Author: Polly James
Published: 30th June 2016
If you could go on a date with three authors – separately - who would they be and why?
Ooh, this is such a hard question, as there are so many authors that I’d love to meet, including those I’ve become friendly with on Twitter over recent years. Or maybe I should choose the most handsome male novelists in the hope that one of them might flirt with me, and remind me that I’m not dead yet? Hmm, let me think…
Okay, I’ve just caught sight of myself in the mirror, so now I’ve decided it’s best to rule out the flirting option. (It’s not going to happen when I spend most of my time writing in my dressing gown and forgetting to brush my hair, let alone doing anything that could possibly be described as personal grooming.)
I think I’ll opt three of the authors whose work I most admire, instead. Here they are:
1. Sue Townsend
Sue died in 2014, but I’m assuming that doesn’t rule her out for the purposes of this question. (I hope it doesn’t, anyway, because I’m going to choose another dead author as my number three.)
Sue Townsend’s my first choice for a number of reasons, and not just because of her books, brilliant though most of them are.
I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole when it first came out in 1982, and was blown away. The book was a perfect blend of humour and pathos, and Townsend’s comic timing never missed its mark. How was it even possible that a woman of 36 could capture the voice and personality of a teenage male so convincingly?
The whole thing was a mystery, and that’s when I first started to read biographical information about Sue, as well as her subsequent books. She wasn’t just a supremely talented comic writer, but a remarkable human being, too.
Every article I read about her life contained another surprise. She’d witnessed the murder of a fellow schoolgirl while she was still a young child. She’d failed her 11-plus and left school at 15, becoming first a packer at a Bird’s Eye factory and then an attendant at a petrol station. Apparently, she really enjoyed that particular job, as it left her free to read when she wasn’t serving customers.
Her home life was busy, too, as she’d become a single parent to three young children by the time that she was 23. Not exactly the easiest route to a stellar career as a national treasure, if you ask me.
I wouldn’t have written a word with three kids to deal with on a daily basis, but Sue Townsend was clearly made of sterner stuff than me. In fact, her determination and stoicism was quite incredible. She suffered a heart attack in her early thirties, then became diabetic and was registered blind in 2001. None of these traumatic events stopped her writing, not even the loss of her sight. She just dictated her books to her son instead.
Ill-health persisted throughout the rest of Sue’s life, too, but somehow it never affected her ability to make her readers laugh – and think – not even when she underwent a kidney transplant and then became wheelchair-bound due to arthritis.
Despite all this, she never expressed one iota of self-pity whenever she was interviewed about her life and work, and she also remained a committed campaigner to improve the lives of the poor until she died in 2014.
She was a truly admirable person, as well as a great writer who gave joy to millions of readers around the world. I wish I’d met her, even though I’d probably have felt an absolute wimp in her presence. (It only takes my neighbour’s noisy building works to render me unable to write a single word.)
2. Fran Lebowitz
I have no idea why I keep on picking authors who’d make me feel totally pathetic in comparison to them, but Fran Lebowitz makes me laugh so much, it’d be worth the humiliation of trying in vain to hold my end of the conversation during dinner.
If you haven’t read Fran’s first book, Metropolitan Life, I highly recommend it – especially if you’re a fan of sardonic humour coupled with the most deadpan delivery I’ve ever seen. I’ll chuck a couple of quotes from Fran in here, so that you can see exactly what I mean. Here’s how she once described herself:
“Success didn’t spoil me. I’ve always been insufferable.”
Fran Lebowitz is often described as a modern-day Dorothy Parker, and for a while I dithered about which of the two to choose, as I’m a huge fan of both. In the end, I opted for Fran because she makes me laugh out loud even more often than Parker does, and she also finds writing really, really difficult, as do I. She and I can bond over the whole nightmarish process of finishing a book, if nothing else. The process she describes like this:
“I write so slowly, I could write in my own blood and not hurt myself.”
Or Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, to give her her full name, which no one ever does.
I read Colette’s novel, Cheri, when I was still a teenager, and was so moved by it that I’ve re-read it more times than I can count since then.
It was originally published in 1920, though that’s obviously not when I first read it. (I’m not THAT old.) However, although that means the novel is 96 years’ old this year, I don’t think it’s really aged at all. In some ways, it may even have become more relevant over time.
Cheri was probably the first novel ever written about the relationship between an older woman and what would now be called her toy-boy – though that’s a bit of a misleading description as it makes the book sound more lightweight than it is. I suppose it’s really a novel about love, selflessness and loss.
Like Sue Townsend, Colette’s life was far from ordinary, though in a different way (apart from the fact that both authors eventually became crippled by arthritis). Colette began and ended her life as a writer, but she also had a career on stage in between. During that time, she sometimes played characters from her Claudine novels, crossing the boundaries between performance and writing, as she would eventually cross so many other boundaries during her long life.
She had a passion for the avant garde (though I’m never entirely sure what counts as avant garde), and a long list of lovers of both sexes. She also married three times, and had an affair with her stepson, which was probably pushing it a bit, even by her usual standards as something of a renegade.
I’d probably bore Colette to tears as a dinner companion, because my life’s pretty dull by anyone’s standards, but that doesn’t put me off choosing her, because I’ve loved her work for so long – and for so many reasons. Her writing is so sensual, and so full of the beauty of nature, that you can almost feel the sun on your face when you read a scene set in the French countryside at the height of summer. You can almost hear the bees buzzing, too. When she describes a meal, you can see and almost taste the food.
Colette might well complain if the food during our dinner didn’t live up to her expectations, but I have a cunning plan for if we get stuck for conversation – to bring up the one thing that we have in common. Colette ‘became’ a character in some of her stories, and I did much the same thing in the blog that eventually turned into my first novel, Diary of an Unsmug Married. (I wrote the blog under the pseudonym of the main character, Molly Bennett, and I still have trouble remembering I’m not really her.)
If you get a chance to read Cheri, then do. I promise you won’t regret it, though obviously I’m talking about the English version, unless your French is sh*tloads better than mine. (Can I choose one extra person to take along to my dinner with Colette, now I come to think of it? A translator, please.)
Would Like to Meet is out now