The Writer As Public Figure vs. The Writer Who Actually Writes
Karolina Ramqvist on the Struggle to Balance Success and Meaning
I’m supposed to be writing a speech about my new novel, The White City. It’s a March morning, no sun. I’m standing by my secretary desk. I’ve shut the doors to the rest of the apartment and have been on the verge of sitting down to begin, but each time I tried someone called for me: my husband, my son, or one of my daughters. I can still hear them out in the hall.
It’s impossible to speak to someone about a book one has written. I’m supposed to be writing, but this is the only sentence inside me. There are mere days before the book comes out. A number of so-called “author appearances” have been scheduled at bookstores and libraries around the country. I have to figure out what to say—draft a talk about this novel that I can give not once but repeatedly. It’s paralyzing. I can barely bring myself to make even this tiny movement: my fingers tapping the keys as I write this text.
The kids are making noise in the hall again; the front door slams behind them. Silence. I breathe through my nose and think of the meditation techniques I should be practicing. I think about what Virginia Woolf said in her speech before the National Society for Women’s Service in London in January 1931: that all the great women novelists in England in the 1800s did not have children. Those words strike me occasionally.
I’ve written talks like this before; I’ve often agonized over the notion of having to speak about a book, especially before hardly anyone outside of the book business has had a chance to read it. To hold a talk, one could say, instead of the book. (I can’t get away from the fact that this is how it feels.) A talk that will never cover everything. How am I supposed to do that? Who am I even to do that? This attitude has been interpreted as stage fright or a desire to keep a low profile, but what frightens me isn’t the stage or the public eye but the risk of destroying what I understand the novel to be, that which is still open and not-yet-realized, as it must be for the reader.
When a book has just been published, the author is asked many questions. It’s usually difficult to respond, and there might not be any answers. One of the most common questions—and yet it always blindsides me—is “Why do you write?” When I was young I spent a lot of time trying to answer that question, but however I tried I couldn’t come up with an answer that I knew to be true. It made me feel lousy, like someone who’d never be a writer because I didn’t even know why I wanted to be one.
My image of the writer was the early Romantic idea of the genius who through divine inspiration expressed their unique self in their works and thereby said something universal about existence. The fact that this idea didn’t allow for a girl to be a genius filled me with deep sorrow. As I got older, I started to think that maybe the genius also couldn’t be a woman with children. I had begun to write, and my writing was already problematic to those in my immediate circle, a threat and a disappointment, an attempt to shape my life around my fears and my inability to participate in it. I didn’t have children then, but I had boyfriends and friends, and countless demands were implicit to the questions they posed. Why do you have to go away to write, why can’t you write here, why do you have to write?
Back then, I wasn’t surrounded by other people who wrote, and I wasn’t really surrounded by people who read, and my writing couldn’t have been considered work because the payment wasn’t commensurate with my efforts and the time it took. (I mean, it still isn’t, but nowadays that isn’t as clear.) Reading Virginia Woolf at the time, I didn’t see the glaring similarities between me and the women from the past about whom she was writing, who started writing because pen and paper were easy to get a hold of and writing was an activity that could be done discreetly. But later, when I got to know other women writers who tried to live with men—men, I should add, who didn’t share their values—I understood that I’d never been alone in being called sick because I’d rather write than live with and make love with them. These men hated that we wrote. They hated how the writing took us, hated it for its ability to bear witness to the world and for the fact that it would remain long after they themselves were gone.
I always wanted to be an author, but I also wanted to have children. How those two things fit together is another common question, and I’d wondered about it myself. How would that be possible? In equality-minded Sweden, it’s a given that women shouldn’t have to choose between work and starting a family, but I saw children as a potential threat to my writing. And motherhood with its demands is really a sort of antithesis to being a writer. But many women also live with the idea of being perpetually available to their men, and when I think about it now, it’s so clear that children were never the hurdle for writing—men were. I could only start writing books once I stopped making myself available to a man’s many ever-changing needs. But I can’t include this in a talk or make this my answer to how I became an author.
An author appearance is a meeting between the author and the readers who share time and a space and in this way it differs from our usual meeting, the one in which the reader sits alone with the text and completes it by reading. I like our in-person meeting best when it reminds me of the latter. But this latter meeting can occur when we’re in the same room, too, for instance during a Q&A in an auditorium when a member of the audience shares his reading of the novel in a way that allows us to glimpse our usual space of encounter: the true space of reading. I like when this happens; experiencing the closeness between strangers that arises when we recall the fellowship to which we are accustomed, but can’t achieve as long as we are in the same room speaking to each other.
