A few weeks ago I was in a bar in Cardiff. It was that time of night, stupid-loud and three deep at the counter, when a big guy in his late twenties loomed up at me, bent down and yelled into my ear, ‘You’re very fat!’
Yeah – nice!
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him so I gave a too drunk/too loud/whatever smile. But he thumped a meaty hand on my shoulder and said it again. This time I made the universal hand gesture for I can’t hear you, which I couldn’t properly. I was pretty annoyed though. What a thing to say to a woman minding her own business at the bar. I don’t think I’m very fat – I’m not particularly thin but am I very fat? Am I? Either way he seemed to want to keep saying it until I responded. Eventually I made an, ahem, ‘please go away,’ face and gesture. At which point he shoved past me and lumbered away.
I was torn between wanting to rip his head off and knowing it was better to forget it. Common sense won and I got my drink. Have I forgotten it, though? NO.
Some days later (listening to some boys talking about girls in Tesco) it occurred to me that maybe what he’d said was ‘You’re very fit.’ Okay. I don’t think of myself as ‘very fit’– I don’t think I’m really ‘unfit’ – but I thought I was looking alright and he was pretty drunk and it was stupid loud etc. Maybe it was a misunderstanding? Maybe that’s why he got so ‘annoyed’. Perhaps he was trying, in his lumpen-meat-head fashion, to chat me up when I’d given him the great two finger flag-off. Naturally, I prefer this explanation to the one where he just felt compelled to tell me I was a mega- bloater!
Maybe I missed the point – was one rogue vowel, an ‘I’ instead of an A, lost in translation, literally and metaphorically. It’s the little things…
Writing is a bit like this sometimes.
A lot can be lost between what the writer writes and the reader understands or takes from a novel. I should know. I had my first one star review this week – boy did this woman hate both my books! I was baffled by the intensity of her diatribe. She hated the female characters most, saying they were vain and self-obsessed and, well, not very nice! Sorry, but may I politely suggest that she, though completely entitled to dislike my books, maybe missed the point a bit?
I wasn’t trying to write about ball-breaking heroines, kick boxing secret agents or romantic outsiders harbouring secret yearnings for the gardener/vampire/fetishist next door. (Not that there’s anything wrong with these characters, far from it, they’re just not what I was trying to create.) I wanted women with flaws and doubts and active self-interest and well, they’re not nice all the time.
Traditionally, stories have always had heroes and heroines but, be honest, how many of us fall into this category? Oh, we like to think we’re the headliners in the story of our lives (You’re very fat!? Bloody hell, I’m the likable, attractive plucky bloody heroine, mate! Aren’t I?)
But what if we’re not? If we’re not the hero or heroine? We’re the villain, or maybe even worse, we’re not either, we’re the supporting players, the ones there’s nothing really special about. The one’s who are neither very fat nor very fit?
In Telling Stories, my first novel, Lizzy asks, ‘Which lies are the worst? The ones we tell others or the ones we tell ourselves?’ I think I know the answer.
In Joseph Conrad’s turn of the century seafaring tale Lord Jim, Jim goes to sea and dreams of the moment he leap heroically into the fray and the realm of myth – his exploits will be remembered in sea shanties and by swooning women forever more. But the ship begins to sink – the moment comes and what does Jim do? I won’t tell you but suffice to say he spends the rest of his life reliving that one moment.
Faced with adversity are you or I really heroic and self sacrificing? Do we think we could be? Know we ought to be, but underneath are scared, vain, wracked with doubt and indecision? Which lies are the worst?
But can you still care about a character who does a reprehensible thing for the right or wrong reasons? Or is weak enough to allow questionable things to happen? I certainly think so.
Sympathy for the devil goes back a long way (before The Rolling Stones sang, ‘Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.’) John Milton invented it in the 17th century in Paradise Lost when Satan was cast out of heaven, landing on the burning lake of fire, blackened and shorn of his brilliant ‘star of the morning’ Lucifer light. In Satan’s song of his own sorrow he has been unjustly punished for his love of a tyrannical God who demanded absolute obedience. He’s not the villain! He’s the victim! And he knows he’s prey to the coils of his own mind.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” he laments.
Right with you there, Satan!
So was it all a little misunderstanding in the bar? Has Satan really just had bad press? Did Jim merely need a second to get a rewind? Has something been lost in translation? Did Ms Terminator reviewer miss the point?
Don’t ask me. I’m STILL wondering if I’m fat or fit…..or maybe I’m neither…oh bugger…