Hazel McHaffie

Garrets and unsung heroes

Garrets have long had a romantic appeal for me, conjuring up images of impecunious geniuses scribbling furiously, driven by their talent to endure hardship and isolation for the sake of their art – floor littered with discarded paper, fingers blotched with ink, hair dishevelled, meals and sleep forgotten … Then there’s the whole business of using pseudonyms to hide talent, refusing worldly acclaim … well, it’s the stuff of martyrs and heroes, isn’t it? Childhood fantasy.

Though they don’t exactly languish in crumbling attics, certain famous writers alive today have been known to grumble that they only ever see other authors at memorial services. Writing just isn’t a convivial occupation.

However, it occurs to me that that very isolation can help to preserve something of the glamour with which we invest the big names. Attendance at book festivals demonstrates how much we like to actually see and hear the person behind the book, obtain a signature (yes, we were that close!). Competition for seats can be fierce. Tickets became available for the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week and by Day 2 lots of events were already sold out – four of them ones I’d hoped to attend.

Last year I was speaking at this same festival, which meant that I had open access to the hallowed turf of the authors’ yurt – breathing the same air as the great and the good, sharing the same couches, nibbling from the same tables. All sorts of well-kent faces came and went – most of them a lot less glamorous close-up in the flesh than I’d pictured, it must be said! – but I still sat in awe. A small child seeing giants.

And perhaps that explains why a schoolgirl was celebrating this week. She wrote to thank me for being interviewed for her school project. She’d chosen as her subject, ‘Books’, and thought she might have an edge if she contacted ‘a real live author’. (Basic credentials – living and breathing – so I’m not reading personal acclaim into any of this, I hasten to add.) For her there is something mysterious and compelling about the secret world of writing; something she clearly managed to convey, because her project won the prize! Well done, Esther!

But maybe something of the mystique would be lost if she saw the ordinariness of the study where I write. So … we’re about to have a second opening cut into the attic of our very old house – maybe I’ll put in a personal bid for the cobwebs and clutter after all. Much more romantic obituary material … ‘wrote most of her books squirreled away in a garret’ … don’t you think?

As if!

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