How to talk about your novel without sounding like a weirdo

I can always see it coming, and it fills me with horror. The conversation is going well. I am being normal. Then the other person asks me what I do, and I tell them, shyly, that I am a writer. [1] They ask if I’ve had anything published, and I say that my first novel was published last year.

And of course, the next question is always, ‘What’s it about?’ and although I’ve had plenty of time to prepare, I panic and start to flail about like a grounded eel.

I didn't have a suitable picture to go with this post. So instead I've included a photo of my happiest memory. You're welcome.

I didn’t have a suitable picture to go with this post. So instead I’ve included a photo of my happiest memory. You’re welcome.

I’ve been thinking recently about why this question poses such a problem for me. The book was published over a year ago in hardback, and was in the works for a long time before that. I’ve probably been asked to explain what it’s about literally thousands of times over the past two years – longer if you count my initial, wildly inarticulate pitch to my agent – but I have never come up with a satisfactory response. Instead I grow bashful, mumble words like ‘family’ and ‘death’ and shoot my interlocutor a pleading, helpless look before sloping away, heavy with sorrow.

Why the awkwardness? It’s partly that, as a debut novelist, I’m not used to any of this stuff: the idea of ‘selling’ either the book or myself is pretty foreign to me. (‘Who would want to buy you, anyway?’ my friend says. ‘They’d get a nasty shock when they opened the box.’) I’m also fairly young, and sometimes feel younger; all too often the whole thing reminds me of being hauled up on stage at a school concert and told to recite a poem about a cat. [2] Besides this, I’m mildly awkward most of the time anyway, so put me in a situation where I have to discuss something as personal as the novel I’ve written – particularly given the subject matter of The View on the Way Down, which often shuts the conversation down with a polite, frozen, ‘Oh, right,’ from the listener – and I come close to spontaneously combusting with discomfort.

Which brings me onto what I think is my main difficulty. It’s not a book that suits being reduced to catchy taglines. Not that many books do, but some possibly resist it more than others. For instance, I am becoming positively enthusiastic about launching into a description of my second novel (A religious cult! The moors! Brainwashing and killing!). But The View on the Way Down explores more sensitive terrain for me, focusing on the creeping horror of depression, suicide, and the myriad ways in which an ordinary family can implode with rage and pain. It doesn’t make for easy dinner party chat, not least because it’s based partly on my own experience and I have to be pretty psyched up to be ready to discuss that with other people. There’s also a ‘twist’ (though that word seems inappropriate in the context) and I have to be careful not to give it away, even though it’s sort of the point of the book and perhaps the bit I’d be most interested in discussing.

I have a suspicion that since the hardback publication, my fumbling attempts to either half-answer or sidestep questions about its subject matter have put off more readers than they’ve lured in.

But having said all this, the reason I started writing this post is that I think I’ve finally nailed it. I know what I should have been saying this whole time. So prepare yourself. Here’s how the conversation will go next time I’m asked what The View on the Way Down is about:

Person: ‘You’ve written a book? Cool. What’s it about?’

Me: ‘Person, I’m glad you asked. It’s a novel about a family coping with the loss of their son, and the secrets surrounding his death.’

Person: ‘That’s a pithy description! Did it come to you in a dream?’

Me: ‘Yes.’ [3]

So, I think what I have learned over the past couple of years is that a) I find it difficult to talk about mental illness with strangers, and b) when trying to promote a book, ALWAYS MENTION SECRETS. People love secrets. There’s a big, sad one at the heart of The View on the Way Down.

Finally, you may have noticed that, weirdly, this whole post about me being unable to talk to people about what the novel is about has also been me talking to you about what the novel is about.

That was for you, David Foster Wallace.

 

[1] If I’m feeling cowardly, I just say ‘teacher’, which is also true. And people don’t seem to have as many questions about being a teacher, beyond a dutiful, ‘Do you hate Michael Gove?’ I will say it once and for all: I am indifferent to Michael Gove.

[2] I still have dreams about Macavity, the little bastard.

[3] It didn’t come to me in a dream.

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About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
This entry was posted in The View on the Way Down, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How to talk about your novel without sounding like a weirdo

  1. Kate Shaw says:

    This made me both laugh and cry! I can’t wait to read your book as I have a very strong feeling I am going to love it.

  2. louisewalters12 says:

    Brilliant, Rebecca, you’ve made me chuckle, and nod my head in wry agreement. The hardest question is “What’s it about?”. I always begin my reply with a long ummmm… . so hard to define a long piece of work, that was years in the making, in a simple snappy sentence. But hey, we have to try!

  3. amandadawnclothier says:

    Reblogged this on cookingupabook and commented:
    From published writer, Rebecca Wait, the challenge of talking about your writing at a social gathering is always a big one (published or not!) If you are brave enough to say the words, “and I write,” you know what’s coming next. People are interested – it’s your job not to lose their interest. Thanks, Rebecca, for a great post!

  4. amandadawnclothier says:

    This is a problem for all writers who are naturally a little shy, or even just have a sense of modesty. It’s worse if you’re unpublished, because if you dare to utter the words, “and I write,” you’ve ignited interest and enthusiasm. You then have to try to justify it. The minute you tell them you’ve not finished yet, or you’re not published, it’s, “Oh.” End of conversation. Great post, Rebecca. Reblogged on http://www.cookingupabook.com

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