Appropriate Lies

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

An unusual glimpse inside the workings of a writer's mind, this should be of interest to readers aged 10-14, as well as to parents and teachers (not to mention publishers and literary critics!).

I can never understand why people want to read anything at all about writers. Writers spend their time sitting at desks or tables making stuff up -- they're far too busy doing that to go out into the world and actually do interesting things. So I can understand wanting to read the things they've written, but I certainly can't fathom why anyone in their right mind would want to read about people whose most interesting activity consists of sitting looking at a sheet of paper and trying to think up some good lie to fill it with!

Howsomever, I've been asked to say something about my books, such as they are. Well, I've so far written four novels. Two were historical novels, about the lives of a family named Conway during the Irish War of Independence. The other two were fantasies, and what they were 'about' I've no idea at all -- your guess is as good as mine (if not better). Sometimes people are surprised at the fact that I can switch from one type of book to the other, but I simply think that such people have a very peculiar attitude to life.

I am actually very bad at speaking about my books, because anything that I've got to say about them is already there between their covers. As well as this I really like to leave the reader some elbow room -- I'd honestly much rather hear what the readers think they're about. One of the most truly wonderful things about books is that they are different for each reader -- as distinct from, say, television, which is what they call a 'reductive' medium. I really resent it myself when some writer, who wrote a book I love, starts rabbiting on about what his or her book 'meant'. I get quite annoyed at them sometimes! Who on earth is this fool, I ask myself, giving such a stupid explanation of a book that I myself understand much better? When I started writing books myself, of course, I soon realised that most real writers haven't a clue what their books are about. But they're asked now and then to explain what they've written, and (since most writers are incredibly nice people) they feel they have to say something. So they do what they do in their books -- they tell some appropriate lies. That shouldn't surprise anyone: lying is a writer's job!

Here are some random and hopefully appropriate lies about my novels:

I originally wanted to write about the War of Independence so that I could picture it better in my own mind, and I was pretty much fed up with reading about what famous people did at the time. I wanted to know what ordinary people were doing, not just politicians -- who are, on the whole, just as dull as writers. So I invented the Conways, and watched to see what they'd do, and then I wrote it down. And, lo and behold, lots of other people liked the result, and bought the book, and even gave me prizes for it, so I said to myself: 'Janey, this writing lark is all right!'

I always sort of liked Jimmy Conway, the central character (note that phrase -- he wasn't the 'hero': I don't do heroes and villains) of The Guns of Easter; but when all was said and done he really was a bit of a goody-two-shoes. I mean, don't get me wrong: I really liked him, and he was fine to read and write about, but I don't know that I'd like to spend a lot of time with him in real life -- he'd be likely to start reminding you, whenever you were having any fun at all, that you were Doing Something Bad, and would Get In Trouble. He had a much more normal side to him too, of course, otherwise he'd never have survived his adventures during the Easter Rising; but I have to admit there was a strong streak of the bore in him.

This aspect of Jimmy only really became clear to me after The Guns of Easter was published, as did the shameful fact that I'd really neglected his two sisters, Sarah and Josie. All the two girls seemed to me to do in the book was cry -- or else get sick. So when I came to write A Winter of Spies, it seemed only fair to make one of the two girls the central character and, rather than being a virtuous little bore, I thought I'd make her a complete madwoman. So Sarah Conway became the main character in A Winter of Spies, and I was very proud later to be told by more than one young girl that she was something of a role model for them -- though heaven help their parents if they meant it!

I suppose that, being a big, serious, prize-winning adult writer whose work is used in schools, I really have to say something about what these books were 'about' -- even if it is only one more appropriate lie. So how's about this: the main theme of The Guns of Easter is about the fact that the world is a complicated place where there are no easy, black-and-white answers; the main theme of A Winter of Spies is the very same. In fact, come to think of it, the main theme of my fantasies (Dream Invader and Out of Nowhere) is the same thing too. Not bad, huh -- only one idea, and I've managed to turn it into four books so far! Look out, RL Stein!

In the last analysis, of course, books are 'about' themselves, about the stories they tell. I’m sure you've come across books with really important, wonderful messages that were simply -- as books -- just too dull for words. You can recognise them in public libraries -- they're the books that have obviously never been read past page twenty-two. Personally I love telling stories, and seeing whether I can finish them. My favourite thing in writing a book is to land my characters in some dreadful situation and to say to myself: 'There, smartypants -- get them out of that if you can!' I figure any writer who never has that feeling should go and do something else with their lives.

In between the two books on the Conways I wrote a book called Dream Invader, which was a perfectly ordinary story about a monster, a witchy-type woman, a young boy and his cousin, a painter's daughter. It was a mad sort of book with ideas from all sorts of places, and the monster ended up being one of the good guys. In my experience this is true of many monsters -- it's the ones who seem like the good guys to start off with that you really need to watch. At any rate, lots and lots of kids liked this book, and enough adults liked it to give it the Bisto Book of the Year Award. Many writers (and kids) have told me that they were very pleased with this fact, because they felt that fantasy was always regarded very snootily in Ireland, and that its status would be raised by a fantasy novel winning the Book of the Year Award. Boy, were they ever wrong!

As predictable as ever, I followed up the second book about the Conways with a second fantasy, which was an even crazier story called Out of Nowhere. Reaction to this was really fascinating, since it seemed to divide people into those who loved it and those who ... er ... very much didn't love it. Fortunately the people I had written it for belonged very much in the 'loved it' group and, since it's been printed three times in its first year, there seem to be an awful lot of them. I got many wonderful compliments about the book both from Ireland and beyond, but my favourite was from one boy who normally didn’t read very much -- he had a life, and as a result was normally far too busy. But he'd been given Out of Nowhere, had read a bit of it, got hooked, and finished it more or less at a sitting. This boy told me that it 'wasn't really like a book at all'. I sort of knew what he meant, but what I found really great is that this also pretty accurately describes the attitude of people who didn't like the book. I won't even try to describe Out of Nowhere, because I've tried before and I can't. As to what it is about, or what it means, I'll tell you what: I hereby grant anybody reading this the right to declare the definitive version of what it is about. And I swear that, if you ask me, I'll tell you you're absolutely correct. My own opinion (for what little it's worth) is that it's about two hundred and forty pages long. Oh ... and it says that the world is a very complicated place, etc. Actually, in Out of Nowhere I lost the run of myself entirely, and went so far as to imply that the entire universe is a very complicated place. So at least I am in agreement with science, which is always nice to know.

Gerard Whelan