A couple of weeks ago an old friend invited me to his housewarming party. He was renting, but the place was impressive: eight bedrooms and a pool, a new red sports car parked on the neat, sloping drive. He’d always been a bit of a show-off, but Phil’s also one of those decent guys who works hard. Loud music, bright lights, laughter everywhere and fifty or more people spilling out of the house into the grounds, the party was well underway by the time I climbed out of my old, four-grand convertible boasting a rattling exhaust. Dressed in a shaggy rock band jumper and some torn jeans I got a few glances from some of the more affluent guests, but nothing I’m not used to.
The host with the most massive flatscreen TV I’ve ever squinted at, Phil introduced me to a few new people while he poured generous drinks in his packed kitchen and I soon got chatting with a couple who were both in asset management. To be honest I’d rather have been listening to the ninth Black Sabbath album with Phil’s teenage sister across the hall. But anyway.
After the usual “where are you from?” “what car do you drive?” “where do you live now?” kind of questions, the most common of all hit the conversation: “What do you do?” They meant, of course, as a job. Phil, an entrepreneur by trade if that isn’t an oxymoron, answered on my behalf in his usual laid-back style, “She writes cool stuff.”
I agreed that was about the gist of it, and added that I gave up my job as a scientist to write fiction.
“So you write sci-fi?” was the next question.
I usually avoid telling people about my fiction work because of exactly that question. They hear science, they hear fiction and they assume I’m penning something along the lines of Red Dwarf. It’s just so hard to explain to people with ‘normal’ jobs what I do. Then again, sometimes I’m glad I do mention it because I often find people with ‘normal’ jobs secretly want to join me on the journey.
“You must be mad,” said finance director, Kath. She was half-joking.
I replied that it was certainly possible.
“Why do you write made-up stuff?” asked husband, Miles, totally unable to grasp why anyone would.
A number of obvious answers popped into my mind… For fun. Because inventing things is interesting. Because of the incredible variety of topics I get to write about. The challenge of bringing characters and places to life. To make sense of the world. So I can legally pretend to be different people every day. I could have said it’s about testing myself – proving to myself that I can bring together a story that’s enjoyable, that people will want to read. But those answers could be any other author’s answers and I felt those financiers deserved better.
So I told a deeper truth: that the real reason I write is because it is the only way I can access the version of myself I respect the most, the fearless, outspoken, careless, rebellious, witty version who doesn’t always surface in everyday life for whatever reason. In my books, more than anywhere else, I said passionately, the real me can elbow her way to the front of the little crowd of me’s, throw off the social shackles and be completely free.
Miles, Kath and Phil all stared at me as if I’d turned lime green.
“And what do you write about?” said Miles.
“All the things that have affected my life in some way, the people and places that have shaped me. Childhood adventures, my favourite wallpaper, breaking family rules, fallouts, the death of a friend, travelling to new places, successes, failures, silly mistakes, stuff that annoys me.”
“Is that a genre?” said Kath.
We all laughed, and she was right. I admitted how tricky it is to pin down what it’s all about. One phrase can’t describe everything I want the writing to encompass. For me, it’s not as simple as being a ‘crime writer’ or a ‘thriller writer’. I write crime, thrillers and comedies, sometimes all in the same book. If I’d wanted to fall into a neat category I would have been a red wine. I reject labels (especially cheap Bordeaux) and, in the writing world, I know I’m not alone. All the writers who inspire me felt the same and so do many current writers, pushing boundaries in all directions. Variety, I suggested to Kath and Miles, fuels creativity better than anything else, just like a varied diet gives the best health results. And where would we be without the freedom to be totally creative at times?
I kid you not, Miles said, almost apologetically, before a little sip of whiskey, “Probably finance directors.”