You asked me if I thought there was a connection between where we are and how we write. And I’ve been mulling it over for so long that my last letter to you is now quite late! My answer is that I think of course, there must be – we’ve already written about the practical ways that a writer must live and fit their work into the shape their life leaves for it (or perhaps it should be the other way round?) and how the meat and potatoes of those practicalities might change the work. We’ve also tackled, during our events, if not in our letters, the different ways our literary contexts and cultures might shape our writing – the benefits when it comes to publishing, of writing in English. The difficulties of working with other people’s lazy stereotypes about your home city. The effect censorship, or the threat of it works for writers in Turkey and in the UK. But now I think you’re talking about travel – about going away from home, and experiencing the unfamiliar.
I haven’t travelled nearly as much as you have – perhaps that will come as my children get a bit older – and maybe it is because travel hasn’t been an important part of my life so far that most of my writing is somehow, about ‘home’ – feeling at home, or not at home. I’m interested in recognition, the uncanny, in making the familiar feel strange and in uncovering the frightening and unknown things that exist very near to us. I wonder if I’d be that kind of writer if I had travelled more? Who knows? As we said in one of our earlier letters, the kind of writers that we are is probably going to change very many times before we’re done!
Writing about home might feel lazy or like a shortcut. After all, if I write about a place that is familiar to me, I don’t need to do any research at all. One of the ways I try and make home seem strange is by concentrating on details – tiny details that come from intimate knowledge, not a tourist’s eye look at the world. And another way I try and do this is by picking what is unique or unusual or overlooked about the places I write about. I am only following that old chestnut of writing advice and ‘writing what I know.’ But I don’t think a writer should write about ‘what they know’ at all. I don’t think you can really start writing by ‘knowing’ anything – only by having a set of questions and putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard, in my case) in order to set about examining (and only rarely answering) them. I have come to believe that being a writer takes more than just showing what you already know to the world.
I liked your ‘Paul’ very much – I almost recognised him and I expect the next time I visit Manchester I’ll be seeing glimpses of him around every corner and standing at every bar. Your ideas about cities – Manchester or Istanbul – becoming characters in their own right made sense to me, but I don’t think it works that way for me in my writing life.
I went to an event last week and listened to the writer David Vann speak about the way he worked with a sense of place and landscape in his work. He read a little from ‘Legend of a Suicide’, which is set in a place that he knew very well. After the reading he spoke about the way a writer can put a description of landscape under pressure, and when that happens description becomes something much more than pretty scene setting, but a way of making visible a psychological or internal landscape. When I heard him say that, bells went off in my head. That’s exactly how I want to write about ‘home’ – or, indeed, any place at all. I think the things we find in the places we visit and live say more about us than they do about the place itself. The Preston of Cold Light is a strange, cut-off place, full of instabilities and continuity errors because it is described through the eyes of a character who is struggling with stories – who can’t tell what is real and what isn’t anymore. How else would the world look to her? I think we can write about the way a character sees the world, but we can’t ever really write about the world itself – as you said in one of our events, people don’t come to novelists for ‘the facts’ and we shouldn’t ever fool ourselves into thinking that we deal in them.
Another thing that David Vann said was that writing, for him, was an ‘act of transformation’. I am still wondering about what that might mean. It immediately made me think about changing your mind, about learning something new or even going on some kind of journey. About the beginning of writing being a place of unknowing, and writing itself being a kind of finding out. It certainly feels that way to me. Even if I know, or I think I know, what the ending of the book will be when I start, I certainly don’t know why I am writing it or what I hope a reader will get out of it until the very end. Maybe it is because I am at the very beginning of a novel and in a place of great unknowing, awaiting transformation, that I am finding it difficult to answer your question with anything but more questions.
I’m not going to write about our meeting because I know in your letter you said you were saving it for the finale! So I will end this letter and my part in this project by saying that most of all, writing to me is a conversation. Novels might look like formidable chunks of text with no room for anyone else to get a word in edgeways, and reading might look like a silent, stationary and solitary exercise, but I don’t think of it that way. I think of reading and writing as a set of letters – one half of an act of creation, the other half done by the reader who imagines and engages and completes the writing in some special and mysterious way. I don’t travel much except by my reading – which brings me into challenging and intimate conversation with writers and characters from all over the world. Just like the conversation we’ve been having these past few months, and one which I hope we will continue after this project is over. It’s been wonderful being your reader in my half of this conversation.