I just woke up to a message from my dad. He’s read my book – I brought a copy to Manchester to give to him and Mum at the weekend. It’s dedicated to them (as well as to one very excellent friend), so it was a bit of a Moment, and obviously I’ve been rather nervous wondering when they’ll read it and what they’ll think of it. Anyway, in Dad’s message he said some very nice things about it, which I won’t share because (a) they’re private (b) I’d sound like an idiot. Then he finished up with, “It was gripping, uncomfortable and haunting. I did not sleep very well last night after reading it.”
My first reaction was delight. Rites (in my deeply biased opinion) could be described as a a bittersweet book, but it’s heavy on the bitter and very light on the sweet. It’s about four teenagers and what they get up to in the summer of 1997 in an Anglo-Irish Catholic suburb of Manchester (clue: it involves a virginity pact and it doesn’t end too well, and that’s not giving anything away). If you’re devoutly Catholic, you probably won’t like it. If you’re militantly atheist, you’ll probably be frustrated with it. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys certainty, clear resolution and believing that everything happens for a reason then I think you might find it uncomfortable reading. So I’m delighted that it’s kept at least one person up at night. The worst thing anyone could say to me (within reasonable bounds of politeness) is “Aww, yeah, I thought it was lovely.”
But then another thought struck me. I wrote back: “Thanks Dad! I’m sorry I robbed you of some sleep… I hope it’s because you were pondering all the searching moral questions, and not just because you were wondering how you brought up such a twisted individual…”
The parental editor is an issue I think every writer probably has to deal with at some point. You’re in your groove, bashing out some edgy stuff about sex or death or psychological torture or whatnot, feeling terribly avant-garde, and suddenly you see your mum peering over your shoulder, asking plaintively “Why don’t you write a nice story about ponies?” Of course, you have to banish her and carry on writing as you want to, otherwise you’re a bad writer. But all you’re really doing then is deferring the moment of discomfort until you’re actually presenting them with the book. Now, I don’t want to dismay you, gentle reader, but there are a few sex scenes in Rites too. Nothing too graphic, actually. But because of the context, scenes that could or could not be found disturbing. The thought of my parents reading those scenes – not to mention my 90-year-old grandparents, who have declared their firm intention to get hold of a copy – is … conflicted.
I should look on the bright side. They can’t react worse than Ernest Hemingway’s ma, who wrote to him after reading The Sun Also Rises:
“It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year …. What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? …. Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than “damn” and “bitch”—Every page fills me with a sick loathing.”
Which literary parents over the course of publishing history d’you think had the toughest job mustering a grin and clapping their deviant offspring on the back? My money’s on Mrs. Plath.