Friday, December 9, 2011

Tamar Cohen talks about learning to like the public side of being a writer


I love this post with a passion. Tamar Cohen's a wonderful author (go out and read her darkly funny and richly imagined The Mistress's Revenge if you haven't already) and I was thrilled that she wanted to write something for my blog. She could have been writing about my life! The oddness of being a solitary writer who suddenly has to "go out of the house" and speak and perform and be "on" all the time, is captured perfectly and wittily here.  Thank you, Tamar!

On Monday night I went to hear the celebrated Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, talk about her books and her characters and the meaning of love. She was beautiful, impressive, articulate. She made jokes in two different languages. She told anecdotes about her grandmother, shared her thoughts on identity, and on the concept of home. She took questions from the floor and replied coherently and generously and made the questioners feel validated and special. Afterwards she signed books and chatted to people she’d never met and answered the same questions over and over again without her smile once slipping.

       Now here’s the thing – if Elif Shafak was a politician or a film star or a motivational speaker you wouldn’t be surprised. But she’s a writer.  For 99 per cent of our lives, we’re expected if not encouraged to hibernate inside our own homes, dressed in pyjamas and ugly fleece-lined boots and refusing to answer the phone, insisting instead that all communication be done remotely via the medium of email and Twitter. Yet, for the remaining 0.1 percent, we are expected to magically transmorph into public figures, at home in front of an audience, dressed in clothes without egg stains down them, able to converse on a range of topics in voices that haven’t atrophied from under-use, and to remember not only our own names, but also interesting and relevant anecdotes, all delivered with a winning smile.

       It was a huge shock for me when my debut novel The Mistress’s Revenge came out in June this year to realise that certain things were expected of me as a published writer. There were meetings and parties to go to, people to impress, questions to answer (often the same questions, again and again), intelligent points to be made, books to be signed. And all of these things took place outside of the house! After months spent holed up in a back room, hunched over my computer with only the dog for company (and believe me, my dog’s conversational ability leaves a lot to be desired), it was like entering into another space/time dimension.

       Now, I’m not saying most people go into writing because they’re socially inept misfits who can’t handle the real world but… oh who am I kidding, that’s pretty much what I am saying. But the great paradox of being published is that, having gone into writing because you’re naturally a shy retiring type who prefers tweeting to chatting and doesn’t own a single pair of trousers that aren’t elasticated at the waist, the payoff for success is that you leave all that behind and go out into the world to be on show – the very thing you hoped to escape by becoming a writer in the first place.

       I’m a truly terrible public speaker. Give me an audience of any type and my tongue becomes velcroed to the roof of my mouth, I say things like ‘um’ a lot or else make a strange nervous humming noise. I start sentences with no clue of how they might end. I also develop a rather disturbing giggle.
       The thing is I’ve never been taught how to do it. I like to see things written down, I like to play 
around with words and sentences until they’re exactly how the way I want them to be. That’s why I write. When I speak, it comes out in either a trickle or a gush, I get words wrong. I gesticulate madly (even if I’m on the radio). My mind goes blank. Doing a series of live radio interviews to publicise the book in the USA a few months back, I took to placing a sheet of paper in front of me with the names of my main characters written in big capital letters, after embarrassingly getting one of them wrong on my first attempt.

       God knows how big-name writers go into television studios to perch on sofas and talk knowledgeably in front of audiences of millions. How on earth do they know what to wear? At home I have a Writing Cardy, an outsized, woolly moth-eaten cardigan that sits draped over the back of my chair and that I put on over the top of whatever I have on (usually garments of the ‘leisure-wear’ variety), basically because I’m too mean to put the heating on when it’s just me in the house. This is what I spend most of my life wearing. After publication, not only did I have to step away from the cardy, I also realised that none of my other clothes would stand up to public scrutiny.  Things had to be bought in a hurry and chosen according to criteria other than whether they were a) comfortable and b) able to accommodate a pair of wellies for the daily dog walk. For the first party after I’d been signed by my publisher, I bought a pair of shoes with sky-high heels and spent the night grimacing rather than smiling at important people I was introduced to and hardly able to talk for the pain.  I suspect the collective verdict was that the company’s latest signee was clearly a sociopath.

       But you know how they say you can get used to anything? Well, the truth is that after a couple of months blinking in the unaccustomed light of an external environment in my non egg-stained clothes, I started to quite like it. I relaxed enough to throw out my characters crib-sheet when I did interviews, and stopped feeling like a child dressing up as a grown-up whenever I ventured out to work-related events. So it was a bit of a rude shock to find myself, after a whirlwind couple of months, back at my desk in the Cardy, writing Book Two and once again wisecracking at the dog (a wasted exercise if ever there was one).  

       The last year, since The Mistress’s Revenge was accepted for publication, has been the steepest of learning curves in so many respects. But perhaps the one thing I was least prepared for was this schizophrenic arc of the published writer’s life. Next time, hopefully, I’ll be more ready for it. Next time I’ll step seamlessly from the solitary subterranean fug of my home-office straight into any number of public situations and be impeccably dressed and effortlessly impressive in the style of Elif Shafak. I’m working on the bilingual jokes as we speak. The dog thinks they’re great!

The Mistress’s Revenge is published by Free Press (Simon & Sc


Jessica Keener said...

I love this. It's also where I am right now before I go out with my debut in January. What to wear? Maybe you can be my double and go out for me?

Doreen said...

I just love this also! I am today this very day having my second book signing event and will be having one for each of the next 5 days. I had to rush out for clothes [thanks for the tip, I am going with comfy shoes]and am now trying to come up with answers to questions that may be asked. Thank you so much for making me smile!

MCR said...

Apt, ain't it? My book comes out in January and I'm worried about my hair and whether or not my mascara will run. And, frankly, because I sit on my butt a lot, whether my clothes still fit. I haven't tried them on, yet. I'm too anxious. Oh, yeah, and I hope the book does well. Such a great post! Thanks Tamar and thanks, Caroline.

Caroline Leavitt said...

I always worry about what to wear, if my hair will look stupid, will I hear the questions, will people be bored. I got a lot better at it after touring this year because I had such a blast, and I found lucky red cowboy boots definitely helped because people were looking more at THEm than at me! And I swear my J Jill black wearever dresses that you can tart up with vintage beaded sweaters!

Caroline Leavitt

Tamar Cohen said...

So glad it isn't just me who feels this way. Great idea about the lucky red cowboy boot providing a welcome distraction, Caroline. Perhaps the answer is to wear something so distinctive all questions become focused on that rather than you or your book. Giant chicken suit, anyone?

Nichole Bernier said...

Lovely. I'll stand in for your dog any time, Tamar, and listen to you joke and read. Also, I think I need to start calling my sweater a Cardy. Adorable post, Caroline and Tamar.

Randy Sue said...

Count me as another fan of this post, which made me feel more sane than anything else I've read this week--including my most recent pages. As for a chicken suit, my near-neighbor and fellow author Lynn Brunelle actually makes public appearances in one of those. But then she writes children's books.