When you move to a new place and meet new people the inevitable question arises: ‘What do you do?’ I’ve tried all kinds of variations on a theme: ‘I’m a writer.’ ‘I write crime fiction.’ ‘I write thrillers.’ ‘I carry out editorial work for Writers’ Workshop.’ Often the latter begs clarification as it’s often translated as ‘copy-editing,’ which I don’t do. It doesn’t matter how I couch my answer and, by now, I really should be used to the response any of the above elicits but it still often leaves me as bemused as the person asking the question. The reactions I get to the ‘writerly’ answer tend to range from a flat ‘That’s nice’ and a change of subject so fast you don’t have time to blink, to a ‘Crikey, how many books have you sold?’ This is often followed by ‘How much money have you made?’ It’s as if by stating you’re a writer all normal forms of social etiquette are abandoned. I would no sooner ask someone about his or her salary or take-home pay than book a flight to the moon.
And it doesn’t end there.
Out of those who profess interest (not that I expect it particularly) some quiz me about the kind of books I write. I use the word ‘quiz’ because this brand of ‘askee’ has hawk-eyes and a tone suggestive of a trick question. My response plainly will decide whether I’m a worthy individual, or not. This used to unsettle me. No more. I’ve now got my answer down to a fine art: ‘Used to write spy fiction and am about to have a series of psychological thrillers with a female lead published’. It’s a kind of hedge your bets response, although it does split people into two camps: those who are disappointed that I don’t write ‘proper’ books i.e. literary fiction and those mightily relieved I don’t.
And I mustn’t forget an entire sub-section of folk who reckon that they have a good book in them if only they had the time to write. On occasion, I’ve been advised to write it for them because the story of their life as an accountant/sales adviser/beauty consultant is not to be missed. ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up,’ they say. ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ I respond with a shaky laugh as I edge my way towards the nearest exit.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I’m greeted with enthusiasm and a promise to check out my website. Very occasionally, I’ll spend a happy time discussing various novels and writers – this happened by chance just the other day in the building society – but more often than not I get the same ‘this is out of my comfort zone’ reaction. To be fair, I know what hell it is to state you’re a doctor or dentist, the cue for hearing about a stranger’s ailments and tooth decay. Perhaps it’s no different to my own reaction to someone sharing an interest in competitive fly-fishing or the manufacture of widgets for a living. Everyone does his or her own thing and, to quote Barry Norman, ‘Why not?’ However, I rarely respond with ‘So what was your biggest catch and how much prize money did you win?’ or, for that matter, ‘Do tell, what’s your annual turnover?’