In and Out of Shadow

by Zoë Sharp

As a photographer, shadows interest me, but as a writer, they fascinate me. Darkness has a tendency to be absolute, but shadows are open to such interpretation according to mood. Take this picture, for instance, which I took a couple of years ago. It’s of a giant (well 66ft high with a 178ft wingspan) contemporary sculpture by Anthony Gormley called The Angel of the North, just on the outskirts of Tyneside in the north-east of England. Ever since the first time I saw it, this has seemed sinister to me, and I deliberately took this photograph to highlight that feeling. But to the people clustered happily round the statue’s base, it clearly had no such overtones.

 

 

And here’s the same statue, taken by Echostains on a totally different day, which gives a totally different view to my own. Blue skies, bright sun. What sinister air?

 

 

Everything we do and say is open to interpretation according to the mood of those witnessing our words and actions. Confidence to one person is arrogance to another. One person’s joke is another’s insult. I’ve been guilty for making an offhand remark that was probably somewhat thoughtless on my part rather than purposely cruel, just as I know I’ve made the occasional pointed comment that went straight over the intended person’s head. Many years ago I once wrote an entire comic column gently mocking someone, and they apparently read and enjoyed it without the slightest inkling that they were the target of my dubious humour. (Perhaps this simply demonstrates I’m not very good at that kind of thing…)

Written words are open to far more interpretation than spoken ones. Somebody once told me that there are six ways to read a letter, depending on tone and inflection. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve certainly gone into pits of despair reading more (or less) into a brief email than was ever intended by the sender. The immediacy of email and text is causing a real problem, I think. How many people who now email and/or text on a daily basis were ever prolific letter writers before such media came along?

Emails are dashed off, sometimes in anger and haste, only to be regretted later. I have, on numerous occasions, written a vitriolic email and put it in Drafts for a suitable cooling-off period. Quite often, the email never gets sent, but the act of writing it at all has enough of a therapeutic effect.

Because, sadly, the Internet has made it a lot easier to be nasty to people without consequence.

In the past, I’ve been on the receiving end of both death-threat letters – carefully cut out of newspaper like a ransom note – and abusive phone calls left on my answering machine. Both instances involving calling in the police, although there was no satisfactory follow-up prosecution. Now, if I get an email I don’t like, I have a tendency to simply delete it, so the consequences for those who send such poisonous missives are so much less.

Authors, these days, have moved far more into the spotlight. A few short years ago, the only way to contact an author was a letter via their publisher, which was often opened in the office beforehand, just to make sure it contained nothing too outlandish. Or you could approach them at an event, which takes a lot more bottle. Authors could hide in the shadows if they so desired, because there wasn’t the opportunity for self-promotion. Authors were expected to write a good story and that was the beginning and end of it. The only thing the public knew about them was the brief paragraph in the front of the book itself.

Now, of course, an author has to have a website, and most likely a Facebook page and Twitter account, and take part in blogs and online discussions, most of which we are happy to do. Writing is a solitary business and sometimes it’s nice to emerge, blinking, into the light.

We are encouraged to reveal more and more of ourselves, our personal lives and our thought processes, because our readers like to know what makes us tick. Not only that, but we are also encouraged to be performers. We are moving further and further out of those comfortable shadows, while some of our audience is retreating further and further into them. People can open up a dialogue with an author and receive replies, without ever revealing their real name or location.

Pay-As-You-Go mobile phones, and instant email addresses make it hard to trace the senders in any case. I’ve had weird emails from people posing as fans (mainly blokes, I have to say), who lull me into a false sense of security with relatively normal questions to start with, and then start asking coyly if I’m married and what I’m wearing. The awareness of being somehow a ‘public figure’ prevents you from telling them where to get off in no uncertain terms, because you know that would cause more problems than it would solve.

I wonder if the written word is to blame for this. People ask inappropriate or invasive questions without being able to directly gauge the reaction of the person they’re asking. But, having said that, writer friends have reported amazing behaviour from people at conventions. Following an author into the restroom and pushing a book to be signed under the wall of the stall while they’re otherwise engaged is not unheard of.

So, what are your views on this, ‘Rati? Should people be a little more open about themselves before they ask for more information about their favourite author? Do you like the anonymity of the Internet, or does it freak you out just a little? Have you any scary stories to relate?

This week’s Word of the Week is mishguggle, which is a lovely Scottish word meaning to bungle.

