I’m sure more famous authors get loads of letters from readers, but for me it’s a new phenomenon: just a few, usually handwritten, in a card or on their own in an envelope. The writers tell me what they’ve enjoyed about my books. If they’re local, they say how they enjoy recognising places in West Cumbria – where the trilogy is set – and what they themselves remember about them. They talk too about the characters who live their lives in this setting. It feels like well-intentioned gossip, sharing details of what you’ve noticed with someone else. When the first book, ‘A Good Liar’ came out, I got an email, or was it a tweet, which said, ‘Oh that Jessie, I could slap her.’ I could too: Jessie has a tendency to come out with things carelessly at times, getting herself into all sorts of trouble. She’s a complicated woman, which is what I always wanted her to be, and not always likeable, although I still feel that she’s fundamentally a good person. Hence the title.
Other letters are less specific, just expressions of enjoyment and looking forward to the next book, which is due out in November 2015 by the way. I was in a local bookshop the other day and on the stand where my books are displayed was a little note, left over from the summer, which read. ‘Yes it’s here! Book 3 Fallout has arrived!’ I’m sure the queue was a little less long that those for the new Harry Potter books, but I was tickled by the idea of people I didn’t know waiting for a book to appear and wanting to get reading.
My readers sometimes tell me which of the three books they’ve enjoyed the most, and there’s no pattern to that choice, except that the quietest of the three ‘Forgiven’ seems to appeal to fewer people even though I think it’s the best of the three. What I’ve been waiting for and not had yet is something from people who personally remember the Windscale Fire of 1957, which features in ‘Fallout’, telling me that I’ve got it wrong. If I have, then no-one is telling me that, but maybe they just wouldn’t say anything at all. West Cumbrian communication can be a bit ’round-about’, and I am an ‘off-comer’ after all. If anyone’s reading this who has anything to say about any of my books, I would really love to hear from you. Feedback – it’s what keeps us going.
Generally, it’s hard for authors to get an idea of who’s reading what you’ve written, and how they feel about it. I read continually myself, and have never yet written to an author about a book, assuming that what I say about it will be immaterial and probably ignored. Now I wonder whether I should be more willing to write a note, or send a card. If you have a publisher, maybe it’s easier for readers to find you. Or maybe you just reach more readers and therefore increase the chance of communication.
Most of the feedback I receive is from the people I meet when I’m doing readings around this region, but unless I sometimes write down what is said it’s hard later to remember the specifics. When I’m struggling, as I am now, with the final versions of plot and sequences of events and a few relevant references to contemporary life, all the fiddly bits before the real enjoyment of writing starts, I have to stop and think that these details will be noticed and enjoyed, and that what I’m doing matters to someone beyond myself. I write to be read, not as a cathartic personal release. How the writing is received is interesting to me. It doesn’t determine how I write, but it’s certainly part of what encourages me to keep doing so.