I can’t say when or why I started writing. The truth is that I have always written. I wrote before I had any interest in why I wrote or what its purpose might be. I felt instinctively that words were the only way to arrange a thought, and arranging my thoughts became a kind of game. It is a kind of compulsion, which, since I am doing it anyway, I may as well use to understand and resolve the world around me. At a certain point I decided that I wanted to write for other people, to tell them stories, arrange their thoughts, and writing became a little less about me, but there is still a paradox at the heart of it: I have to think I am writing something that is worth other people’s time.
When writers write about writing, there is a common idea that they are doing so for posterity. Some of us have a romantic idea of writing as a kind of continuance, a way of persisting in the world after you die. Books become almost like the children of a mind, living on in the world after their parent is gone. My novel will be lodged with the copyright libraries, my name on record. Yet there are 14 million books in the British Library. It is a vast mausoleum of thoughts, the older names fading from view like weathered headstones. I recently borrowed a book published in 1976, and it still had the return card lodged in the front from its previous borrower in 1988.
So if I accept that my writing is not about me – that the part tied up with my ego is not going to last very well whichever way you look at it – it becomes about the story itself and what it can do in the present. There are a few particular characteristics of the novel, which set it apart from other media, and which make it quite a unique way to tell stories.
Firstly, a novel makes humans out of us. The form by its nature doesn’t just show us people who don’t share our life experience, it forces us to imagine what it is like to be them. So many of the world’s problems arise from a lack of empathy with others. We feel that some others are not like us, can’t understand us, don’t have the same needs as we do or, perhaps, in less generous moments, that our concerns are really more important. Reading novels forces me to imagine what it must be like to be someone else: young, old, an outsider, deaf, gay, female, religious. Novels help me to see how different life is across decades or on the other side of the world. And spanning all that difference, there is always something uniting about our shared needs for love, purpose, dignity and food. (Yes, food. Who doesn’t love food?)
The novel may not always shout loudest, but it stays with you in your bag and by your bed, insistent and persuasive. In the shouting match of modern media, the novel is a fireside chat, a weekend away in a country B&B. Under its influence, you start to look at trees for what seems like the first time in a month, you talk about the things that have been bothering you for a while, and you realise that this, here, now, is life.
A novel is pretty much the only chance that a person gets to speak to a stranger, without interruption, for ten hours. To arrange a few thoughts with them. It’s a fantastical, terrifying opportunity. What would you say? Perhaps you are afraid they will walk away, so you focus on holding their attention. Perhaps you want to make a point about politics or society. Maybe your priority is to show them that, if things always seem to go wrong, at least they get better in the end. I suppose if you’re very good at it, you could do any number of things at once. For me, I think the most important thing is to reach out, to lend my hand like Larkin’s old toad. If I could only impress one thought on a stranger, I would tell them that, if all of us sometimes feel like we are struggling through life alone, at least we are alone together.
Alex Christofi was born and grew up in Dorset. After reading English at the University of Oxford, he moved to London to work in publishing. He has written a number of short pieces for theatre, and blogs about arts and culture for Prospect magazine. Glass is his first novel, and you can buy it here. Say hi to him on Twitter.