Saturday, 7 January 2012

How much of me do you want?                                 Yvonne Coppard

I am a big fan of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  So in 2010 I was delighted to read that the ‘famously reclusive’ author had agreed to give an interview to the Mail on Sunday in celebration of the book’s 50th, with the interesting condition that Mockingbird would not be mentioned.  I gather a two-page spread was planned, and much hype ensued. The interviewer, Sharon Churcher, approached the famous lady with caution, and handed over a box of Hersheys chocolates. And here is what she got from Harper Lee in return:
"'Thank you so much,' she told me. 'You are most kind. We're just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.'"

That was it. I have no idea how the Mail on Sunday filled their two pages. But thank you, thank you, Harper Lee for refusing to play ball in a world where writers – along with actors, singers, artists and a whole load of et cetera – can no longer afford to have a private life if they want their work to be successful. (No, this isn’t a piece about ‘phone hacking, but bear it in mind).


By the way, the ‘famously reclusive’ Harper Lee was for years (and may still be, for all I know) a regular contributor to the University of Alabama event in Tuscaloosa, where a prize is offered for the best high-school essay on some aspect of Mockingbird. She shows up, presents prizes, chats to students and staff, poses for local press photographs, signs autographs, and lunches with the winners. I’ve been told by a friend from Alabama that she’s not at all reluctant to do this, and has a wonderful time.


The point is, not that Harper Lee refuses to show her face in the outside world, but that she refuses to show it on demand, wherever and whenever the Media Machine requires. She is not a ‘recluse’; she is ‘a bit private’.  And good for her.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for writers to make a claim for the right to privacy. Audiences of all things creative are trained to expect that the purchase of something artists have produced gives the consumer the right to have something of what they are. Our works no longer speak for themselves – and maybe they never did, except for the very fortunate few.


I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy and promotion as I’ve been deciding what I do – and don’t – want to include on my new web site. Fifty, even thirty years ago, it was not something a writer had to think about much. You wrote your book, your publisher launched it, the press would hopefully review it, and if you were very lucky there would be the occasional interview for newspaper or radio. TV interviews with writers were rare, and you could live your daily life as privately as you wished. I am not a Luddite, and I don’t mourn for the pre-computer days of my first book, laboriously written with a biro in a hardcover paper notebook. I like blogs, websites, interviews and features about authors. But I must confess that sometimes I find myself wondering about the value of keeping to the boundaries that other professionals rely on - between work and home, between the public person and the private life.
 So I thought I’d ask you, if you’re reading this blog and you’ve got this far, because I’m genuinely interested to know what readers and writers think about the problem...
 How far does a writer have to go in sharing his/her private self as part of the publishing package?
 If you’re a writer, how far are you prepared to go? And if a reader, do you feel cheated, or intrigued, when anonymous or reclusive writers give you the book but nothing else?
Yvonne Coppard
To see Yvonne’s new web site, visit www.yvonnecoppard.co.uk
Yvonne is currently working on ‘The Arvon Book of Children’s Fiction’, with co-writer Linda Newbery, scheduled for publication in the USA and UK by Bloomsbury later this year.


14 comments:

adele said...

I like the look of your new website. And I agree entirely with you about the right to some privacy. I think everyone has to do what they're comfortable with. I would never put up anything about any of my children, but am happy say to share a favourite recipe, if some Sunday paper or website writes and asks me for one. I'm on Twitter and I say SOME things and not others, again. It's a matter of judgement. The really interesting question is not what you do (which I think is ENTIRELY up to the individual!) but whether the million things you DO do, at the behest of publishers or off your own bat, actually SELLS ANY BOOKS. That is an entirely different thing and I don't think we have definitive answers. Meanwhile, it's a fascinating post and I am about to say so on Twitter for all my followers to see!

Kathleen Jones said...

Margaret Forster never does book festivals, rarely does interviews and her private life is sacrosanct. Yet she wrote two best selling autobiographies - something of a paradox. It's a difficult balance - we have this craving to go public with our innermost thoughts and fantasies, yet desperately need a bit of privacy to have them in! I don't know how anyone ever gets it right.

Nicky said...

I don't think readers are terribly interested in me as a person - I'm not that kind of writer. It perhaps matters if ones books are read by millions in which case there is likely to be interest in the person but other than that - who is going to care? My website which is now badly out of date just gives basic bio info and I don't have a public personal blog because frankly who is interested in what I think? Certainly not readers of books and readers of blogs are not my market.

