I’m sitting poolside, anxiously watching my six-year-old attempt his first dive, when a mum leans over her teenage son and asks: “So what do you do, then?” She’s here every week and we nod our hellos, but this feels a little premature. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have gone for names first. Ignoring her son’s blushes, she hits me with a smile that implies she’s just being friendly; just making small talk. And perhaps she is. Perhaps if I still worked in a bar or a bank I might not be so prickly; I might choose to see her opening gambit as a brusque but harmless ice-breaker. Yet, since I ditched my last full-time job in social work 10 years ago to try to eke a living from writing, the question of “what do you do?” is one that I have repeatedly sought to dodge, deflect, or downright lie about.
I used to think my unease about telling people that I wrote for a living was because simply, as Auden puts it, writers do not like “talking shop”. A trip to the hairdressers would see me change my mind repeatedly; what will kill the conversation stone dead? Can’t say I’m an accountant in case she asks me to take a look at her books. Electrician? What if she wants the place rewiring? Faced with being a captive orator for 90 minutes, I’d find myself in a lather over the inevitable “anything I might have read?” and the intimate grilling that would follow.
But I understand now that it isn’t the prospect of talking about writing that fills me with dread – it’s the worlds that I write about. My books have been lauded by some as uncompromising, raw and edgy; they’ve been vilified by others as sleazy, dark, and hateful. And while I obviously disagree with the latter, my novels are certainly not the type of books I would give to a neighbour, or donate to a charity fundraiser in the near vicinity. I’m uncomfortable as it is with the mere fact that being public is part of publishing; that’s an occupational hazard. But being mistaken for one’s protagonists is a cross I’d rather not have to bear.
My latest novel, The Lemon Grove, is a meditation on female desire, an exploration of the loss of youth, and a snapshot of a worn-out marriage at a crossroads. But if my agent were pitching The Lemon Grove to a film producer, he’d cut straight to the book’s commercial core: it’s a sexual liaison between a mother and her stepdaughter’s boyfriend and it takes place on the rugged north coast of Mallorca. And if that pitch came across a little art-house, he might just dumb it down further: stepmother fucks daughter’s boyfriend on holiday. Whatever grand universal themes you weave, however artfully you weave them, this is what it comes down to. This new one of yours – what is it about? And it’s this, in a nutshell, that I dread being asked.
Every year, without fail, the question pops up at family get-togethers. Of course they’re just showing interest, being polite – but God, I wish they wouldn’t. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be Hilary Mantel or J K Rowling and blithely bat the question off with ease and honesty. To be able to say Tudors or wizards, instead of stuttering and changing the subject, then hiding out with the kids in the next room. But, mercifully, most of my family and close friends know me well enough to distinguish between the transgressive anti-heroines of my novels and their originator. They know that my preferred poison of choice these days is a steaming pot of builder’s tea – minus the Disco Biscuit. They entrust their kids to me. And they know, absolutely, that the act that takes place between Jenn and her daughter’s boyfriend out in the lemon grove of my novel is pure, undiluted invention.
But strangers, newer acquaintances, and readers unfamiliar with the writing process can be forgiven for assuming an autobiographical link between character and creator, especially when the world you’re depicting is a world that you’re from and of. Even experienced journalists cannot resist the temptation to weed out the author’s story from the tangle of fiction: “But how much of you is there in it?” An arbitrary question on the face of it, as most novels begin with a kernel of truth – but the moment at which that truth is leached away by the tide of fiction is usually impossible to pinpoint.
Before I became a mother, I didn’t care too much about people conflating me with my characters. If anything, I’d confirm their darkest assumptions, just for the fun of it. But I was young and irresponsible 10 years ago – I could pop my head up, then live as a semi-recluse the rest of the time. When Brass came out I was able to give my publishers what they wanted – a ballsy and sometimes brattish public face – then disappear for months on end. But, as a parent, you lack the option of going to ground whenever the waters get choppy. You still have to do the school run. You still have to take your kid to swimming and football practice, and in those kinds of social spaces, you are identified and related to first and foremost as a mother. The anal sex scene they’ve just read about in a review, then, inherits a different type of value judgement. It becomes separated from the wider narrative of the novel, and for a while it defines you. In the past, parents have sought reassurance that the thoughts and deeds of my characters are the stuff of invention. They want to make sure that I’m not going to be banging my crack pipe upstairs while the kids are downstairs watching Saw 13. One father asked me if I felt writing was like porn: if you got to enact all the things you couldn’t do in real life? His assumption was that, because I write something I must, ergo, want to live it. A mother once asked me in my local Sainsbury’s, if I condoned consensual rape and if I didn’t, then how did I write a character that did? I told her that if writers operated on a moral system that required them to sanction their characters’ behaviour then half the canon of Western literature would not exist.
As I reach my late 30s, I have come to understand that it is far more difficult to live an orthodox life while continuing to write about the kinds of worlds and characters that have always captivated me. And yet I am lucky in that, when I boot up my laptop to write, I rarely think about the outside world or the afterlife of a text. I suspect that, if I did – if I began to dwell upon what the neighbours might make of my novel – I would probably never write again. As for the woman in the swimming baths, I may just give her the benefit of the doubt and hand her a proof copy of The Lemon Grove. Let’s see if she lets her son sit so close next week.
The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is published on 27 February by Tinder Press at £12.99