I don’t know about you, but when people ask me what I do, I am always a bit uncomfortable
admitting to being a writer. I don’t think I look like a writer, or, at any rate, people are always surprised. Maybe a writer should be taller or younger or generally more like the glamorous members of the photogenic intelligentsia that grace the flyleaf of the better class of hardbacks. Maybe a writer should be a more engaging conversationalist who exudes high order empathy and drips bon mots. Maybe it isn’t either of those and my interlocutor is simply worried that they have failed to recognise someone they feel they should know. I sip my drink and brace myself. I know what they are going to ask next. ‘So should I have heard of you?’ This is almost always said in the tone of voice that suggests they already know that is unlikely. They look me up and down, take in the stray greys around my ears, that slightly wonky lipstick, the ill-advised footwear and guess my answer. I shrug and laugh and reassure them that no, I am not a household name. ‘Will I have read any of your books?’ Once more I am obliged to confess that, as I am obviously something of a failure at my chosen profession, they are very unlikely to have read anything of mine either. It isn’t surprising, given that I have presented myself as pretty much a washout in terms of career success, that they feel obliged to share with me their own literary near miss. They have a brilliant idea for an original novel which would inevitably be extremely successful if only they had been able to find the kind of spare time with which I have obviously been blessed (and which I have patently misused.) I keep smiling. I know they are trying to keep a dying conversation alive in the interest of politeness, so I respond in kind and ask them about their brilliant and original concept. (I have been at the wrong end of this conversation enough times to suspect that brilliant and original concepts are in fact in much shorter supply than people believe.) They always tell me. It usually takes a while. I take a deep draught of my drink and start seeking a suitable exit strategy. Surely I have received an urgent text, am moved by an urgent call of nature, something, anything. I fail to come up with a convincing reason to escape and it is at this exact moment that my questioner, moved by pity and an admirable spirit of convivial generosity, convinced that not only am I an abject loser but probably an alcoholic to boot, leans forward conspiratorially and offers me an opportunity of a lifetime. If I write up their brilliant and original concept they are prepared to go halves on the income from the resultant best seller. ‘That sounds amazing,’ I say and bite back my observation that, although I think it is probably true that everyone has a book in them, there are good reasons why some of those potential books should probably stay where they are, locked in the cerebellum, heart or perhaps back passage of their hosts.
I know It could be much worse, I could be a doctor or a plumber and be obliged to make instant diagnoses on the state of someone’s health or boiler system over a glass of warm Chardonnay at a drink’s party. Indeed, given my general ill temper, I should be grateful that anyone bothers inviting me to a party at all. Nonetheless, next time someone asks me what I do I think I might say I am a trainee typist, coffee taster and reading therapist. It might make for more interesting conversations.