Like most of you, I’ve loved reading since I was a kid. Presumably in my situation this was because my parents read to me, but I can’t really remember this in specific moments and I hate having things read to me now unless it’s my two-year-old doing the reading (because it is never quite how it’s written on the page, and she does excellent hilarious voices.) When you’re a kid, authors seem completely magical. They can create anything – characters you feel as close to as your own friends, worlds you wish fervently were in your back garden (how many times I tried to eat the plants in our backyard like fairies do in Enid Blyton books I can’t even count), entire alternate realities and new ways of looking at things that blew my mind (and can continue to do do today.) I started trying my hand at writing when I was a kid, from my four-sentence reimagining of Alice in Wonderland when I was five to elaborate stories of my dogs getting up to shenanigans as I became a canine-obsessed upper-primary bore, and I realised that everyone had some of this power inside them. Despite this, authors themselves, ones who wrote the books that I read over and over again curled up in bed, seemed like an entirely different species. I saw them talk about readers writing to them but the idea of actually doing so seemed terrifying and pointless. I loved them, so surely everyone else did too, and they must have hundreds, thousands, BILLIONS of letters sent to them each day. So why bother? And, bar writing to Margaret Clark after seeing physical evidence of a reply from her from someone else I knew, I never did. They remained these distant, wonderful creatures, impossible to know and perfect in my unknowing.
So I wonder what my youthful (sporty, healthy, sigh) self would think of me now? Young Fiona, I have news for you: you’ll meet writers. So many of them. You’ll get a job in a bookshop for work experience when you are fifteen, and seventeen years later you will still be working in bookshops, because they have always felt like the right place to be. You’ll meet writers because they need somewhere to buy their books too, and eventually you will work in a place that holds author events and you will meet mountains of authors. You will – and hold onto your hat for this one – actually be friends with them, sometimes dear friends with them.
And some of them are jerks. Some of them might get anxious before their events and be short with you, because – don’t forget – they are people, not unicorns. Some of them have politics you don’t agree with. Some of them just aren’t good with people, and that includes you, even though you shouldn’t take it personally. The rise of the internet (you don’t know what this is but trust me, it’s great) will sometimes break your heart when it makes it easier to hear your favourite author saying something stupid, or finding out that they like to eat small white puppies for lunch. It can hurt you, a little.
But then sometimes they can be wonderful. Sometimes if you are anxious before an event (because sorry, young Fiona, but you grow up to be a fairly anxious person) they are kind to you even though the night is about them. They brush off your mistakes and thank you profusely for your help. They give you a hug or a book or a smile and all seem like such gifts. Sometimes they are just normal levels of friendly and that is fine, too. I would like to tell you that you become so blase around all of them that you no longer blush when they talk to you, but you will completely forget how to speak when you meet Jane Hawking, past wife of Stephen Hawking (you probably don’t know who he is either but trust me, he’s important) and she won’t be even slightly mad about it. Because she’s a person, see. (And she’s the subject of a movie coming out soon and you can look at the previews and squeal, “I met her, you know!” and also still feel a faint tremor of anxiety about her.)
Eventually, though, you will get to a place where you have a bestselling author’s number in your phone and other famous authors who are frequent customers and who smile at you when they come in and it won’t seem like such a big deal, because you do know, on some level, that they are not frightening or otherworldly; they are just good at their job, and their job is one that benefits you directly. Like doctors, but for your imagination.
And the best thing is, even though they lost some of their lustre when you realise that writers are people, just people who go out and buy carrots and say stupid things at parties and burp when no one is looking, you will still pick up a book and read it and it still feels like it came from somewhere else, somewhere magical, somewhere not in a person’s mind but just them writing down something that is already true. Young Fiona, I wish so much for you: don’t get that perm when you’re twelve, and write to those authors, tell them how you feel. Maybe they would like to hear from you. Maybe they’re jerks. But discover they are people and break that illusion earlier. The real world is a fine place to be.