It’s impossible to speak to someone about a book one has written. Marguerite Duras wrote this sentence in her penultimate book Writing. She writes that authors are contradictory and utterly incomprehensible and that “a book is the unknown, it’s the night, it’s closed off, and that’s that.” Until this novel, which I’m now supposed to “say” something about, all of my books were texts that I’d borne a long time. They sat inside me as if in storage or ran parallel to each other like long threads, in constant conversation about what should be written and how. This novel came to be in a completely different way.
It was the summer of 2012. I had just finished my third novel, Alltings början (The Beginning of Everything), my husband and I had gone out to our summer cottage with the children, and I wasn’t supposed to be writing. I was only meant to do interviews and be on vacation. The publisher’s publicity department had let me know that there seemed to be an early interest in the book. This delighted me, of course. Not only that, I’d received a few advances from foreign publishers, my youngest daughter was to start pre-school in the fall, I had a grant, and would be able to start working on something new.
Finding the time to write no longer felt impossible. I should have been happy. The novel was to come out in August, a little more than three years since the last one, which corresponded to the idea of a real author’s rate of production. Now and then, I walked around outside with the phone pressed to my ear answering journalists’ questions about the book, and I tried to say things that would be compelling and relevant and make it seem read-worthy. (Write-worthy?) Photographers drove out to the cottage to take pictures, I had brought lipstick with me and a blazer that I never otherwise had there and I stood in places around the garden and up by the bilberry sprigs in the forest and once in the middle of a lake atop a very leaky old wooden trampoline.
And in the same way that I put on the blazer, I dressed myself up in the role of the author, perpetually ready to speak about my book. I wasn’t supposed to be writing that summer, I was supposed to be having time off, going to the beach with the children, playing with them and cooking food and taking walks in the forest, and being available for the marketing of the book. That’s how the authorial split appeared for me. I had read about it and heard other writers discuss it, but now for the first time I could feel it. I had become the writer, but who was this writer? It cut through me with full force, the cleft that characterizes what we call the writing profession, and which has become so obvious it can be elusive. In one of the Empson Lectures in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood reminds us of the epigram that she keeps on her bulletin board, one that usually brings me as much comfort as it seems to amuse my audience: Wanting to meet an author because you like their work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté. Atwood describes the cleft as a dividing line between the person who eats cereal at breakfast and drives off to have their car washed and the other much more articulate shadow-being who lives in the same body and “when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.” But the split that opened up in me that summer was between these two beings and the writer with a capital W, who appears when the writing is done. The duck, if you will.
If the writer-genius I once idealized was substantial and authentic, then the actual writer was a whole set of personalities that were constantly circling each other. The role of the writer is often not considered a “role” because performing as a writer is close to hand. The one who writes sits alone with her text and works hour after hour, year after year, alone with the words, searching for the word inside the word and the shine that will arise from them. It’s a solitary act, like reading, and that, like reading, might lead to a book. It’s difficult work that also isn’t really work, neither a part of working life or the market economy. But the question is whether the writer with a capital W, her body and life and experiences, have become more in demand than what she has written.
I became a writer in other’s eyes that summer and also a Writer. A person who appears on the covers of magazines, on TV-sofas or on stages to talk about the book she has written, just like I’m supposed to be preparing to do. Or like I’m trying to avoid doing?
I told one of the reporters that I’ve always wanted to write about what isn’t brought to the fore. That which is hidden. It was a statement I was able to make without feeling that I’d have to take it back in the next sentence or object to later. I had a hard time summarizing my authorship in the ways that I was invited to do in interviews—I understood, in spite of it all, that I was to think of it as an invitation—but with some reluctance I could see how the books were creating their own kingdom. They appeared, among other ways, in relation to each other.
When my novel Flickvännen (The Girlfriend) came out in 2009, I was often asked if I was going to write a sequel. The question seemed related to a question asked of many Scandinavian novelists—if they might not be planning on writing a crime novel—and each time I answered that no, I absolutely was not. The idea was alien to me; I didn’t understand the point. I was also asked about my personal experience of life with a gangster and what it was like to wait at home for him to come back from a job, like the main character Karin. As if what I had written were a product of my life rather than a literary work. For instance, a TV producer called me several times in hopes of having me on his show to talk about what it’s like for those women. I said that I couldn’t, I could only speak on behalf of the protagonist in The Girlfriend. What I had written was a novel, it was fiction. On the other end of the line, the producer fell silent. “But,” he said eventually, “how else could you know that this is how it happened?”
