Write What You Know
Since the covid restrictions have largely been eased here in the UK, I have been spending more time in the city, leaving my beloved fenland garden for longer periods, juggling my day job, my family, my writing. The upside of this - and anyone who knows me knows I love an upside - is the reconnection with family and friends; it begins something like this.
Inspired by an Anna Jones's newsletter, I
decide to make a quick foray to the Turkish grocers to scoop up some of the last of the summer tomatoes, ripe and deeply fragrant, remembering, as I often do now, that I used not to like tomatoes. I grew up in England in the 1970's, need I say more? It took a summer visit to my South Carolina
family to realise I had never actually tasted a tomato, so how could I know if I liked them?
In The American South, tomatoes are so good that they eat them in a sandwich. On their own. Yes, my fellow 1970's Brits, you read that right. Just the tomato, sliced fat. To my knowledge, no one in 1970's Britain had had the experience of biting into a lush, sun-ripened tomato, because the sun only shone the once, in The Great Heat Wave of 1976. Which explains why it's possible for a major UK supermarket to promote a tomato 'grown for flavour.' Quite.
While I'm in the shop I spot a box of plumpish, palm-sized cucumbers, and I'm immediately seeing images in my head of Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovic bickering sweetly together about the process of pickling them, and so six or eight of those go in my basket along with plenty of dill. I think of my granny's vegetable garden, mulched with dried pine needles to protect it a little from the Carolina sun, the rhythmic sounds of cicadas and crickets, and the heavy weight of the humid heat.
Across the road at the butcher's, they call me by my name and ask about my children and how the book is coming along, and as Michael draws his knife across the steel, I have a flashing memory of my dad, taught by his father, teaching me to use a steel. "A blunt knife is more dangerous than a sharp one, sweetheart. Keep your knives sharp."
I make a quick stop at the cafe - still only doing take away service - and bump into a long-time friend and neighbour. He is rushing somewhere, he always is, and yet also always has time to say hello and share a bit of news.
"I see you've got another book coming out," he says, sweetly congratulating me. "Is this one about yourself as well?" And I'm lost for words. He quickly clarifies that he hasn't actually read the first one, but "I assumed...I mean... everyone writes about themselves at first, don't they? I mean, Write What You Know, Right?"
I walk past another café, on the corner by the primary school my kids went to, and stop to chat to a couple of parents I've known for nigh on twenty years. One of them says she saw I'd written a book. I did, I say, feeling shy, and thrilled at the same time. Then she says, I thought I'd give it a miss, because, she says, how many more books about the effing school gates can a person read? And I think, Oh. Ohhh...
I'm about to clarify, but she says, 'But I had a look on the internet and now I think I might just give it a go.' I'm delighted, and I tell her so, but I am perplexed by this automatic assumption about what I would naturally write about. Write what you know?
The novel in question is my debut Alabama Chrome. It is a first person narrative, set in contemporary rural Kentucky. The protagonist is a youngish man on the run from his memories, his reputation, and his desperate, consuming grief. This is as far from my lived experience as can be, but here's the thing: it is also about community, supporting people in small ways, it is about the healing power of friendship, its sustaining qualities and it is about love. Write what you know.