33 thoughts on “In and Out of Shadow

  1. JD Rhoades

    mishguggle

    Oddly similar to the Yiddish meshuggah (crazy).

    And I’ve got to say, that that damn statue is creepy in broad daylight. There’s a certain blank-faced brutality to it that sends a bad chill down my spine.

    Reply
  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    It is an odd piece of work, isn’t it? It’s clearly visible from the main A1 that skirts Newcastle, and apparently it caused no end of shunts when it was first put up as people rubbernecked wildly.

    Reply
  3. toni mcgee causey

    Gotta agree with both of you–that thing is creepy. It looks like the kind of thing that would have human sacrifices at the feet.

    I agree with you, Z, on the problem with anonimity on the Internet. It’s too easy to misunderstand conversations without the attaced facial expressions or voice inflections–or, in fiction, where there’s a whole world built there as a reference point. I, too, send irate drafts to a holding folder. But even with comedy or sarcasm, I’ll hold back for a second read to make sure I’m making the point without ticking people off. It’s a hard balance between being comfortable and easy-going without taking other’s feelings for granted.

    t

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    I’d prefer the days when authors went faceless in the crowd. I doubt any of us started writing to become famous. We just wanted our words to become so.

    Reply
  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Yeah, I checked and I’m pretty sure the reddish stain round the base of the Angel was rust, but you never know…

    I know smiley emoticons are considered a bit naff, but I find myself using them a lot in emails, just to make sure people know I’m not being snappy, or sarcastic, or any one of the other ways they could misinterpret my words.

    Reply
  6. Barbie

    Under the wall of the stall? Seriously? I hope the author told the reader what to do with that book! I mean… There’s a line. And I’m pretty sure that crosses any kind of boundaries.

    Call me naive, but I am still surprised by things people do.

    Reply
  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie

    Oh yes, the book appeared in one hand and a pen in the other. Definitely a crossed line there. I think, if it had been me, I might have been tempted to write suitable comments with the signature! That’s if I didn’t ask them to at least wait until I’d washed my hands…

    Reply
  8. Jake Nantz

    Dammit Zoe, I told you I had a lady check to make sure all the other women were out of there before I slid that book under your stall, and I gave you some of the soft Charmin instead of that cheapie hotel crap to boot. Hell, I even offered to pay for the garment I "spilled" the red wine on as an icebreaker to introduce myself right before that.

    Besides, I don’t do that kind of stuff anymore. When are you going to let that ONE act of weirdness go?

    Jeez!!

    😀

    Reply
  9. Judy Wirzberger

    What is it about us? We want to know everything, intimate details, of a person’s life when it has no affect on how we live our lives. We scrabble for information, gory details. While I fully believe that non-elected public figures have some responsibility to the people who put them in office, I don’t think the same holds true for, say, stars of stage and screen. If I don’t like the values of an actor, I just don’t go to their movies. I exercise my opinion through my money.

    When it comes to authors, I think it’s wonderful if they share what motivated them to write a certain book, their process, their stumbling blocks, their successes. However, I don’t believe I have the right to know how many times they were married, who their last lover was, where they specifically live, or how many children they aborted.

    I love having books signed by authors I have spoken with (thanks Louise, JT, Cornelia) but a signature of someone I’ve never met means nothing. Someone might cherish the book passed under the stall if the author had marked it like a cat marks his territory.

    Reply
  10. Judy Wirzberger

    What is it about us? We want to know everything, intimate details, of a person’s life when it has no affect on how we live our lives. We scrabble for information, gory details. While I fully believe that non-elected public figures have some responsibility to the people who put them in office, I don’t think the same holds true for, say, stars of stage and screen. If I don’t like the values of an actor, I just don’t go to their movies. I exercise my opinion through my money.

    When it comes to authors, I think it’s wonderful if they share what motivated them to write a certain book, their process, their stumbling blocks, their successes. However, I don’t believe I have the right to know how many times they were married, who their last lover was, where they specifically live, or how many children they aborted.

    I love having books signed by authors I have spoken with (thanks Louise, JT, Cornelia) but a signature of someone I’ve never met means nothing. Someone might cherish the book passed under the stall if the author had marked it like a cat marks his territory.

    Reply
  11. pari noskin taichert

    I like knowing something about the writers I read, always have enjoyed the little bios on books.

    But sitting here on the other end is weird, isn’t it? It’s too easy to scrap the separation between writer and his/her words — what Louise and others have mentioned. I know the lines have now become blurred for me. In recent years, if I hear of someone being a lousy guest at bookstores where I have friends — or just being horrid in general — I’m less likely to read that person.

