When I was around sixteen I told my granddad I was going to be a writer when I left school. Whilst applauding my intentions, he said that to be a good writer I would have to live a little first. How I laughed.
Okay, so here was a man whose mother had given birth to thirteen children and died from exhaustion in middle age; whose father went on the Jarrow March; a self-educated man who loved books; a man who took up printing by trade; a man of strong principle who volunteered to fight in the Second World War even though he was past the age of conscription because he believed his generation was to blame; a man who, as a prisoner of war, was nearly killed by the allied bombing of Dresden; a man who later welcomed the marriage of his daughter to a German, taking up evening classes in the language so he could converse with the locals when he visited her; a man with a strong sense of community who became a Justice of the Peace and a local councillor and who founded the local branch of the Labour Party; a man who, at the time I was having this discussion with him, was nursing his wife of fifty odd years through the latter stages of Alzheimer’s.
What, in God’s name, did this man know about writing? I was the one with the A in English Language, right?
A discussion ensued during which I told him I didn’t need to know any more about life to be a great writer. It was all a question of imaginative power and eloquence. Why, I could write a novel about the sofa. He conceded that maybe I could write a novel about the sofa, but it wasn’t a novel he’d want to read. More fool him, huh?
There is a general rule of fiction that says character is revealed through experience. The more extreme the experience, the more is revealed. What is true of fiction is probably true of life. The more you experience, the more you discover about yourself and about other people; about humanity. It is these discoveries that the more experienced writers bring to their fiction.
The mistake I made in my argument with my granddad was to equate experience with material. They are not the same. Material, as I tried to tell him, is immaterial. What matters is how it is handled by the writer.
Let’s say my granddad and I are both awful writers. He writes a novel based on his life experiences. It’s boring as hell. I write a novel about the sofa. It’s a pile of pretentious crap.
Now let’s say we’re both literary geniuses. His life story suddenly becomes engaging, moving and profound. My sofa saga proves to be intriguing, offbeat and hilarious. Well done to us both.
Now, let’s say I nick his material. I write about his life experiences. I’m sixteen, I’m young, I’m inexperienced. Some of these emotions are going to be hard to realise. Some of life’s ironies are going to be lost on me. Nonetheless, I’m bloody good and I make a decent stab at it. I win the Booker.
Finally, let’s imagine my granddad, fellow literary genius that he is, brings all his life experiences to bear on a novel about a sofa.
Right there is the book I want to read.