World Book Day talk for primary school

My name is Alex and I have the coolest job in the world (or at least, I think it is). My job is to sit down at a desk and try and think of a story that nobody else has ever thought of before. There are lots of clever people in the world so it’s difficult to think of something that no one else has thought of but it’s very very fun.

The trick is to use your imagination. I can close my eyes and travel anywhere in the world. I love learning the names of new places and imagining who lives there – my favourite place at the moment is called Saskatchewan. I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds good. And I also like imagining what it would be like to live in a different time. It seems like life would be very different for a caveman or a viking or a queen. And it would definitely be very different to live in the future as a space pirate or a robot or an alien. Whenever I meet someone new, I ask them: what’s your story?

Everyone has an interesting story to tell. If someone doesn’t seem interesting to me, it’s not because they are boring – it’s because I haven’t asked them enough questions to find out the interesting bits. Sometimes, though, people don’t want to tell you what they are thinking about – maybe they’re shy – and that’s why I like reading stories too. Because with stories, you can see into other people’s heads. I’m not saying I want to see people’s brains because that would be gross. But once someone has written a book, they can tell you what they are thinking about without making a sound, across an ocean, or across a thousand years. When I write a book, it is like a little piece of me, and when someone else reads it, it is like we are becoming friends, even though we’ve never met. And I think that makes it a pretty cool job.

Why Write Novels?

Writing is like drinking beer: at first you don’t like it but it feels grown up; then you enjoy it, but you’re not very good at it; last of all, you stop enjoying it, but by that point it’s the thing you’re best at, so you decide to stick with it.

I can’t say when or why I started writing. The truth is that I have always done it. I wrote before I had any interest in why I wrote or what its purpose might be. I felt instinctively that words were the only way to arrange a thought, and arranging my thoughts became a kind of game. It is a compulsion, which, since I am doing it anyway, I may as well use to understand and resolve the world around me. At a certain point I decided that I wanted to write for other people, to tell them stories, arrange their thoughts. When I did that, writing became a little less about me, but there is still a paradox at the heart of it: I have to think I am writing something that is worth other people’s time.

It is like the paradox of the Buddhist monk: you have to be selfish enough to choose the path of selflessness, to renounce your responsibilities to your family, to beg food of others. Your goal is to shrink your ego so far that it disappears altogether. If you can do that, you will finally be able to look clearly at the world around you, and see things as they truly are, without attachment. As Christopher Isherwood famously put it, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ Why did you choose this path? Well, a little part of you secretly believes that you might be really good at this selflessness, and with a little bit of practice, you could destroy the competition to become the most selfless person in the world. The only way to become a good writer is to throw away that part of you, the part that is proud and hates being edited, that feels stung by a bad review, or even pleased with a good one, the part of you that wanted to become a writer in the first place.

When writers write about writing, there is a common idea that they are doing so for posterity. Some of us have a romantic idea of writing as a kind of continuance, a way of persisting in the world after you die. Books become the children of a mind, living on in the world after their parent is gone. My novel is lodged with the copyright libraries, my name on record. Yet there are 14 million books in the British Library. How many of them have you read? Are they preserved for the readers, or for the writers? A library like this is a vast mausoleum of thoughts, the older names fading from view like weathered headstones. And it is an uncomfortable admission for a writer, but many ideas fade more quickly than people do. I recently ordered up a book published in 1976, and it still had the return card lodged in the front from its previous borrower in 1988.

So if I accept that my writing is not about me – that the part tied up with my ego is not going to last very well whichever way you look at it – it becomes about the story itself and what it can do in the present. This is where I think novels get interesting, because novels are not like other media. What they offer us is unique and peculiar. It is not threatened by TV and film and the internet. Perhaps, in time, it will be threatened by games and virtual reality, but we’re not there yet.

Because a novel makes humans out of us. Like other media, the novel shows us people who don’t share our life experience, but it goes further: it forces us to imagine what it is like to be them. Reading novels, I imagine what it must be like to be someone else: young, old, an outsider, deaf, gay, female, religious. Novels help me to see – and not just see, but feel – how different life is across decades or on the other side of the world. And spanning all that difference, we are united by our shared needs for love, purpose, dignity and food.

Everybody loves food. I used to work in an office where free fruit got delivered every week to keep us healthy so we could come to work. There was tonnes of the stuff – definitely enough to go around. But every Monday morning, people rushed in, grabbing kiwis and bananas, grapes and plums, stockpiling it on their desks. Each precious pile was probably worth about a pound. Anyone who wasn’t on the ball found themselves outside the fruit melee, clutching nothing, or worse, stuck with those weird brown grapes at the bottom of the punnet. As soon as it was over, for the rest of the week, my colleagues were friendly, generous and kind.

