What Kind of Writer Are You?

Recently a professional in the business, someone whose opinion I respect, asked me where I saw myself as a working writer. He meant, what sort of thing did I want to write? What genre do I want to work in? What is my plan?

And I realised I didn’t have a plan, at least not a conscious one. And that it was high time I got one.

Up till now, I’ve exclusively followed my heart. It’s led me along a course of short story writing, various starts and stops at a novel, and finally to the project that has consumed my energy for the last two and a half to three years. This is the novel that got me into the final of the Novel Fair. A tale of passion, power, betrayal, war redemption. I was tweeting to Arlene Hunt today, one of the Novel Fair judges, to thank her for her belief in my novel and how crucial her comments were to the process. She modestly pooh-poohed this idea, but it’s true. She was the first to explain to me that it was a big work – in that its passions and themes were grand and operatic, like the opera singer character who opens it. Hearing that from an outside witness helped me understand my own work better.

But I still haven’t answered the question. What is my plan? What do I want to write?

It’s not sci-fi, though I’ve been published in that genre. I don’t think it’s crime either, though I’ve had crime fiction published too. While much of my short fiction has conformed to mainstream Irish expectations, I prefer, in longer works, to write about places further away and people detached from that time and place. In truth, events of the past two years have left me rather sickened with Ireland and everything that brought us to where we are now. So I don’t think I write strictly literary, inward-looking works either, though I often enjoy reading such works if they’re well done.

So, that rules out what I don’t do. What I do like doing: female protags (less effort, frankly) Europe, historical, high drama, humour. The tension between brother and sister, between woman and woman, between men of nations. And – because I am Irish, even if I try deny it to myself – the difference between what we long for secretly and what tradition loudly and choke-chainedly ordains for us.

I love anything in any genre that’s well written: the scene in Anna Karenina where Levin spells out his long-held intentions to Kitty with letter cards; Marian Keyes’s wickedly brilliant date from hell between her heroine Lucy and the odious Chuck Mullerbraun III; the whiplash of the last line in Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz; the brief vulnerability of the bullying female lieutenant in Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl when she extends kindness towards the narrator, the vicious knife-in-the-back ending of John McGahern’s “Korea” (some of his imitators don’t realise how tough he was), the horror of war in A Long, Long Way and the moment in L’Assommoir when Goujet, who has always loved the main character Gervaise, offers her his love, which she refuses because she has become degraded and knows that he deserves more. The moment in Jane Eyre where they’re in the garden and she rounds on Rochester with “I tell you I must go!” and you know that things are about to get real.

If I can write anything that reflects, even faintly, scenes like these, that’s what I am aiming for. Stuff with plot, and power, and drama. Not with matchstick characters floating about alienated from life, no, my characters must live, to to the full.

SoI guess you can put me down for “women’s commercial fiction” like everyone else. :), 

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