How Much Should Writers Expose about Themselves?

Reading & Writing

IZAI’m currently doing a blog tour and finding it refreshing after years of doing regular press interviews. Instead of some poor exhausted journo trying to file ten stories in one day and not having had the time to even read your book jacket, let alone the book, I’m being asked intelligent and interesting questions by people who really care about books and have made the time to read them. Although you get fewer readers per capita this way, you reach the readers who might actually buy your book. You also get a more accurate rendition of what you actually said in the interview.

Many years ago, a Sunday Times journalist came to my home and interviewed me. I was young and I suppose relatively photogenic for an author, and as the interview went on it became clear there was another agenda at work; she wanted to know if I was gay. In such situations I tend to close up, and so I told her less and less as the interview went on.

When I saw the article in print, it was full of strange innuendo – ‘his eerily tidy house’ – ‘obviously single’ and some other stuff. After that I refused to talk about anything other than the books ever again. Years later a Daily Mail journalist interviewed me, and I stuck to my rule of only talking about books. After she had switched off her recorder, she asked me for a job at my company. I told her I couldn’t think about hiring anyone as I was soon to be leaving the company, because my business partner had cancer.

She ran the piece mentioning my partner’s cancer. Not all of his family knew at the time. Moral, be careful what you say, even when it seems okay.

Now, if you base your characters on friends, as I do, how much intrusion are you putting onto them? It’s common knowledge that Arthur Bryant is based on my best friend, because there’s a photograph of him in one of the books, but nearly all of the main characters are real, especially Maggie Armitage. Weirdly, I’m not the only person to use her as a fictional character. The author Tom Wakefield did too. I always check to see if people mind, because what I’ll do is not use them as they are, but how they suit the story best.

But I think that probably like most authors I draw out specific traits of my friends and exaggerate them, and sometimes I combine two or more traits from different people in one character. Occasionally characters come from common storybook mythology; there’s an element of the Peculiar Crimes Unit’s chief Raymond Land that’s taken from the sleepy sultan in ‘The Thief of Baghdad’, and Oskar Kasavian had more than a touch of Christopher Lee about him.

Above is my lovely Polish friend Izabella Skrzyszewska-Gray, seen here by artist Jim Burns, but she’s actually pretty shy and I haven’t used her as a character because I don’t want to intrude upon her life. Even if nobody picks up on such things I would feel uncomfortable, and there are authors, like the writer of ‘Girls’, who simply churns every event of her life into fiction, which I have a problem with – other people are not there to be mined endlessly like seams of coal.

In an ideal world writers would exist only through their words – and oddly, because of the slow death of the printed newspaper, meaning that space is at a premium, authors have rather gone back behind their books. There are a few, like JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett, who have enjoyed public personas, but the beauty of doing this for a living is that your prose represents you even now, when Instagram and Facebook can reveal everything to everyone. There are some things that should always remain a mystery.


4 comments on “How Much Should Writers Expose about Themselves?”

  1. John says:

    “…like the writer of ‘Girls’, who simply churns every event of her life into fiction, which I have a problem with ”

    I do, too. But you really can’t fault Lena Dunham who is part of the Twitter/Facebook generation for fictionalizing real life in a TV Show. They have no concept of what a real private life is. EVERYTHING must be shared and recorded and spit out into the digital ether. TV writing is just a natural extension of that for her, I guess.

  2. Jo W says:

    I don’t know if you had dropped a hint somewhere, sometime,but my mind’s eye I had always a picture of Christopher Lee whenever Oskar’s names was mentioned. You must have described the character perfectly. Mind you,I had no trouble fitting the faces of Hammer Horror film stalwarts to the characters in Hell Train! Just one day to go now! 😃👍👍

  3. Anne Fernie says:

    Re the ‘Facebook generation’ ~ working with students we see the trends arising and dissipating and we were just saying today that there is a backlash occuring amongst younger undergrads. One was heard to dismiss Facebook etc. as ‘something my Dad does’ and to state how nice it is to actually meet people face to face…..can’t come quick enough for me………..

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There is something about the photograph above that reminds me of photos of Thana Niveau. That is a lovely photo. Only your inner circle would recognize the characters if we weren’t told the identities. Of course, identifying them prevents hangers on from guessing wrongly. I don’t think any author creates characters out of whole cloth, events and mannerisms stick in a person’s mind, but considering that people will will pay to have their names in a book, regardless of the character attached to them, it probably isn’t as much of a problem as authors used to find it.

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