In The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Charlotte’s friend and biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, described Charlotte’s reaction to the success of her novel Jane Eyre. Elizabeth had asked Charlotte “whether the popularity to which the novel attained had taken her by surprise.”
This, wrote Gaskell, was Charlotte’s response:
“She hesitated a little, and then said: ‘I believed that what had impressed me so forcibly when I wrote it, must make a strong impression on any one who read it. I was not surprised at those who read ‘Jane Eyre’ being deeply interested in it; but I hardly expected that a book by an unknown author could find readers.’”
I love the honesty of Charlotte’s answer. Many writers would have felt compelled to say they were “shocked, simply shocked” to have produced such a success as Jane Eyre. But Charlotte knew the strength of her words. I suspect she would only have been shocked had people not found her novel to be compulsively readable.
It’s the difference between writing with passion—writing from the heart—versus writing that is little more than an intellectual exercise, or a cynical attempt at producing something the market will deem “commercial.” The books that have stayed with me are the books that reveal something of the author’s heart and soul. They’ve got fire. Between the pages, they seethe with passion. Not (necessarily) passion of the romantic sort, but the kind of passion that has the writer up at 2 a.m., pounding the keys.
I can’t say for sure (since I don’t know him personally), but I suspect that Philip Pullman poured a lot of himself into His Dark Materials, the trilogy that begins with The Golden Compass. And I’d be willing to wager that Ursula K. Le Guin grew a bit obsessed with her Earthsea universe. She started the books in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea and was still writing about the world of Earthsea in 2001.
That’s what I want from a writer: Passion. Obsession. Fire in the belly.
When I was writing the first two books of my WATERSPELL trilogy, I took time to record some thoughts about the process and post them on what is now my oldest website. At WATERSPELL: Interview With the Author, I said:
“Writing WATERSPELL became an obsession. I couldn’t let it alone. I’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then spring out of bed after a few hours’ sleep and start pounding the keyboard again. It was an exhilarating experience. There’s something mystical about being awake in the middle of the night, hearing voices in your head as the characters talk to each other—or shout at each other, as is often the case with Carin and Verek—and typing as fast as you can to get the whole confrontation down on paper in ‘real time,’ while the characters are speaking.”
I fervently hope the passion and the immediacy that I felt while the story poured out of me is still there on the page for the reader today. I feel tolerably confident that it is. Everyone who read WATERSPELL in manuscript told me they couldn’t put it down.
Now the books are out there, published, in the real world, and I’m hoping readers will find these two fantasy novels by an unknown writer. Everyone tells me to get on Facebook, but I value my privacy too much to willingly surrender my entire existence to that particularly insinuative social-media platform.
So for now, I’ll just drop a line to virtually everyone in my e-mail address book. You say you only hear from me when I’ve got new books to promote? Well, what would you expect? When I’m writing, I don’t have time to e-mail you.
Such is a writer’s social life. We end up socializing with no one except other writers. Writers understand when a fellow author drops out of sight for months at a time. “Normal people” just think it’s rude. Normal people don’t understand how deeply abnormal a truly passionate writer can be. Bleeding on the keyboard is not the healthiest way to spend one’s life. But it’s likely to produce books that achieve what the writer set out to do.