He was standing at the bar in a pub in Tunbridge Wells. He’d pointed me in the right direction, so I owed him the courtesy of sharing a quick chat. It’s what you do with strangers: let them dabble in your life a little, and dabble back. I was in Tunbridge Wells to do a poetry reading (aka shouting in my case). I was early and had twenty minutes to kill. He extracted from me the info that I was from Sunderland, and that I worked for the OU, and that creative writing was my subject. I was OK for the first five minutes, offering my not-very-well-informed info about the football team. But the word ‘writing’ perked him up. (It’s like teaching: it brings out the Shaw quote about those who can doing, and the rest etc. etc. I’ve heard that all my life. The word ‘writing’ brings out the line, as it did, ‘They say everyone has a novel in them.’)
Yeah. Maybe. I have a novel on my hard drive. It’s 50,000 words long and I have quite literally lost the plot. I left it alone for a bit, and when I went back, I couldn’t work out what was happening. And had lost the piece of paper which said ‘structure of novel’ (I found it when I moved, but am none the wiser. There is a terrific idea about a tattoo, but the rest is like Robert Louis Stevenson on mescaline).
He wanted some advice about writing the novel he had in him. It was called, and I am just giving you a rough idea, ‘All the Women I Shagged In [fill in name of small Kentish village]’. Once you get into this kind of conversation, it is hard to back out. I suggested he might have a few legal problems, but he said he’d change all the names. I didn’t get into what I perceived to be the lack of a story arc, or what point of view might be appropriate. I just nodded in an interested and agreeable way. I was brought up to be very polite.
The thing is, not everyone does have a novel in them. They have a few anecdotes. But you can’t say that to someone you don’t know from Adam.
I have a strong suspicion that Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt never said, ‘They say everyone has a novel in them,’ and a feeling that they might have been assured that everyone did, by a stranger in a pub. He was perfectly friendly. But he didn’t have a novel in him, and nor do I. It’s the way the world goes.
Perhaps I should be more assertive in my small talk. Sigh.