Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Grandeur and curiosity - Michelle Lovric
A little while back, I was invited to a book launch. The book sounded interesting, concerning a piece of London social history. It’s always nice to support a fellow writer.
So, to a private room above a pub. Publisher, agent, publicist, wine, interesting people all chatting unselfconsciously. It being the misty start of Autumn, much corduroy and velvet. Stacks of said book. All pleasantly normal. The first thing that surprised me was, among the various speeches, the author thanked his researcher.
A researcher? But isn’t research the best bit? Isn’t that how you form your bond with your subject? Isn’t research where you find the surprising, illuminating, fascinating crumb-trail that leads to the discovery of genuine humanity? Isn’t that where you personally experience the connection between past and present, which facilitates transmitting it with empathy to your readers?
Still, on reading a few pages, the book seemed marvellous, as well as handsome. Being a devoted History Girl, I sought out the author after the event. Introducing myself, I asked him if he would like to do a guest post for this site.
The answer was an immediate and curt ‘No.’
That’s never happened to me before, and I was too surprised to be embarrassed. So, I asked, ‘Why not?’
‘Too much bother.’
He wasn’t curious about this site or about me. (In fact, I’m a publishing stablemate of his). His disdain was such that I felt he might see me as some kind of history groupie. (Are there such women? Do they hang out at book launches?) As far as he was concerned, it was clear, this site couldn’t possibly be important enough to merit his interest. He did that looking-over-your-shoulder thing.
I shook myself off and walked away, rebuilding my confidence by reminding myself that I too am a published author, and that I too earn a living from my writing. I know that I would never dismiss another writer like that. Also, I realized, were not a History Girl, and heard about a site like this one, I’d want to know more.
That’s because I have proper, scalding, twitching, frank curiosity, which means you never dismiss something out of hand. You never think you are too grand or too well stuffed with information to ask a question. There is always something to learn about an archive, about a research facility, about another human being. Research is where you find the juicy seam, the light in darkness, the darkness hiding in plain light.
How many writers are so grand that they can afford to be without curiosity?
The one time I sent out for research – my feeble excuse being that I was working on six things simultaneously – was for the only book of mine in which an erratum slip, that deep shame of writerdom, was printed. I hasten to add that I believe most researchers are excellent. I was just unlucky that time.
A mention was made of Dickens at this book launch. Dickens was endlessly curious, and not just in the sense of Curiosity Shop. As a child, his curiosity manifested in voracious reading. As an adult, he shopped for curiosities in his endless walks around London. Having learned shorthand, he could write down his observations as fast as they came to him.
Because he was curious, Dickens saw what was wrong with the way London treated its poor, and became a vigorous campaigner for their rights and dignity.
But he started by finding out things he didn’t know. He started with curiosity. Even when he grew exceedingly grand, Dickens stayed curious.
It was his curiosity that unearthed the tiny pieces of delightful information that Orwell called Dickens’s ‘squiggles’, the details that made his writing irresistible.