By Jason Hewitt
Guest ColumnistLondon, UK
As a published author I regularly get asked two questions that are impossible to answer. The first, and most awkward, is, “Will I have heard of you?” Only in exceedingly rare circumstances does this opening gambit go well. The second is, “What’s the best piece of advice you would give a budding writer?” Now, you probably think I’m being facetious, but the truth is I wouldn’t. It’s not that I’m deliberately being difficult; it’s just that advice of this sort is very hard to give; every road to publication is different and every book is different just as every reader is. For every piece of advice there’s a counter-argument. You’ll be told that you should write every day. Well, I don’t. Many authors don’t. Sometimes I don’t write anything for weeks on end, even in the middle of a draft if life is getting in the way. The best I can offer in terms of advice is tell fledgling writers what has worked for me, but what works for me might not work for you, and what works for me well today might not work for me tomorrow or for the next writing project that creates its own challenges.
Perhaps a better question – or at least one that I can answer more easily – is “What’s
the worst piece of advice you would give a budding writer?” That’s easy. In one of my first evening classes, the teacher stood at the front of the class and loudly professed to us all that, “To write good fiction you must write what you know.”
This piece of advice, taken quite literally, almost singlehandedly stalled my creativity for years. I was a sales representative working for a publishing company at the time. I seemed to spend the majority of my life sat in a car, driving every day to some godforsaken hellhole and then back again. It was a job I hated. There was absolutely nothing worth writing about in my life. Nothing. I’d had the most average childhood imaginable. I had absolutely no intention of writing about what I knew, and if I did I would never have got to the end of it. I would have died of boredom first.
Then, several years later, the author Sebastian Faulks changed my life. He doesn’t know it. He probably doesn’t even know who I am. And it wasn’t one of his books that did it either (wonderful as they are). It was a throwaway comment he made at London Book Fair one year. I can’t even remember the words exactly but it was something along the lines of “I write what I want to know”. As I’ve said, like all advice, it won’t mean much to everyone, but through the mesh of everything else he said those words reached out and grabbed me. They gave me a shake.
It’s a sentiment that has formed the foundation of my writing career ever since. I don’t write what I know but what I want to know. This opens up endless opportunities for creativity. Most good stories, after all, revolve not around answers, but questions. The big “What if…?” What if Man could play at being God? What if the children of sworn enemies met and fell in love? What if magic was real and you were the child of a wizard? Whether it’s Frankenstein or Romeo and Juliet, or even Harry Potter, they have all been born from a writer’s curiosity. What if this happened? What if that? What if you could build a time machine, or saw a crime committed from a train? Whole genres are based on it, Science Fiction being the most obvious. But even the genre I write in – Historical Fiction – stems from the questioning of curious minds. What must it have been like to live in Ancient Rome? Or as a Tudor or Stuart? What if I had been a slave? My own novels are based during and around World War Two. Believe me, it’s a crowded market. That is part of the reason why I always try to find an element of the war that I know nothing about. My view is that if it’s new to me there’s a fairly good chance that it might be new to my readers too, it might just pique enough interest for someone to buy it. For my latest novel I decided to set the story during those days just before and after peace was declared in Europe in 1945. I’d long had a fairly sound knowledge of the war but I had no idea what happened to everyday people immediately afterwards. What happened to those released from the camps in Germany? Where did they go? What was it like? Curiosity may well have killed the cat but it invigorates the writer. As a species, humans, like all creatures, are naturally inquisitive. We read to find answers, to empathize with others, to connect, or better understand ourselves. Whether aware of this or not, writers seek to provide answers, or at the very least options. But writers cannot do this unless they themselves are also asking questions.
To be fair, those that profess that we should write what we know aren’t entirely wrong. Taken too literally, it hems writers in and blocks creativity, but, of course, in every story the writer brings to it their own experience. It comes to the page filtered through our own eyes and colored by our life’s encounters. We write what we know because we write about what it is to be human and we do that, in essence, because that is all we know. And yet we still try to make sense of it, all the messy muddle of human emotion. And that is why we continue to write and read stories – it is part of our endless quest to understand who we are, our endless curiosity and preoccupation with ourselves and those around us. Questioning is a vital part of that. It drives every encounter. Next time a reader asks me an impossible question I will welcome it wholeheartedly and try harder to engage, because, after all, all they are doing, like all of us, is trying to make a connection.
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room and Devastation Road.