When I first started writing again in 2011, after a break of 15 years, I heard people use the phrase – ‘write what you know,’ and until recently I don’t think I ever fully understood it. I do now, but the real meaning behind that nugget of writing advice is better put another way;
To be a good writer you should practice cannibalism.
Let’s take Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly and John Grisham.
Not to put too fine a point on it, these writers are cannibals, but not in the modern, everyday sense of the word. Nor do I mean it to be a derogatory term – in fact I consider it to be one of the finest qualities of a writer.
I do want to be clear about this ‘cannibal’ business. So I should say, straight away, that neither Michael Connelly nor John Grisham have ever consumed human flesh. There is simply no evidence to suggest such a terrible thing.
Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing for Ian Rankin. In Mr. Rankin’s case, and indeed my own case, neither of us has ever KNOWINGLY consumed human flesh. I feel compelled to add this caveat in light of the recent horse meat scandal and one further factual set of circumstances that applies both to Mr. Rankin and myself (and a good many others I might add). Those circumstances are well known. We’re both Celts (Northern Irish and Scots share a common heritage), both of us have been known to enjoy the occasional beer, both of us have been known to sample the particular culinary delights so unfairly labeled ‘junk food.’ So picture the scene – it’s late, Mr. Rankin leaves the Oxford Bar suitably refreshed, I leave the Crown Bar in a similar state of refreshment, we both find ourselves in our home cities with an abundance of fast food outlets and, by contrast, not a single taxi in sight. Well, you don’t need me to draw you a picture. Suffice to say that I feel the majority of cannibalistic peril derives from the humble kebab. I mean, what is it? It’s supposed to be lamb; it could easily be elephant, it could be processed mongoose or, for all we know, the succulent ingredient could in fact be a sixty-two year old, retired civil servant named Geoff. I have to confess that as long as it’s covered in garlic sauce I try not to think about it too much.
Incidentally, if you're a kebab shop owner, I love you and your lovely kebabs and I know, they do have a high quality 100% lamb content. I was only jokin
So, what do I mean by cannibalism in the context of writing?
I suppose that I really mean cannibalisation – the removal or utilisation of a part of something to create a new entity. In this case, the new entity is a novel and a damn good one at that if it comes from either Messrs Rankin, Connelly or Grisham.
What Ian Rankin has achieved, in his best works, is to take a bite out of the arse of Edinburgh; a bite that includes sex trafficking, drugs, alcoholism, a little bit of religion, the oil industry, Scottish nationalism and to chew it up and remake it on the page. To give it an arc, a shape, as he says himself. When I say a bite, it is often a polite nibble as Edinburgh has prospered and grown proud of the Cardenden lad whose portrayal of the city is tinged with genuine affection and yet, he can take a scalpel to every social class of the city with his most famous creation, Rebus, a detective whose work can let Ian Rankin loose on every cultural, social and political facet of Scotland. At the heart of every Rebus book is a crime, a mystery to be solved, and yet because Ian Rankin has the ability to take his surroundings, his people, his hates, his loves and inject that reality into the novel it adds immeasurably to the weight and importance of the work. And not just what’s going on in the wider picture. Ian Rankin gives much of himself to his work. In his breakthrough novel, Black and Blue, Rebus becomes his creator’s punch bag and the punishment that Rebus is subjected to in the book is mirrored in the difficult time that the writer experienced in his own life during the writing process. It doesn’t have to be an outpouring of joy or pain in every work, even the most subtle of life’s daily influences can be writing gold.
If you get a chance to watch the fantastic arena programme – ‘Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective,’ you will get a brilliant insight into the creative process of one of the worlds most talented authors. When Mr. Rankin is talking to Alan Yentob about writing the opening scene of ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’ he recounts that he had very recently attended a funeral. The opening scene of the book is of course a funeral, with mourners watching the coffin being lowered into the grave and one of those mourners, who doesn’t want to get too close to the grave, is Rebus. This scene marks the return of one of the most popular characters in crime fiction and what a way to do it! The juxtaposition of the formality, inevitability and ritual of death next to a very much alive and kicking (and gasping for a cigarette) Rebus is about as perfect and potent a re-introduction/resurrection as one could imagine.
Write what you know, for me, is to be able not only to cannibalise the conflicts and issues of society but to cannibalise your own past. Just ask Michael Connelly. When he was a kid he often played near a storm drain that in effect looked just like a big dark tunnel to the neighbourhood boys. Connelly describes it as a ‘right of passage’ for kids to go into the tunnel and crawl through to the other side. He never did it and developed something of a phobia. As the went through High School, kids a few years older than him got caught in the
draft. Some never came back. Of the men that did come back, a former Tunnel
Rat, who wore a long beard to hide his scars, worked with Connelly's
father in construction. Is it any wonder then that Harry Bosch was a tunnel rat
in Vietnam, that the crime at the heart of Connelly’s debut (The Black Echo –
thought by many to be the best crime debut ever) revolves around a gang of bank
robbers tunnelling beneath a vault containing safety deposit boxes and, is it
any wonder that the overreaching arc of the Bosch character, across the books,
is a personal journey through the darkness, towards the light. He used his life
experience to give depth to his work. Michael Connelly wanted to be a writer
from the first moment he picked up a Raymond Chandler novel. He didn’t exactly
have the tools to be a cop, so he became a crime journalist, and through that
career he came into ‘the know,’ working alongside detectives, many of
whom were veterans of Vietnam . But
not everything can be planned. Probably over ten years ago now, Michael
Connelly sat at a baseball game and got talking to the guy beside him. The guy
said he was a lawyer. Mr. Connelly asked where the guy’s office was located. He
said he didn’t have an office, per se, that his office was in the back of his Vietnam
town car. Five years later The Lincoln Lawyer began what, in my opinion, is the
best series of legal thrillers ever written. Lincoln
Fate had a large hand in the destiny of the foremost legal thriller writer of our time – John Grisham. As a small town lawyer he wasn’t making much money and sometimes didn’t have a lot of work on. While sitting in court one day, he became a spectator in a rape trial and heard a little girl describe her horrific ordeal. Grisham recounts that moment as one of the most harrowing and inspiring he ever witnessed. The details were harrowing, the grace and dignity with which the victim gave her evidence was inspiring. He got thinking what he might do to a man who had perpetrated such an act on his own daughter. How far would he go? He thought he might kill them. He thought a good many people might think the same thing. Without ever having a desire to write before that moment, he took a few years and bashed out what became ‘A Time to Kill.’ You know the story, it was accepted by a small publisher who went bankrupt pretty soon after Grisham’s debut was published and he ended up selling copies of the book out of the trunk of his car. His next book was The Firm. That book spent 47 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and sold 7 million copies.
So writing what you know can be writing what you feel, what you understand and want to say about something. Just don’t get caught on a soap box.
I should just say, that this cannibalisation of yourself and your surroundings isn’t unique to modern writers. Dickens explored the social strata and the pain of poverty before most other popular writers. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was inspired by the reports of the sinking of The Essex. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is believed to be inspired in part by stories of a famous ship sinking at sea and the crew finding themselves marooned on an island. In addition, the use of marriage in the play as a political weapon reflected the machinations in the
Court at the time.
One of the central characters in The Tempest is of course Caliban.
An anagram of ‘Canibal.’ The old translation from the French - Canniballes.
Which brings us neatly back to kebabs. Now, how do I work a kebab into my narrative?
Is there a little of me in my work? Of course. There should be. You should put something of yourself into everything you write.
Just don’t put yourself into a kebab.
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