Maybe the problem's that I'm not many people's idea of what a writer should be like. I'm just an ordinary guy from a bog-standard Scottish home. Maybe I don't seem bright enough. “You don't write the way you speak,” one relative told me years ago, giving the one and only indication I heard from him that I might be a disappointment to him.
I went along recently to what they call here a “short story slam”, in which would-be writers compete for a prize at a local pub. The winner is chosen by a jury randomly selected from the audience and is based on a 10 minute “performance” of a short story. I say “performance” because many of the competitors realise that simply reading their story out aloud isn't going to cut it. I never enter because the jury always picks the most pretentious piece of tosh performed that night over some really excellent stuff.
Anyway, this night I'm there on my own. The only table left is a table for four and I can have no objection when three other people plonked themselves down. In between stories I chatted with the three. They were all wannabee writers and I think at least two of them had had things published in some university arts magazines. I find out a lot about them. I am shocked by their lack of curiosity about me – I thought writers were supposed to be interested in other people. I don't think it occurred to them that I was a writer – never mind the author of a national bestseller.
Something similar happened recently when the local library played host to well known Canadian playwright Marty Chan. I wanted to ask Marty about writing dialogue. A famous, and I suspect reasonably rich, thriller writer I used to know has an absolute tin-ear when it comes to dialogue. I know that the standard advice is to listen to how people speak. But I also know from my time as a journalist and from transcribing interviews with politicians that many people don't speak in coherent sentences. I think there's a trick to realistic dialogue in fiction and I hoped Mr Chan could give me some pointers when I approached him. I mean, as a former journalist and writer of non-fiction, the stuff I’ve put between quotation marks so far has actually been spoken by a real person. Anyway, another Edmonton playwright interrupts me and says “Speaking of self-published, blah blah blah” and then monopolizes the conversation. Only, of course he didn't say “blah blah blah”. It was pretty obvious he was of the opinion that if I'd had a book published, it must have been self-published. At the weekend, I was at another event hosted by the local library and featuring an Edmonton author who is doing really well for himself at the moment. I know, you want names. Maybe. I had a book in my pocket because I was expecting to have time to do some reading before a lunch-hour assignation later in the day. It was Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham. If you haven't read it, it's about the creepy “you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” lives lived by professional writers. I remarked to this Edmonton author that it was enough to put a person off the business. It didn't seem to occur to him that I might have some notion about that of which I spoke. Once again a member of the Edmonton literary community showed a depressing lack of curiosity about an Ordinary Joe.
I really would have liked to have spoken to Marty Chan. Years ago I read a book on beach in British Columbia and though it was in Standard English I was pretty sure it had been written by a Scots guy. It was called “The Camp” and his name was Williams or Williamson, or something like that. Years later I spotted another of his books in a second-hand shop in Edinburgh and this one had an author biography. Not only was the guy Scottish, but he was brought up close to where I went to primary school. Now I'd hate it if all the fictional dialogue I tried to write came over as being spoken by some guy from just outside Wishaw.