I think most people’s occupations are hermetic. You don’t quiz them too closely about what they do: the answer might be too abstruse, or have to do with drilling teeth or creating spreadsheets. There’s a mutual taboo— the other person doesn’t really want to tell you, and you probably don’t want to know the answer. The exception to this rule is, apparently, writers. No matter that our concerns can be just as arcane as a particle physicist’s; we appear to be fair game because most people can type a sentence of English onto a screen. So we are fair game… for certain specific questions.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I don’t know what kind of answer is expected to this question. I don’t pop along to the Ideas Store and pick some up. “They just come to me” doesn’t seem to be an acceptable answer, because the questioners always look disappointed when you try to fob them off with that. But trying to explain that they come from the whole of life and experience stored in the mind and sparked by imagination and inspiration and a thousand other things actually starts to sound a bit twee. I’ve found that a much better answer is “I read a lot”, presumably because that’s something quantifiable.
How long did your book take to write?
This is a bafflingly frequent question, to which the honest answer is “A hell of a lot less time than it took to get the damn thing published”. A bean-counter’s query. Is there supposed to be some way to calculate the value of each word in terms of the time it took to write it down? I usually say “I don’t really remember”.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Because I write about them? Oh, please. It’s called fiction for a reason.
What’s your book about?
You’ve got to generalize. While I’d love to talk about my characters and their world and the melting-pot mythology of it all, “It’s a sort of ghost story” usually works.
No-one has ever asked me why I write, but it’s a far more pertinent question than asking why someone became a lawyer or an accountant because the answer is nothing to do with money, and all about necessity.
But the one question you never, but never, want to hear is this:
“I’ve written a novel, would you read it and tell me what you think?”
Make a polite excuse and leave. Leave now. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just get the hell away! Or you’ll live to regret it!