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Tales Of The Unexpected

Meeting your literary heroes

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

They say never meet your heroes, don’t they? But who are they? This mysterious, amorphous body of experts, authorities and sages, always coming out with gnomic nuggets of wisdom. The accumulated knowledge of the centuries, they say, gives you a short cut to getting on in life — adopt the theories and mantras of those who have trod before, and be set on a well-lighted path. But does this guidance apply to literary heroes? I want to argue, fiercely, persuasively and with too many adverbs, that it does not.

Now, let’s lay out the stall here. When I was seven, Roald Dahl opened our local fete. For the seven-year-old me, just the words ‘Roald Dahl’ conveyed such an exotic array of images that it’s hard to narrow them down. Mysterious fog-bound Norwegian peaks, sailing ships with tall masts, rugged polar explorers. Plus of course, flying peaches, successful escapes from hideous aunts and enough chocolate to make you gloriously and joyously sick. Clutching a copy of the tale of the boy in the factory, I queued up to meet him, with a grandparent who’d come along for the ride.

The rain that day was drizzle-gumptiously, fog-twizzingly and sheet-roddingly powerful. You have never fully experienced British culture until you have stood in a sea of wet grass, clutching a paper cup with rain-thinned orange squash in it and sensing your shoes losing their sense of purpose, if not actually ending up as lost soles. There I am, in an increasingly uncomfortable 1980s raincoat (bright blue with red piping) waiting to meet the Master. And the thing is — looking back, this is the moment I became a writer. I realised, as the balding, windswept grey head looked up at me, how ordinary he was. He looked cold, and not thrilled to be there — and why would he, as the umbrella-on-a-spike flapped uselessly above him, and the sky darkened to a purple bruise. I saw that I had been expecting a magician — someone top-hatted, perhaps with a lilac jacket and bottle-green trousers.

Well, you might say, so far this anecdote doesn’t seem to be supporting the argument in favour of meeting your heroes. But the point is, it made him human. I thought, this guy is as normal as my uncle. And yet he is a magician. There’s that line from Dahl, ‘Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’ It’s the line before that makes you a writer: ‘Above all else, watch with glittering eyes the world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places’. You don’t need a top hat and a gold waistcoat. You just need to look. Observe, draw connections, weave words.

So, when the careers adviser came to school a few years later, I felt that being a writer was a reasonable vocation. The adviser thought differently. By the power of questionnaire yes-or-no-ing, my parents were told that I was ‘keen to become a journalist’. At the time I felt the point had been somewhat missed. Although today (being a journalist much of the time) I feel that perhaps the careers adviser should have given up careers advising and become a fortune-teller.

These days of course there are plenty of opportunities to meet writers you admire. You cannot go for a walk in early summer without tripping over a literary festival. Writers have learnt to be terribly polite for such occasions, even when asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ as if it’s an insightful, penetrating and original question. They become maestros of the non-committal.

Meet your heroes, I say. Choose your favourites and become obsessed with them. Fall in love with them, write them fan letters, find out where they live and hang around on their street corner. Actually, scrub that last one. But I’m surprised at the number of writers I am friends with who claim never to have written to their literary heroes. I do it all the time, I have no shame.

Many of the things we need to do as writers – to find a voice; to cope with rejections and setbacks; to keep going, even when it sometimes seems a crazy thing to do – can be built by nurturing our favourites. Beryl Bainbridge wrote me some beautifully encouraging and positive letters at a time of doubt. She didn’t need to do that, but she did. More recently, my meet-the-hero theory has been bolstered by Ian McEwan (generous, dry and funny), Fay Weldon (the kind of aunt Dahl’s characters needed), and David Mitchell (as funny and inventive as the other David Mitchell — you know, the one off the telly). Although, there was the time I found myself standing next to Harold Pinter in the Royal Court toilets. Neither of us said anything, but I suppose the long silence was appropriate.

Forgive me if all this is name-dropping. Stephen King once told me that name-dropping is the worst thing a writer can do. (That may have been a dream). The point is that, when you are navigating your way through the minefield, knowing that your heroes are (relatively) ordinary people is really valuable. It just tells you — you can do this. When I speak to students, I find that often the key bit of advice is not writing advice at all. It’s about building confidence, feeling that you’re in the driving seat of a sports car on the California highway, not squeezed between trucks on a rainy M4 in an old rust bucket.

Speaking of travelling long distances – not the best segue, but I’m amongst sympathetic friends here – Thomas Keneally. What a guy. He had stepped off the plane from Sydney, I asked, ‘How are you?’ and he was still amiably talking, without seemingly taking a breath, forty minutes later. Not bad for someone in his eighties.

At this point I suppose we should consider the case against. I am not sure I would have benefitted much from trekking up to Hull to meet Philip Larkin, who told a student at a bus stop in pouring rain, ‘don’t think you’re going to come and stand under this umbrella.’ Olivia Manning was familiarly known as Olivia Moaning, although I feel there was some justification to her spikiness — a superb writer who did not get the attention of Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark, in whose company she was an equal. I suspect I would have enjoyed spending time with Patricia Highsmith, even though she was generally accepted as horrible. That’s not saying anything mean, as I reckon she’d have cheerfully (as it were) admitted as much.

You do have to be happy spending long periods of time on your own to be a writer, so it’s not an incompatible career choice if you’re somebody who just doesn’t like other people. Sometimes it’s merely about being shy and retiring. P. G. Wodehouse preferred to spend his days with his dog, when he wasn’t doing Swedish exercises, and I doubt he’d have written 98 books if he’d been a keen partygoer.

Dahl himself was irascible, unreasonable at home and, we now discover, antisemitic.
But on the whole, writers are Nice People — it’s hard to be a good writer if you suffer too much from deficiency of empathy. Even if they’re not Nice People, you will learn more about being a writer from ten minutes in their company than you will from ploughing through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Useful on its own merits, yes, but can you study it without getting a bit depressed?

I still have the battered copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, signed in green ink, the name smudged by the rain that was hammering down that June day forty years ago. Who says rain is ephemeral? The book is something of a relic, a talisman I’ve carried through life, decades after disposing of most of my children’s books. Now I have a seven-year-old son myself. He likes Roald Dahl, although Tom Gates and David Walliams have the edge. He’s writing his own stories now, and David Walliams might come knocking for royalties. But that’s okay — it’s how you start.

Mark Blayney won the Somerset Maugham Award for Two Kinds of Silence. He is a former Hay Festival Writer at Work, was Wales Business Journalist of the Year in 2017 and is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Swansea University.

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