Dear Diary 1: I Hate Your Perfect White Pages
I expect my readers to be a little smarter than average.
Dear Diary, it’s Friday August 6th, and I’ve started feeling like Joan Crawford trapped in Bette Davis’s house in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’ But at least she got to be in Santa Monica. I’m in King’s Cross. I am a prisoner. The Prisoner. No.6. I am not a number, I am an animal. I’m the Forgotten Prisoner (bats not included), the Prisoner of Zenda, the Prisoner of Second Avenue, I am Papillon, the Birdman of Alcatraz, Billy Hayes, Un Prophète, Mr Lawrence, Un Homme Èchappe, everyone who has ever been trapped except that bloke in the bloody Shawshank Redemption, a film I unreasonably detest.
Why haven’t I flown the coop? Government red tape, the coronavirus (although it’s virtually vanished here), The Husband’s dreaded work commitments, hospital appointments. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m meant to be like Tom Hanks in ‘Joe VS The Volcano’ – and hurtle off around the world first class to fill my time with colour and life, not be staring out of a rain-stained window.
So what should I be doing with my time? My gut tells me to find a way of writing one more Bryant & May, but what if I don’t finish it? Would readers feel cheated after the events of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’? Holmes went over the falls. And off a building. Did anyone care?
The sun flickers briefly through the summer’s dense and endless black clouds, so I tentatively sit outside and read the giants whose feet I cannot reach. To know that you are here when they are there is frustrating. But reading the giants is always an angry joy.
I need to expand my circuit from home-hospital-Waitrose, so the day before yesterday I had breakfast with the always-interesting Joanne Harris, whose new novel, ‘The Narrow Door’ continues investigations at St Oswald’s, possibly the most ill-fated school in the country. Like me, Joanne has gone public about her illness in order to encourage dialogue with others who have not gone for scans. She is in recovery from chemo and doing well. We share pain-easement tips and moan about what’s happening to the NHS – this, believe it or not, is the very first time I’ve spoken to another ‘patient’. The system wants to be holistic and encompassing but it simply isn’t. What you’re offered depends on where you live.
Later, to lunch with author/critic/ film expert Barry Forshaw and his wife Judith, in a restaurant so close to my home that I can see The Husband jet-washing our terrace. We always talk about film, Barry and I, especially as he records commentaries for DVD releases. I bemoan the fact that the studios are deliberately holding back films and dedicating themselves to G-rated family fare, Marvel and DC to maximise profits. At which point I realise I’ve overdone the fast chat and pretty much collapse like a Buzz Lightyear with its batteries removed.
Even though my chemo failed its pernicious effects linger. There are days when I can’t think clearly, remember words or form sentences, so writing a novel this afternoon is probably out. Besides, what should I write? My last non-Bryant & May novel was buried by the publisher and now I’ve finished two more very different books, placed but so far unpublished, so there’s no point in working on yet another. I cannot bring readers from Bryant & May to other works, any more than Joanne can bring her Chocolat-lovers to her other books.
Career writers always face this dilemma. We work continually to reliably deliver books. Some are experiments, and experiments don’t always work. Some books are too far of a stretch for readers used to an entirely different style. Some readers found ‘Little Boy Found’ (hate that title) unrealistic. I expect my readers to be a little smarter than average. Work with me, stay ahead. I don’t really do traditional realism. I can, but I find it boring to write. I expect readers to see beyond the words. I grew up surrounded by the experimentalists, the non-realistic writers. I love Joe Orton’s strange take on the English language – let’s have more of it! Oh, you say it doesn’t sell and how about writing a crowd-pleaser that pays fan service instead?
Right now I can’t fill a diary – I start with neat penmanship and swiftly descend into random notes, weird drawings and shopping lists. But at least they’re revealing and readable. Which is probably more than can be said for some of my prose.