The scribbling trade teaches you a few things, if you stay with it. (Save. Back up. Check for hair in chaos before readings.)
But one of the strongest, earliest lessons for me was realizing that writing books is a dialogue not a monologue. Readers bring themselves to your books, to their responses to your books. That means their literary preferences, their nature, their mood of the month, week, hour.
One’s person’s erotic scene, as I have often said, is another’s pornography and a third person’s boring skim-the-pages. Same with a character’s inner monologue, a battle scene, a historical reflection. Well, that last is unlikely to be anyone’s porn, but you know what I mean.
That truth is what underlies the idea that no artist can please everyone encountering their work. Beyond that, it is why, as readers, we often try a book once, put it aside as not working for us at all, then read it later (sometimes not that long after) and love it. Or why we love a book at 15 and wince, re-reading it at 40.
I had a very early encounter with someone willing to fail a university course because he refused to read The Darkest Road. It was not a considered literary judgment. He had, I learned from his professor, actually ‘fallen in love’ with my character, Kim Ford, and was revolted that the author (moi) could be so vile and degraded as to have her sleep with an old man when they weren’t even married. He would not give any more of his reading time to such a person. I learned something from that. Dialogue, not monologue.
A theme of Ysabel is how being 15 today here in the west is radically different from what it has meant in earlier cultures. Ned’s progression in the novel, his taking charge at the end, his parents’ accepting this, feeds into that theme, and there are pretty explicit references to it (I wasn’t being hypersubtle with this.) Juliet, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was, famously, twelve years old. But some readers have been startled or even angry that there is erotic banter and a half-promise for the future between Ned and Melanie at the end of the novel. The age gap, and today’s sexual ethics trump all for them (including any thinking about what has just happened to Melanie, what she has been, and is just emerging from). So, for these readers, that motif is just inaccessible, it crashes too hard into ‘what they are’ as I mentioned at the top here.
Responses to the core theme of Tigana, the obliteration of cultural identity, range amazingly widely. From those who just don’t get it, don’t even register it, just see the novel as another fantasy adventure (good one, bad one, whatever … look at the on-camera discussion on “Sword & Laser”), and other readers (often in parts of the world that have experienced such cultural oppression) who ask me, powerfully and often, ‘Were you writing about us?’
Those questions are deeply moving. So are comments from readers who stress that they are not normally made emotional or deeply thoughtful by books, but found themselves in that space reading mine. How do you not feel rewarded by such shared feelings. Such as a comment like this one, to an earlier post on this Journal:
I also have been reading for as long as I can remember. I am a military man with several tours to combat, decorated for valor, and awarded the purple heart. I tell you this so you will understand I am not a man that falls prey to emotion. Your writing, all of it, speaks to something inside me. A part I keep buried safe so I can do my job. It is poetry, beautiful to read, and never fails to bring strong feelings out of me. No other author has moved me quite as much. Thank you. I look forward to the journey your next story will lead me on.
I was told a story in Zagreb one night, by a very big, physical man, who had also been a soldier, doing a forced tour of duty in the terrible wars of 20 years ago. He said (late night, after many drinks) that he would end up back in his barracks, with men he felt nothing in common with at all, after a day of horrendous violence, put on headphones to block sound, and use The Fionavar Tapestry, re-reading it, as a way of centering himself again, and accessing some elements of grandeur in the world and people. And he offered thanks, as well.
So let me, in turn, say thank you. When readers come forward to share stories, tell how the novels took them away from their usual responses, or offered access to ones they normally keep sheltered … it means a very great deal.
That is, I suppose, another aspect of the dialogue.