    I’m not proud of my response to this, but there are so many books . . . why should I go out of my way to contribute my $1 (royalty) to that person?

    As a writer though, I try to trust what I receive. That said, I put very little truly personal information out there in the ether. You won’t ever see a picture of my children on the internet — most people have no idea how old they are or their names — and I keep many other things private. But . . . then . . . I grew up at a time when privacy was important.

    Apparently it’s losing it’s emotional value for the "younger" generation.

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    This is where the beauty of a pseudonym comes into play – I can be OUT, or I can be me. I’ve recently found a place to go where no one knows what I do, who my public persona is, and I love it. It’s the one place I can go be me with no pressure, no planning.

    Louise had it right on the money. This gig is supposed to be about the words, the stories. Not about us. The constant feeling of promote, promote, promote is taking its toll on me. I think a little air of mystique is nice.

    It’s odd – I read differently when I know the author. Not better, or worse, just different. I can’t help putting my personal reaction into the story. I’m sure fans are starting to do that too. Slippery slope? We’ll see!

    Great job, Z. Super post! h

    Reply
  13. Barbie

    Oh, I have to say it, though, I’m going to disagree with Judy and Pari. While I’m nosy enough to want to know about author’s or actor’s — or anyone in general, really, I’m VERY nosy — though I don’t directly ask them, especially not inappropriate things, I really don’t care about how they behave if they’re delivering a good store. If I found out the author of my favorite book was the nastiest living creature in this planet, I wouldn’t care, not when it comes to their writing anyway. It’s what’s in the book — or the screen, or whatever else — that truly matters to me. I wouldn’t stop reading an author because they’re a bad person or rude. As long as they deliver good stories, what they do in their personal life is hardly my business.

    Reply
  14. Chris Hamilton

    But it is about you. It’s about you for the very reason you have blogs and websites and facebook fan pages. Because when people like what you write, they feel connected to you. Several of you have either replied to e-mails or donated to the Florida Writers Conference (Oct 22-24, Lake Mary, FL, it’s a fabulous conference you should go), and it made my day. Why? Because real frigging writers paid attention. I should know better, but it’s a cool thing to have someone who is where I aspire to be recognizes me.

    That having been said, it doesn’t excuse creepiness, abuse, harrassment or spoiling someone’s business in the loo.

    I’ve read your books, Zoe and I can’t imagine what anyone could get angry about in them. I don’t get it. I can’t assume that thought process. There’s just nothing there to be angry about.

    As for the statue, it looks like something Jacob would build in a Lost spinoff.

    Reply
  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Ah-ha! Erm, did you still want your pen back?

    Seriously, if I didn’t want to talk to people, I wouldn’t go to conventions and hang around in the bar. There are just certain things a girl needs to do on her own…;-]

    Reply
  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    I couldn’t agree more about elected officials. We’ve been having a huge scandal about our Members of Parliament fiddling their expenses (often to the tune of thousands and thousands of pounds) and it makes my blood boil. However, I really don’t want to know about some actress who went out to a nightclub and fell down drunk in the street afterwards. (Unless she’s heading up a temperance campaign – that might make a difference, I suppose.)

    And having a book signed by people you’ve met is always a nice reminder of the occasion, as much as the book itself.

    Reply
  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Privacy is precious and important, and people tend to give it away like old socks. I’m careful about how much info I put out there, and am very aware of my own personal security. At the same time, being rude to someone – even if they really deserve it – is likely to spread around the Internet like a virus.

    I have to say I am also influenced in my choice of reading material if I’ve met the author and not liked them, or heard they’ve behaved badly to bookstores or readers. I’ve even heard about people who went to signings and were so appalled by how rude the author was, they went back the next day and asked to return the signed books they’d bought. It’s a balance between keeping a little distance, and being too distant.

    Reply
  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I think a pseudonym is a very handy barrier, particularly as you write under initials so it isn’t obvious to a stranger if you’re male or female. As for promotion, I think everyone has to decide their own comfort level. I came across an author recently who was just a little bit eager in their enthusiasm for self-promotion, and it came across as too desperate for my taste. I can’t push that hard. Put me in front of people who want to listen, and I’m a happy bunny, but I’m not going to force it down people’s throats.

    But when I read my own stuff now, I hear the voice of the actress who reads the audiobooks, rather than my own – weird, huh?

