Time is fast creeping up on us and I’m already so excited about meeting you and seeing your city. You’re right: it will be my first visit to Istanbul. I’m really looking forward to drinking in everything the city has to offer. I read this article recently in The New York Times. Do you think we’ll have time to make a visit? Is there anything else that I really shouldn’t miss? And what about you? Have you been to Manchester before? I’d love to show you around. You know Manchester’s nickname is ‘the rainy city’ though, don’t you? Don’t forget to bring an umbrella!
You asked me what I thought about doing research to make sure any of the characters I write are fully realised in their historical and social context. While in the abstract I do agree with you, I can’t say that I’ve done much of that kind of research myself – mainly because, I think, the novels I have written so far are based very much on the places that I know well and have grown up in, and are about people who are familiar to me – who are of the same social class, the same economic background. This might make me an unadventurous writer, but then again, I am ‘writing what I know.’ I worry about not having enough objective distance sometimes, but then again I think I can use real lived detail that makes my work authentic. I hope so, anyway.
This might all change with my fourth book though. I am only just thinking, very very provisionally, about what I might write next. But I am thinking I might like to write about a small Northern seaside town in the 1960s, and an extraordinarily, almost angelically beautiful gay man who arrives there from Scotland with the power to heal the sick. Don’t tell anyone yet though – I haven’t made up my mind properly!
There’s a couple of things that make me nervous about this idea – first, that I know I’d have to do a lot of research into what 1960s culture was like in small Northern towns (not like London – I expect the sexual revolution was a little delayed in its arrival up here!) and also to write a gay character. I wouldn’t feel I had an authority or any right to tell that person’s story unless I’d earned my stripes through research – and maybe not even then. Another writer told me that unless thinking about writing a book scares you a little, it’s probably not the right one to write. Maybe writing is supposed to be scary, to feel risky for the writer as well as for the reader. And maybe the more you think about writing and what it really means, the riskier it seems. What do you think about that?
Something that I wanted to ask you – about the internet. I know this project involves us writing each other old-fashioned letters, but it wouldn’t be possible, at all, without the internet. And we’re both on twitter. I use facebook and I write a blog – I have lots of email pen-pals and I like getting emails from people who’ve read my books. It seems so much of a writing career now is a life lived online, and there’s something wonderfully connecting and inspiring about that possibility (a growing friendship like ours, for example) as well as something a little fragmented, shallow and unreal. Sometimes I feel like I want to unplug from it all, sometimes I want to throw myself into it as much as I can. Do you feel a pressure, as a publishing writer, to make yourself known on the internet – to use social media and have an ‘online presence’ to help promote your work? Is that something you enjoy doing, or do you find it tricky? There’s a lovely bit of game-playing there for a writer who is interested in personae and game-playing with stories, in thinking about the way she might present one of her selves online.
I really liked what you said about our writing potential changing over time – just as our skills, and our interests, and maybe even the way we look at the world (‘our reality’ as you put it in your last letter) might change or develop or even improve as we go along. Have you noticed any changes like that in yourself and your own writing so far? We are in our early days, aren’t we, with the best yet to come? I know I have certainly become less cynical – less harsh in my writing. My first two books are quite tough on human beings and the things they do to each other, the way we are dishonest and hurt each other with the stories we tell. It’s a sort of truth, I think, but not the complete truth. The Friday Gospels is the first book I’ve ever written with a happy ending – one that seems to suggest human beings are just about okay, at least some of the time. Maybe I am mellowing as I age! Maybe the jigsaw you talk about applies to a writer’s works across her whole career – maybe we’ll only get a sense of the way we really see the world when we are very old ladies looking back over the jigsaw pieces of all the novels and stories we have written. What a thought!
I will leave you with that strange thought, wish you well, and look forward to your next letter