It was the kind of thing that we writers spend whole parties explaining doesn't happen to us, but here it was, happening. (Whole parties? As Margaret Atwood says, we talk too much because we spend too much time on our own). The water in the pool at my feet was cool and blue, the courtyard garden a shady oasis in the middle of Madrid. Tall windows stood open to reveal a spacious drawing room full of English-style sofas, beautiful objects and handsome, well-read books. The interpreter and I chatted while the makeup artist set to work. Everyone was friendly, and flattering in a way that meant I could more-or-less believe them. It was a photoshoot for Spanish Elle magazine, and the interview was arranged for the next day at my hotel, before I flew out. At least the sad sandwich which is all British Airways now feeds you on such a flight was a definite reality-check.
I haven't seen the photos yet but from the sizeable screen on the back of the heavyweight camera, they look a) pretty good b) not entirely unlike me and c) very, very English. I doubt if the make-up will show as the thick mask it was, and the house does look like one which someone who didn't know me might think I lived in. It's all tastefully glossy, muy elegante, fair and blue-eyed. This is, after all, the country that invented Hello magazine.
It's not real. It is, dare I say it, fiction: a convincing fiction. Because if mankind (or largely womankind, as it's Elle) cannot stand too much reality, fiction is how we deal with what we can't stand. Readers don't want to see my not-enough-sleep-and-too-much-coffee eyes or my aeroplane-dry skin, and I don't want them to either. The convincingness is where the writer's craft operates, and some of the art lies in choosing what of reality we want to explore, and what we don't. The rest of the art and the craft is in making sense of it.
The 'sense' that's wanted depends on the context. A ghost-written, how-I-wrecked-my-football-career-but-came-through memoir has a different context (market?) from an acid, tunnel-vision, literary satire of Brown's Britain, or a funny, humane dissection of family life by a well-known columnist. But they're all about trying to see the world in a particular way, about showing us that there's a shape to our experience. Humans have always needed to feel there's a pattern to life, a reason for it all, ever since the first cave-dweller squatted on the ground, wondering what creature it is that every evening swallows the sun.