What’s the second-worst question you can ask a writer? Almost all the time, it is: ‘What are you working on at the moment?’*
It sounds like such a benign enquiry (so thoughtful, so engaged), such an obvious conversational gambit. But for most of a book’s life – really, up until the point that it’s ready to be published – its author will be seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to biff you, or run away and cry, when you ask what she’s writing. Seriously: her body will be a husk. Her smile will be scaffolding.
Christina Rossetti, just after someone asked her what she was working on
I’ve been reminded of this recently, when I made the crashing social error of asking a couple of other writers this very question. To those people: I am sorry. I am a blundering fool, and I really do know better. Because these are the things I think will happen if I tell you what I’m working on:
1: I will realise that you hate it (and do not for one moment doubt that I can read that micro-flinch like Derren bloody Brown. I am the micro-flinch ninja.)
2: I will realise that I hate it.
3: You will misunderstand what I’m trying to do. I will come to a sudden and thoroughgoing realisation that this is because my idea stinks.
4: You will understand what I’m trying to do and come up with a better way of doing it. I will hate you. I will hate myself
5: You will understand what I’m trying to do, and love it – so zeitgeisty! – and love the way author X has just handled exactly the same material in her fabulous new book. Have I read it? Think it’s just been shortlisted for something.
6: You will really not give a monkey’s stuff either way. It will all be a bit meh. This is the nightmare scenario.
Of course, the kicker here is the crass insensitivity of not asking about the next book when it’s just about to be published. Try me then with your Obvious Conversational Gambit; I’ll answer with a candour which will have you checking the exits in wall-eyed desperation.
*I’m glad you asked. The worst is ‘How did the book sell?’ an enquiry which roughly equates to quizzing someone about their wages, whilst deconstructing their self-esteem at the same time. Bizarre as it seems, writers almost never know the answer – but the question makes us tremble all the same.