The full house and the real thing
The maker's mind

The Ancestral Elephant

Writing of the elephant in the room, in my last post, reminded me of something I've been dodging ever since I started this blog. Down our way he's called The Ancestor (though isn't that also a character in Moomintroll?). Yes, him, Charles Darwin. Okay, there, I said it. I guess most readers of this blog aren't surprised, but it's what many people think but don't ask when they meet me and my name, while others do ask immediately. (If you're wondering, he's my grandfather's grandfather, and I'm named after his cousin and wife, Emma Wedgwood)

The thing is, I've been invited to speak at Birmingham University's Darwin Day 2008 on 12th February next (I nearly said 'this') year. I don't normally do being a Representative Darwin, having dozens of cousins who are keener and know more about it all than I do, but a) Birmingham is my own old university and b) the theme of the day is the wider influence of Darwin on literature and the arts: the chief speaker is Dame Gillian Beer. I've decided that I do have something to say about how that plays out within the family, and I shall enjoy the trip and the company: I haven't been back since I graduated.

As you can tell, my feelings about it all are mixed, because, really, my ancestry is nothing to do with what I do. I write fiction, and my fiction is neither better nor worse because of some bits of DNA which would be even more diluted than they are, were it not for a family tendency to marry our cousins. And though this is my particular issue, I suspect my experience is similar to that of many writers for whom the best publicity angle is nothing to do with their book.

There you are, having that first, nervous lunch with your publicist, and she's making notes about ways to catch the fact-swamped, story-jaded attention of journalists in all media. 'Are you willing to talk about X?' she says, and of course you say  'yes', because you know the value of X, and you also know that it will be difficult to dodge questions about it consistently if you say 'no'. And before you know it, X becomes your defining characteristic. Hundreds of wonderful debut novels are published, X is why this one is interesting is the subtext, or even the main text, of the press release. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised when X takes up most of a Forthcoming Books listing, or the little local news stories, or the radio interview, and much more than anything about the book itself.

It's even quite hard to whinge about it because, as polished up by a skilled publicist, this small fact about yourself begins to seem like an unfair advantage in the tooth-and-claw battle of the book pages and the bookshops' front tables. Complaining can sound a bit like someone complaining about how huge their tax bill is this year. But, actually, there's quite a serious point in among my unease, and the unease I'm assuming any novelist with something unrelated but newsworthy in their background feels. It's not just that we don't want our work to be upstaged by an accident of our history. It's not even that we resent any words in a review that don't talk about the book. It's that, ultimately, where a novel comes from is not the point. It's what it does for the reader as they read that matters. That's what I'm trying to do when I write - affect the reader - and anything which makes them, instead, start thinking about me and why and how I wrote it, diverts their thought and feeling from the proper course. 'But then,' no doubt someone reading this will think, 'she would say that, wouldn't she.' Like I said: tooth-and-claw.

Edited to add: I explored the business of being upstaged by my own family tree a bit more in the Daily Telegraph, here.