Yvonne Coppard said...

Thanks, Adele. The new web site will finally be going live, with all the pages filled, sometime this weekend, so do have a look at the finished thing on Monday if you have a moment. And I agree with your careful approach to mentioning children. My two grandaughters, aged 10 and 6, are very keen to be mentioned and have contributed to the new site - but they each have an alias, and will use a little image rather than a photo. Some of my friends think this is paranoia, but as you say, you have to go with what is comfy for you.

I agree with Kathleen that it's probably impossible to get it exactly right, especially nowadays. Margaret achieved success before the great facebook/twitter phenomenon hit publishing, and I wonder if a new author starting out would be able to carve out the same territory? I would like to hope so...

latenightliteratus said...

As a reader, I don't mind at all when a writer is private, and respect that entirely, but I have to say, I always feel more connected (and ultimately more loyal) to writers who participate in social networks, interviews, blogs etc. I think it's easier for other professions to keep their privacy, because writing is, at its heart, personal. I don't think you can have the same kind of boundaries when to an extent, you are already sharing some of the most personal thoughts, emotions and ideas you have.

Claire Hennessy said...

To play devil's advocate just a little, I think agreeing to an interview and then backing out is a little... well, something that almost all writers who aren't Harper Lee couldn't get away with!

But I think mostly this is about the implicit commitments that writers make when they seek publication - the expectation that sharing your work means baring your soul publicly. And it's a tricky one. As a reader, I love when writers blog and tweet and discuss their lives; as a writer, I love hearing about other people's writing processes. But as a writer, I'm also wary of the interview questions or reader expectations that seem to expect you'll talk to them as you would with a very close friend late at night - I think the level of intimacy is closer to say, someone interesting you've just met at a party. You're pleased to be talking to them, and about things that matter to you, but you're not going to bare your soul just yet.

Marie T Ghost said...

As a character in someone's book, I would just like to say that we, the characters, are the interesting ones, not the boring old authors, my author in particular...

Yvonne Coppard said...

I like the meeting someone at a party illustration; thanks! I think that helps me clarify how involved I want to be. And the question about who cares anyway made me laugh, as that's exactly how I feel! BUT I also believe that the authorship of published books is a bit like having a bunch of premium bonds - there's no rhyme or reason to who hits the big time, and it's nice to dream and be ready...

KMLockwood said...

A worthwhile topic to ponder, Yvonne. During discussions on my MA with Greg Mosse, this was a matter for debate. Other writers have had disturbing experiences with trolls and the like - probably best to err on the side of caution.One can become more candid - but you can't claim back privacy you've given away.

Book Maven said...

I'm with Claire. Immensely unprofessional to agree to an interview and then walk away. It DOES tell me something about Harper Lee as a person and something I would rather not have known.

We create the boundaries ourselves and should then adhere to them.

I'm extremely sociable, network-wise, but there are limits to what I would put up and I know what they are.

As someone else said, you establish your own viewpoint about this but I think it's important to be consistent.

jancarr said...

I'm with Harper Lee, the non interview was with the Mail on Sunday

Penny Dolan said...

I think this is a really interesting question and have mulled over a comment since reading it yesterday.

I feel as if, as a writer, I am a two people. There's the Outside person who does all the blogging, Guesting, school & library visits, the author interviews, the networking, the publisher & editor meetings and so on and this takes time and personal energy. Then there's the Inside person - the real writer - who needs to look inwards, concentrate on their own thoughts and who needs to use their energy and time on the work.

If the Outside persona is dominating - or even scaring - the Inside persona, the balance of the writing life is easily mislaid.

But not sure Publicity, Marketing and their chums are always aware of that.

Book Maven said...

I would not do an interview with either the Mail or Mail on Sunday and have in fact refused one.

But if I had so sworn, I'd do it.

Abi Burlingham said...

What a fascinating blog post and very thought provoking. I'm not sure where my lines are drawn, but I do know, instinctively, when something feels wrong - I think that's all I have to go on. I try not to discuss anything too personal... but, if it's relevant to something I'm writing, I will. But my children's lives and my family life, I keep to myself mostly - and that's because it feels right to do so.