An Author's Responsibility

An Author's Responsibility

It’s easy to believe that a novelist’s job lacks responsibility – as if a novel can’t cause damage or have lasting effect. True, we aren’t in law courts or standing by an operating table. But there are responsibilities of a different, quieter kind – ones that perhaps only a lifelong reader can recognise. The greatest of our responsibilities are to that reader.
 
In the most basic of terms, we owe them a good book. From the start of my career, I saw this: we need to reward the bookshop browser who decides that this book, our book – my book – is worth their £7.99. To buy a book is a monetary risk. To read a book is also a risk of time - which is almost as precious, these days. With each novel, these two responsibilities exist: make it worth the money and effort. The writer owes the reader that much.
 
But there’s more. The historical novelist, for example, as with the biographer, has the profound responsibility of writing about real people – not fictitious ones, but ones who lived and loved, and whose relatives may choose to read the book. Handling legacies is a monumental task. In 2008, as I wrote my first historical novel Witch Light – an account of the Glencoe massacre - I was nearly overwhelmed by it; I had to be truthful, exact, as gentle with these people as if I was holding glass. I imagined ghostly Highlanders whispering, be fair; write well of me.
 
2014 introduced me to perhaps my greatest professional responsibility yet. At the year’s start, I was invited to write a Young Adult novel based on a character in Hugo’s Les Miserables – Eponine. Knowing the story, and loving Eponine, I accepted willingly. But within minutes, I felt a greater responsibility come to me than ever before. I said her name - and the enormity of my task presented itself. What I hadn’t realised until that moment was the fact that Eponine was owned. Unlike all my past characters, she was property – and not Hugo’s. A book is a gift to a reader, I believe that; by handing it over, the author is saying this is yours - so that as soon as we turn the first page, we bring our own lives to it. We personalise it; metaphorically, at least, we write our name on its title page. Eponine belongs to the readers. She belongs to anyone who has ever read Les Mis, seen the show or watched the film. How many people might that be? Millions. And I realised that to each of them, they had their own Eponine – their idea of her, their own personal lonely urchin who tries to be kind in revolutionary France, and who dies in the arms of the boy who does not love her back.
 
A Little In Love was, therefore, a huge task. I felt as if Eponine was being lent to me, and I had to return her in the finest of condition. I feared – above all – the reader thinking, this isn’t my Eponine! What has she done to her? – and being hugely disappointed or even cross. How could I please them all? An impossible job. But after much worrying, I decided that the only thing I could do was write about my Eponine. For me, as a reader and film-goer, she is Les Mis’s brightest light. She is the thief who changes her mind, the girl who suddenly wishes to rise out of the unkindness she was born into and be helpful, optimistic, sacrificial in her love. The girl who sees that rain, at least, can help the flowers grow. I’ve seen her as tangle-haired, always. She’s barefoot, reflective and finds daily, tiny beauties in a filthy Paris street. I’ve always loved her far more than the rest. The Eponine that Hugo passed on to me, as a gift, is a beautiful, huge-hearted thing. I decided I would write of her - so that even if a reader might feel I hadn’t quite captured their Eponine, they might still sense that I care for my version as much as they care for their own. 
 
A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher is out this week from Chicken House for £10.99.