    Reply
  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie

    That’s interesting, and I admit to watching films with actors I don’t particularly like in real life, but who I think have made good choices in terms of roles, and play the part well. I can watch Matthew McConaughey, but can’t stand to listen to him do commentaries on his own work, because he comes across as too smug.

    Reading a book is more personal, though, somehow. I’d find it harder to read something if I really didn’t admire or respect the writer’s talent, if not their personality.

    Reply
  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Chris

    I would LOVE to come to the Florida Writers’ Conference, but living in another country means I have to think very carefully about how much time I spend overseas. I have emails from people in Australia and New Zealand asking when I’m going to be travelling in that direction, too, and I could quite happily attend US conventions every week, but I’d never get any actual writing done, or earn a living. On the plus side, though, I would manage to clock up millions of air miles!

    Yes, I have a website, and I blog – both on my own site and here. I don’t do Facebook, and I don’t Twitter. I know I probably should, but I just can’t bring myself to take that step.

    But, I have to say, Chris, the tone of your comment sounded like I’d really pissed you off. (We’re back to there being about six ways to read everything, maybe?) And when I read:

    "I’ve read your books, Zoe and I can’t imagine what anyone could get angry about in them. I don’t get it. I can’t assume that thought process. There’s just nothing there to be angry about."

    I read that to mean that you felt they were light and fluffy potboilers with nothing that lingered after the final page, that they made no serious points about the psychological struggle of a women who’d been the victim of violence and prejudice, who discovers her own ability to kill, about her search for her place in the world, for respect and redemption.

    And that stings ;-[

    Reply
  21. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, and the death-threat letters were connected with my work as a photojournalist, before I started writing fiction – in fact, they probably acted as the catalyst for writing my first novel. The abusive phone calls were just from some derranged women who started calling me out of the blue, also before I was published in fiction.

    Reply
  22. Judy Wirzberger

    Wow, Zoe (and I met a woman who pronounces her Zoe Name Zo- silly person) – I’m looking forward to the dialog between you and Chris to gain an understanding of when you want to arouse a response in a reader and what you want that response to be and why.

    And now I HAVE to read that book. Guess I’ll just have to get some air miles to get it signed….as soon as I win the lottery.

    Reply
  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    Well, strictly speaking without the ‘ë’ at the end, Zoë is pronounced to rhyme with ‘Joe’, so if the woman you met has foregone the accent, she’s probably correct ;-]

    And I don’t know, after my last comment, if Chris is still talking to me … I’m easily disheartened ;-[

    No need to get the air miles. I’ll be in Houston and Phoenix and New Orleans and NYC in June, on a flying visit when KILLER INSTINCT and RIOT ACT are both out!

    Reply
  24. Robert Gregory Browne

    The anonymity of the Internet concerns me a great deal. Mostly because you never know who you’re talking to or whether or he/she is a psychopath.

    But there’s another reason. Anonymity has allowed people to completely lose their manners and say all kinds of outrageous, even insulting, things to people, and to do it with impunity. No shame, no embarrassment, no repercussions for their behavior — except, perhaps, banning from the site.

    And if you look the U.S.’s political environment, I think some of that complete lack of shame has rubbed off. I could name a few political zealots who need to be banned.

    Reply
  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    We’re coming up for an election over here, and looking at some of the ad campaigns, I think you’re right. It’s all negative – don’t vote for the other candidate because he/she’s a charlatan, not because I’m any better.

    And even though text and email have made it so much quicker and easier to say ‘Thank you’, why is it that hardly anybody does?

    Reply
  26. Chris Hamilton

    Sorry I left the impression that your books were light and fluffy, that’s certainly not the case. I’m not pissed off.

    You put forth a bunch of ideas in your novels. In reading them, I didn’t find anything worth getting angry with *you* about. To resonate, any writing needs to examine truths about humanity, and that was there. If I disagreed with your points, and I don’t remember doing so, one of the cool things about thoughts and ideas is that we get to disagree. Disagreement isn’t license to threaten or kill. And I don’t understand the mindset that says it is.

    How confined must your life be to read something in a novel that’s worth getting a pay-as-you-go phone or set up a face e-mail address or send white powder because you can’t stand that idea?

    Please don’t be stung; that’s not my intent at all.

    Chris

    Reply
  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Chris

    Thank you so much for coming back with another comment. I thought I’d clearly offended you ;-[

    And people get upset about things in novels all the time. Sadly, the Internet and other instant-access media have given them an easy outlet.

    Consider me un-stung ;-]

    Reply

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