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Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Am I single-handedly ruining my career by not talking personally?"

Dear Jerusha: I read Emma's blog Too Much Meringue and wondered if you could help me with a different facet of coping with the media? I hate all this stuff anyway, so would much rather refuse to do it all, though I have got used to it. But my new novel is set in the rather unusual milieu in which I grew up, although the story and the characters aren't like anyone real at all. And of course everyone wants me to say that it's all about me really, and write about my own parents and my own children. A national paper asked me to pitch memoir pieces, but turned down everything I sent because they want something more personal; another clamouring is a paper I wouldn't write for if it was the last one on earth. Please tell me I'm not single-handedly ruining my career.

 A: Darling, no, you're not single-handedly ruining your career. Will that do?

All right, since it's a while till the next porpoise-school passes and I can give them my reply, let's unpick it a bit more. Emma realised what's going on with this kind of thing some years ago, the first time a journalist asked her, in an interview about the novel, whether she believes that religion and science are compatible. And later, she was offered one of those routine slots in one of the national papers about "My House Move". After a bit of conversation with the journalist Emma decided she wasn't willing to do it but, instead of saying so, her Inner Nice Girl made her reach for the nearest true excuse and say, "Sorry, haven't got time, because I'm actually going into hospital soon". At which point the journo said, "Oh, I've got a My Operation column. Could I use you for that?" I laughed so much when Emma told me that story I nearly fell out of my palm tree. It was either that, or cry.

But it's horribly easy to get sucked (which sometimes feels like suckered) into feeling that we all have to do everything to create publicity, just because we see others doing it, and because the battle for visibility - and the consequent sales of this book and the consequent improved chance of the next contract - always seems to be tooth-and-nail.

I think it helps to understand that the tension is built into the system. Can any of us say that we haven't wanted to learn personal things about a writer or actor or musician we're interested in? The fact is that, by definition, if you're trying to catch the interest of a human, the most certain way to do it is to open a human-grade connection. If the job of any publicity is to make a connection between a reader and a novel, the experience and personality of the writer is always going to be one of the most important conduits, and in reading/watching/hearing the piece, the potential book-buyer should come to feel that they know the writer a little more than they did before. And the coin of that greater knowledge is personal information, so a publicist will be looking for as many of those conduits as possible, and a journalist will be trying to make each conduit as wide as possible, to get more of that coin down it.

So you could say it's not unlike the old-fashioned relationship between the sexes: as your Granny used to say, the boy - the journo - always wants to go further. And that means a writer is always likely to be in the position of the girl: she has the job of controlling how far they'll both go. But it's easy to forget, in the face of the publicist or magazine saying what they want, that they're only taking an opening - ahem - position. They are, if you like, the well-brought-up boy who will always ask, because if he doesn't ask he won't get, but knows perfectly well that he may get no for an answer - if we say it. So, as your Granny also used to say, girls absolutely don't have to give in to a boy just because he says - or she believes - that all the other girls do. It's wholly your right to make the best decision you can, entirely for yourself.

It may be easy to turn down a newspaper you loathe, but more lethal is the fear that your publisher will want you to do more and go further, and be cross if you don't. And it's true that your relationship with your publisher is very important, and that with reason, but also within reason, they do expect you to do your bit as they do theirs. It's even in your contract. So I asked Emma to get in touch with a writer friend of hers whose day job is as a publicist with a major publisher. And what this friend said was this:

You're not ruining your career. It's your publicist's job to put the case to you and get you to do as much as you're comfortable with, but she absolutely won't mind you setting boundaries and sticking to them. And (speaking as a publicist) I much, much prefer it when someone has a clear line in the sand and sticks to it.

What's annoying for everyone is when someone says "I won't talk about that thing that happened in Bicester" and you say "Fine, absolutely, no problem at all" and tell everyone that the Bicester incident is off limits, and then in the very next interview the author says, "Well, of course there was that Bicester incident" and everyone is all over the publicist saying "I thought you said she wouldn't talk about it?". Or (even worse) the author does a piece about the Bicester incident and then gets cold feet at the 11th hour and you have to try to withdraw the piece and everyone gets angry.

Jerusha, I love your 1950s "third base" metaphor!! Made me laugh. And I think there's definitely an element of truth in it - the publicist has to ask, because that's her job, but she shouldn't take offence at the answer, whatever it is. I think the key is just being straight with all concerned.

I won't deny, it is annoying when an agent pitches a book on the back of the fact that the author has a fascinating personal story, and then after it's sold it becomes apparent that the author won't talk about their personal story. And it's frustrating when you're being expected to get make gold out of straw - i.e. authors expecting the publicist to pull a Guardian interview out of the hat, but without being prepared to talk about anything interesting.

But saying "I won't talk about Bicester" and then turning down an interview about Bicester is completely understandable to all concerned. And yes, you might miss out on a byline about the book, but at the end it's about how much that matters to you and only you know that. If sales were the be all and end all, we'd all be writing 50 Shades.

So it seems to me that it's really about being clear about what you want, and asking your publicist's help to make the most of what you are willing to do. Can she sit in on interviews? Can she advise you about how to negotiate with a TV company about what they can film and what they can't? Can you just talk it through with her, given her experience of the media, to help clarify your own thinking? And is the boundary you want to lay down a career disaster, or merely a boundary? Unless you're a celebrity, the system actually works on all parties being reasonably happy with those boundaries.

Mind you, it isn't always easy to know what you're willing to do, before you're in thick of it, especially if you're like Emma, who almost never used to read interviews or other coverage of writers, so didn't know what gets talked about. But anyone who's got this stuff coming up could start by noticing what other writers do and don't get involved with, and how personal they are or aren't being, and whether you'd be comfortable with it.

There will always be things you can't and won't do, and media you find easier, and more difficult - live, recorded, edited... And there will always be someone else who is willing to do or say attention-getting things you couldn't bear to: cue the kind of professional guilt-plus-panic that you ought to do these things. It's horribly easy to feel that it's just part of the culture of the industry you've been parachuted into, and you must put up and shut up if you want to be professional, and sell books.

But, for a start, that "someone else" is often your own mental composite: no one other person does all the things on offer; which of them could you face? And, as Emma's publicist friend implies, there isn't an industry norm, and it doesn't mean you do have to do whatever anyone wants. As with networking, as I was exploring in Several Rabbits at Once, it is partly about playing to your strengths, but also to your feelings. And, in the long term, holding on to some sense of your personal and ethical centre, and not letting it be nibbled away at, is more important than anything. It's where your writing comes from, after all, and what could be more professional than taking care of that?

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