer needs. Alas, it’s no excuse for being a thoroughly lamentable human being. I’m still looking for that.
Lucie Whitehouse grew up near Stratford on Avon, UK. After a Classics degree at Oxford, she moved to London where she worked briefly in journalism and then for two major literary agencies. Her four novels of psychological suspense include Before We Met, the Richard and Judy and ITV Crime Thriller Book Club selection, and – just published by Bloomsbury – Keep You Close.
Follow her on Twitter @LWhitehouse5
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