This fixation on reality can be disheartening for a writer, but you could also look at it like this: it’s not that reality is so dominant, novels are. It’s the novel that perforates reality, and not the other way around. At the same time, it’s also a way of talking about—and with—the Writer. A number of journalists who called that summer also really wanted to come out to the cabin. One couldn’t possibly do the authorship justice unless one sat down with the writer and talked, they said. But why would that make it possible? I am not my novel. I can only do it injustice.
The more I tried to talk about my book, the more often I was struck by the impossibility of doing precisely that (an impossibility that differed from writing’s many impossibilities), the more irritated I grew with the Writer in me who insisted on trying (even though I knew she had her reasons).
But it was also something else. Was this a new way of talking about literature? In past interviews, The Girlfriend was called a “successful novel”, and I was called a “successful author.” The focus wasn’t only on the writer as a person, but the writer as a successful person. A big magazine article no longer seemed able to be about a writer’s books because they were good, they also had to have caught the attention of the media and be liked by many. This could be understood as a consequence of the changing conditions of cultural journalism and literary criticism, but also as the writer as a character being pulled into the neoliberal narrative of individual strength and independence, which has become the media-society’s big story and that lends itself, as literature does, to being about what it means to be human, but in this story weakness and ambivalence are only addressed in order to highlight strength and certitude. It was a lie that felt new and became particularly ridiculous when applied to the writer.
So I did the only straightforward thing. I started to write even though I wasn’t supposed to. Even though the point was for me to have “free time” and only do some interviews. I started writing because writing is something I can’t help but do, but also because I thought that it would save me from the Writer, save me from the role of the author and the human ideal that was beginning to flow into me like undrinkable water. It was also flowing into the person who was adjacent to writing and into the one-who-writes, who for all she knew about hardship and impossibility should have known to build a dam to keep the water out.
Right then I wanted to write something that wouldn’t be published, something for which I would never stand on a stage or a leaky old wooden trampoline in the middle of a lake, never try to talk about, never try to say. Because another recurring question is of course “What do you want to say with this book?” And the answer: “I don’t want to say anything; I wanted to write what it says in the book exactly as it is written there.”
And in the same way that I’d long had a store of books inside me to write, there was one I was never going to write. So I picked that one. I started writing the sequel to The Girlfriend, which in that moment I believed would never be published. I reached for that story as though it were a rope tossed to me in cold water, and it became something to hold on to so I could get back to what I wanted. When I stepped into Karin’s house again, she was still there, different to the person I had left behind in The Girlfriend. Her worst fears had come to pass—everything that everyone, those closest to her, but also the reader with a voice of reason, and me with mine, had warned her about. What we expect to happen to girls who get involved with gangsters. She lost everything. I was asked if I did this to punish her.
For the one who writes, the writer is far away. The writer is expected to have answers, the one who writes is dedicated to writing and sitting alone with questions. It’s a cleft that runs between the quick and the slow. The profitable and unprofitable. What everyone is waiting for and what no one is asking for. What wants to come out and that which shirks. To write is to turn to face the world while turning away from it.
Like the writer, readers come later, when the writing is done. The book materializes in the reader’s hands, in her gaze. Letter by letter, word by word, it carved out a space inside me and through my body, it emerges in the space inside her. The reader can point out what the writer has forgotten or didn’t realize was in the book, perhaps something that provided the first impulse to write it and that belongs to our shared world. And in her reading, she creates the text, but only through reading the book can the reader have it and only through writing it, exactly as it is written, can I “say” what I want to say with it. We can’t get around the solitary and unnecessary act of all these words.
Of course the question comes up again. Why do you write? But to whom do I owe the answer? There is no answer, and I probably knew that all along, but maybe I didn’t dare say it until now: I write to write.
Maybe I didn’t dare say this before I became a writer. But as I write this now, I’m overcome with the feeling that there’s something improper about it, in how I started writing just to be the one who writes, giving thought to nothing but the writing. The Writer’s logic is so strong that it makes me disqualify what my own writing knows—and what I know deep down—is the greatest freedom. The real work of a writer.
Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.