I went out to dinner last night with an old friend and almost the first thing he told me was that The Romantic isn’t the book I should have written. That it’s a book my publisher coerced me into writing and that my real books are yet to be written and though he’s sure this new one is excellent it’s good that it’s done so I can go on and be the writer I’m really meant to be because I am going to write really good books now that I’ve finished this one and…
Um, you haven’t read it, I pointed out.
No no I know I haven’t but obviously Michael Heyward wanted you to write another sexy memoir, it’s just the way publishing works, you can’t tell me that you haven’t thought of this, memoir is easy after all… And so on.
There’s this thing, when you’re the author of a book. It’s open season on you. I’m trying to prepare myself for that when The Romantic is published in a few weeks, that there will be unfavourable reviews as well as good ones, that there might be speculation that I’ve simply replicated In My Skin, that I’ve gone for a commercially attractive genre, that I am a hopeless narcissist and have only one story to tell, my own. I can take that, because I’ve been expecting it and am armed with riposts.
But friends, ah, friends get to take you to task “for your own good”. I don’t doubt that the concern is sincere. And in fact most of my friends are wildly supportive and just keen to read the book when it comes out. My friends have been incredibly loyal and wonderful about In My Skin — they’ve gone round bookshops carefully turning the copies on the shelves face-out; or asking loudly and conspicuously for assistance finding a copy; or bought half a dozen copies to give as gifts; or recommended it to everyone from their grandmother to their boss; pimped it on their websites and posted it overseas to new markets; translated passages into other languages; or just sent me messages of love and joy on my behalf that it did well. Never underestimate the marketing force that is a friendship group! And how humbling it is, to know that the work I produce in my job is celebrated by clever, sensitive and industrious people whose own jobs are rarely so rewarded.
I’m not cranky with my critical friend, but I have to take it on the chin that even a loyal and loving friend may suspect The Romantic is written as an expediency, not as a work that I love. So before any interviews or reviews come out, I might just say some words about that.
It’s true that I was a little surprised to have written The Romantic, and that I resisted it for some years. I said I’m never writing another memoir! I said, Memoirs are weird! In heightened states of emotion, I even said, Memoirs are evil and repulsive. I’m troubled by the narcissism and ethical ruthlessness of memoir (something I’ve expanded on in an essay hopefully to be published soon, and which I’m sure I’ll talk about more in interviews) and have wrestled very hard with my feelings of unease on these matters.
But I did write The Romantic — it flew out of my fingertips when I finally began — it was a story I couldn’t resist — it’s a story I feel says some interesting things — it’s a story I’m curious about, even though it happened to me — it’s a piece of writing I’m proud of.
Michael Heyward, my publisher and mentor, NEVER told me to write another memoir. He never demanded I write something sexy. He told me I write sex, horror and dialogue well and that I should think about where those inclinations might take me. He has always supported the development of my abilities and capacities for whatever *I* want to do with them, and I am grateful that I’m lucky enough to have an excellent publisher who will tell me when something’s not good enough, and publish something when it is, no matter what it is.
It’s true that The Romantic is placed in a genre that is commercially attractive. Memoirs, especially memoirs featuring sex, or memoirs featuring a country like Italy, are best-sellers. I did consider this when I decided to write my story: it’s nicer to write for an interested audience than an uninterested one. But it was really simply the last little circumstantial part of the equation: the rest was far more to do with being emotionally ready; being in Italy again, which roused memories and my interest in my past experiences; wanting very fiercely to write more about young women, sexuality, sexual identity, pressure, and loneliness; the voice of the book shouting in my head that it was found; and the impetus of a story that says that it’s the most urgent story I have right now, that this is it, that this is my next book no matter what I might prefer (I was actually finishing the draft of a novel and supposed to be starting the draft of another novel).
I wrote The Romantic because I had no choice, it hummed in my veins, it flexed in my bones, it tingled in my fingertips. It was ready and so was I.
And now it will go into the world and make its own way and again, I will have no choice or control of that. I could shape the book itself, but I cannot shape how people receive it. I can only be pleased with it, for my own sake, on my own criteria of satisfaction, impressed that I managed to bring it off the way I hoped to, and ready to see a part of me flow off onto the seas of public readership. It won’t please everyone, this book, but it pleases me.