‘Write what you know’ is a tired – and unnecessarily limiting - cliché of advice for budding writers, but like most clichés, it contains an element of common sense. However, the nature of fiction is that it is an imaginative form, and so to my mind, there is a limit to ‘writing what you know’ – because it’s good to escape from what you know, and to explore things you don’t really know at all. To take an obvious example, I’m fascinated by writing about murder, and motivations for murder. But I’ve never murdered anybody, and I don’t plan to. Honest.
Having said all that, it would be silly to deny that sometimes there is an element of autobiography in fiction, and this can sometimes creep in quite unintentionally. This is a point which Jessica Mann made when responding to my enthusiastic post about her book The Eighth Deadly Sin. A writer will often take elements from their own life and use them in fiction – but perhaps subtly, or dramatically, changed.
There is a great temptation, when reading a novel, to seek clues to the author’s personal life and thoughts. And sometimes the clues are fascinating. But this kind of amateur detective work is often liable to result in one jumping to the wrong conclusions. It’s fun to do, sometimes, but not to be taken too seriously.
With my own books, Harry Devlin shares a number of characteristics with me. He’s a lawyer based in Liverpool, who likes soccer, cricket, films and 60s pop music. But I never wanted him to be a portrayal of myself, so I wove in plenty of stuff that he and I do not share. For instance, he gets involved with criminal and divorce work, and I’d hate to do so. He also lives less in his imagination than I do, and as a result, he’s a lot braver than me. But I’ve never seen this as wish fulfilment – I created a life for him that I really would never want to have for myself!
With Daniel Kind, it’s different. He and I both come from the north of England, and went to Oxford, but otherwise our lives are dissimilar in countless respects. Sometimes the differences - as well as similarities, are written into the character without pre-planning. I still can’t understand why he got hooked up with people like Aimee and Miranda, and judging from emails I receive, nor can many of my readers!
Strangely enough, I’ve become more fascinated by Hannah Scarlett than by Daniel in recent years. I love exploring her life and psychology. The way women think is something else that fascinates me, even though sometimes it perplexes me. And I've written short stories from the perspective of historical characters, an American, and a gay politician. I’m just intensely curious about other people’s lives, and on the whole, fiction appeals to me much more as a means of exploring other lives than of presenting an autobiographical picture of myself.