Why does this tragedy of the commons happen? Perhaps we are not selfish, but we worry that other people will be, and we don’t want to end up being the one nice person in a pit of thieves. Perhaps we feel that some others are not like us, can’t understand us, don’t have the same needs as we do or, perhaps, in less generous moments, that our concerns are really more important. Perhaps we are generous within a circle of trusted others, which shrinks according to our fears about resources. Once there is enough for us, we can think about our family, then our town, our region or country, Europe, all people. Conversely, every time we exclude people, our world becomes simpler, safer, smaller, more secure. It’s certainly tempting.

But then you read a novel. It doesn’t have a headline, it doesn’t shout loud, but it stays with you in your bag and by your bed, insistent and persuasive. In the shouting match of modern media, the novel is a fireside chat, a weekend away in the country. Under its influence, you start to look at what’s in front of you for what seems like the first time in a month. You remember that you live in a world that spins at the end of every day to face the stars, a planet with a vast, crashing sea, a carpet of plants, creatures with wings and scales and webs and tentacles. The novel puts its hand on your shoulder and whispers, you are alive. And when you see those you love, you find yourself talking to them about things that have been bothering you for a while, listening to their dreams for the future, and when you get back into bed, the novel whispers, here you are.

A novel is pretty much the only chance that I get to speak to a stranger without interruption for ten hours. To arrange a few thoughts with them. It’s a fantastical, terrifying opportunity. What would you say? Perhaps you are afraid they will walk away, so you focus on holding their attention. Perhaps you want to make a point about politics or society. That’s your prerogative. Maybe your priority is to show them that, if things always seem to go wrong, at least they get better in the end. For me, I think the most important thing is to reach out, to lend my hand like Larkin’s old toad. If I could impress one thought on a stranger, I would tell them that all of us feel at times like we are struggling through life alone, but even in experiencing that feeling, we’re not alone.

Every novel is a confidence trick. It promises to show you how different we are. The blurb says: you don’t know what it’s like to be a detective in forties America, a Russian aristocrat in the Napoleonic wars, a wizard in a boarding school, a murderer with a psychology degree, a spy spying on spies, a traveller from an antique land. And it hooks you in because you think you don’t know what’s going to happen. But by the time you get halfway through, there is a subtle turn. You know this person. You recognise their conflicts, their choices. And it dawns on you. This isn’t a book about them at all. It is a book about you.

I sometimes read this piece as a talk at events and workshops. It is based on a blog post I wrote for the ‘Why I write’ series on the Faber Academy blog

Writing Tips

1. Do you find it important to have some kind of schedule for writing – a structure or routine?

I try to write a little and often, so my only routine is that I always have something I can write on. I have notebooks by my bed, in my bag and in my coat, apps that sync with my laptop so I can write on my phone, pens secreted in all my jeans so I can write on the back of receipts and on napkins. I write in the little gaps that open up before or after sleep. It is good to keep at least one friend who is chronically late to meet you.

2. Is what you write about based mainly on your own experiences or mostly invention?

Good writing has to be based on careful observation of the world around you – what the critic James Wood calls ‘serious noticing’. I don’t think anyone would be interested to read about my life, which has been pretty unexceptional, so for me crafting a good story is about using tiny bricks of real experience, memory and emotion to build something interesting and unfamiliar.

3. Where do you find is the most advantageous place to work?

My favourite places to write are where there is a little white noise. I find the silence of libraries too conspicuous – I spend the whole time waiting for someone to cough. The best places are trains, or cafes where everyone is speaking a language I don’t understand.

4. Do you test out your work on family and friends, or just your editor?

I show work in progress to some of my family and friends in the way that a cat drops a mouse at the back door, but I only ask for editorial guidance from my editor and agent, and a couple of other friends who write themselves.

5. If you were to give an aspiring author one piece of advice for getting their work published, what would it be?

Make it as good as you possibly can, because a novel is a cumulative achievement. Editing is not a compromise, it is the only way to bring the text closer to the perfect version in your head.

First published by the Reading Agency, alongside tips from the other writers on the Desmond Elliott Prize longlist: Carys Bray, Jessie Burton, Claire Fuller, Jonathan Gibbs, James Hannah, Emma Healey, Paul Kingsnorth, Laline Paull and Simon Wroe.