Enjoying the pâté
In her book of essays Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes one of the best lines I've ever read (and she writes a lot of great lines). It goes something like this: wanting to meet an author because you like his or her work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.
The line has particular resonance for me owing to a brief escapade as an entertainment and film journalist. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of cinematic ducks over the course of those three years and soon learned that the person you see up on the big screen doing their thing is not the person sitting in front of you politely answering your not-very-original questions. Some of those ducks turned out to be much lovelier than I was expecting, but most of them were just normal people doing the bit of their job that's my equivalent of having to sort out a magazine's distribution list. They'd really rather let their acting to do the talking.
Authors are no different and, I think, an even more interesting example of this phenomenon. Our interaction with actors is very immediate - we see them walking and talking on the screen. There are plenty of cases of actors having their own identity mixed up with that of a character in the presence of a superfan. Equally we can 'see' writers - almost all of them have their photo somewhere in the book jacket. Interestingly, in the same book of essays Atwood says if she had known anything about the role she was expected to fill as a (female) writer, when first starting out, she may have done things differently, including not allowing her photo to appear at all.
We also believe we know what these authors 'sound' like? - after all, we've read their novels, poetry or drama. But just as a fan might confuse Daniel Radcliffe for Harry Potter it's all too easy for a reader to confuse the voice in the novel with the person creating it. I went to a press conference once with a favourite author but couldn't get past the fact that they didn't look or sound anything like their narrator. I was pretty young at the time and like to think that now I would be grown-up enough not to let these things get in the way. But it bothered me for ages. It wasn't the author's fault but rather my assumptions that the person I'm 'hearing' is the same as the person who is writing.
So, you would think that with Atwood's caution in my head that I would have been a little wary when I discovered the Canadian author was coming to London to be made a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature, add her signature to the RSL Roll book, using either Lord Byron's ink pen or Charles Dickens's quill - the choice was hers, the lucky devil - and to give a talk. Nope. I was giddy as a schoolgirl. The only person giddier was friend and fellow blogger Sinéad Keegan. Sinéad is married to a Canadian and spent time living in Canada, but most of all she is a huge - I mean huge - Margaret Atwood fan.
Having booked the tickets as soon as they were released, we both skipped to Canada House clutching copies of her books in the hope she might sign them (she did) and spent a happy hour or so listening to the woman herself talk about her experiences of becoming a writer in Canada at a time when most with similar ambitions felt they needed to leave the country to succeed, along with her thoughts on the continued relevance of her extraordinarily prescient novel The Handmaid's Tale and her experiences with social media. I found myself marvelling at the depth of her answers and the breadth of her literary knowledge. You just get the sense that she was born wise.
But it was her thoughts on the writing process that were most interesting. I am a little bit obsessed with how other writers go about it and am always surprised to discover that my literary heroes find it tough. Atwood is no different and revealed that she wrote three openings for The Blind Assassin (each about 100-200 pages) before she knew she was on the right track. I am currently tying myself up in knots trying to figure out how to get into my novel and breathed a huge sigh of relief at this news. Somehow, even though she didn't know it, one of my all-time favourite writers was giving me permission to mess it up and to know that if I'm lucky enough to still be writing when I'm 73 that it's still okay to make mistakes. It's part of the process and frankly one in the eye for the inner critic.
Margaret Atwood's advice about duck pâté will always hold true - your expectations of your literary or cinematic or musical heroes may not always stand up to rigorous testing. I am pleased to report, however, that this particular pâté was as lovely as I'd hoped.