Don't get me wrong: I'm delighted anyone is reading my book, let alone sharing their comments and thoughts. I've had some lovely, encouraging emails and conversations and cards. Sometimes it's people you know, but increasingly I'm hearing from complete strangers. Sometimes they are anonymous. Here's an example. How can I not be encouraged?
But it's an odd feeling that 'my' book is out there, being read and assessed by other people. Obvious, you might think; why write a book if you don't want anyone to read it? And that's spot on, of course. I think what I hadn't quite appreciated, though, is how much readers bring of themselves to any work of fiction. Again, that's hardly a startling insight, but it's been brought home to me very clearly by the things people have said to me.
Sometimes that's direct: "It reminded me of when..." More often, though, it's about the set of assumptions we all bring to our reading. "What's the message of your book?" asks someone. Hmm. I'm not sure; I didn't write it with a message in mind. I wrote it out of a compulsion to tell a particular story. Should I have done? Should all fiction have a deep moral purpose? The trouble is, I think that I might find that paralysing: the idea that as well as all the other things that you are trying to hold together when you are writing (characterisation, plot, pace, tension, dialogue...) you should be producing something with a message... Of course it would be wonderful to feel my work offered something of value or depth - but does it necessarily need to be improving?
Another surprise is how much people seem to assume a novel is autobiographical. Of course, of course you draw on your own experience. But it would be pretty dull, surely, if you just rehashed bits of your life? Well, I'm not sure my life has been that fascinating anyway, to anyone else but me. "If it hasn't happened to you, how do you know about x, then?" I was asked recently. I confess I was taken aback. The answer, I suppose, is research and a bit of imagination. Is it such a great secret that a writer of fiction makes stuff up?
I don't say any of this in criticism of my readers, to whom I am enormously grateful. But I have found I have learned a lot about reading, and about the process of writing, through the discussions that I've had. I'm off to a friend's book group next week. They sound a diverse and interesting group of people, only one of whom I know. I'm nervous... what if they hated it? if they eat me alive? Fingers crossed...