As a child, I was not necessarily what you might call an avid reader. I read more than most children, but I was very much a child of the television age. I grew up with Dr Who, The Six Million Dollar Man, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, badly dubbed Godzilla movies from Japan and countless other films and serials. My imagination highly active, I found it easy to immerse myself in these stories, however ridiculous, and when I finally discovered (probably around the age of seven) that reading books could be fun, too, and not just something you did at school, I discovered an added, deeper element than the concept of “story”.
The characters I read about in those early days — Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog in the Famous Five books — weren’t like me. They were radically different, in many ways. They said “yikes!” a lot, for example, if I remember correctly, and I never did. But even these books were nothing like a televisual experience. There was a relationship — a relationship that I was a very real part of. I became those people I read about and they became me. Though I couldn’t have expressed it at the time, they were children and in spite of the differences, I could relate to them.
But that’s what I’ve always enjoyed most about the fiction I read. My relationship with the book and the characters in it. And this, in many ways, has carried over into my writing. I cherish that feeling of knowing intimately these people who have never existed in any real sense (though that isn’t strictly true with my latest novel, which is semiautobiographical.) When I first started writing novels over twenty years ago, I tried to focus on plot (I was writing genre fiction, after all) but my characters always seemed to take over. They were the story, I soon realised. The things that happened were secondary to that and what was important to me was how they dealt with it and what I could learn from the process.
I was fond in my early days as a writer of Stephen King novels and I particularly remember first reading Pet Sematary. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the story, so I’ll leave that behind a link — since that wasn’t what really made it work as a novel for me. As I recall, King took forever to get to the horror. Playing to his strength, he drew me into not the story, but the family. I felt as if I knew them, as if I’d sat on the front porch drinking a beer with them and shooting the breeze. I wanted it to stay like that all the way through. Normal, American, oddly attractive. But of course, it didn’t. The truck got the cat and novel slid into its inevitable bleak decline. And that’s why it worked. King created characters that I wanted to know, that I cared for — that were, frankly, bloody good company.
And I suppose that’s a good part of why I write today. Good company. Yes, my characters may occasionally (okay quite often!) be complete fuck ups — but nobody knows them better than me. We become friends for a while. They tell me their secrets and being the decent, caring, trustworthy bloke that I am, I tell the world!
That’s when the friendship usually ends. But that’s okay. By that time, I’ve made a whole bunch of new friends.
The writer: never alone.
[This is the first of the Idiosyncratica monthly topics. If you are interested in reading what the other members of the group have to say on this subject, please remember to check back later for the links — which I will be posting very soon. If you can’t wait, however, please feel free to click on the Idiosyncratica links in the sidebar.]