I’m writing this letter as a displacement activity – I really ought to be packing. I’m off to to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival tomorrow and, well, it’s the beginning of the worst part of the publishing cycle for me.
I’ll just say it straight – I hate talking about my books. It doesn’t matter if it’s the novels I write because they’re entertaining and fun (like The Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club), or the memoirs that I pour my whole self into. I hate talking about them either way. And it doesn’t matter if the person asking is a friend, relative or a complete stranger. I’m equal opportunities about these things.
I don’t write because I want attention. I write because I’m flooded with words if I don’t. Stories help me to make sense of the world: they are the end result of a process of observation, analysis, research and exploration. They are a study in themselves, a way of knowing. Writing lets me problem-solve, particularly when it comes to understanding other people’s behaviour; they’re a process I can work through to find the answer, like a baroque algorithm. It’s surprising what they spit out eventually, often after months of work. They know things that I don’t.
At Edinburgh, I’ll be talking about The Electricity of Every Living Thing, my memoir of the year in which I set off to walk the South West Coast Path and discovered that I’m autistic along the way. It’s a particularly vulnerable, intimate book, exploring ideas and feelings that still don’t feel quite set. That’s the power and beauty of it, I hope. But, equally, I’ve moved on. I already disagree with some of the thoughts I had at that time, but I’ve fought hard to resist the urge to revise it to meet my current mindset.
The mistake would be to assume that by reading my books, you read me. At best, they capture what I thought at one moment in time, often a long while before publication. But more likely, they only ever reflected on part of me in the first place. I’m a writer: I construct a version of the truth that’s safe enough to share. Most importantly, writing is my act of communication. When I type ‘THE END’, I’ve said all I want to say.
That doesn’t mean that I’m one of those awful, hostile interviewees, I promise. I do my best not to squirm onstage and, frankly, I’ll talk so much about everything else that you’ll barely notice. But take me to one side afterwards and ask me about the actual text, and you’ll get the same line that I hand out to my dearest relatives and oldest friends: ‘I don’t talk about my books.’
Awkward? Yeah. Wilfully difficult? Probably. But am I sorry? Not really. We’re all allowed a break from the day job sometimes.
See you soon,