How to talk to writers

Writers are people, and they were people before they were writers. They change light bulbs and buy groceries just like everyone else. Really. Because they’re people, they vary. Some of them are jerks, but many of them are very interesting people to talk to.

Writers will usually talk about their writing if you want to talk to them about it. But they can also talk about other things!

Writers mostly aren’t celebrities. They have a little bit of demi-fame within the community, and that’s it. For the few who are celebrities it’s different, but most writers are only too glad to have their name recognised.

However well you feel you know a writer because you have read their books or their blog, until you’ve met them you don’t know them, and they don’t know you. They’ll probably be happy to talk to you at a signing or a convention, but they’re not your instant best friend.

If you happen to be introduced to a writer you haven’t read, do not say “I’m sorry, but I haven’t read any of your books.” This just causes embarrassment. The normal state of affairs for an ordinary writer is that most people they meet haven’t read any of their books. This may be different for Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling. But ordinary writers that you might happen to meet won’t expect you to have read their work. This totally isn’t a problem unless you mention that you haven’t. What are they supposed to say in response? “Oh, that’s all right?” “Go away you illiterate ass?” There just isn’t a good answer and it leaves the writer spluttering. (Anyone who wants is welcome to my answer: “Oh, that’s OK, you can give me the five dollars now.”) I understand the urge to say you haven’t read them. It comes from guilt. But don’t say it. If you feel guilty just quietly go and buy one of their books later. And there’s no reason to feel guilty. Nobody expects you to have read every book in the world, least of all the writers. Writers see their sales figures. They know that statistically it’s unlikely that you’ve read their books.

Do not say “Where can I buy your books?” The answer is “The bookstore!” (Or “The dealers’ room!” or “Your usual online bookstore!”) Asking this question makes the writer feel as if you think they’re self-published and sell their books out of the back of their car. (My husband’s boss asks me this every time she sees me.) Ellen Kushner is irate about it in her journal. I think people ask this because they want to demonstrate good intentions, but again, don’t ask. If you want one just go and buy one quietly where you normally buy books.

If you have read their books and you adore them, do say so if you’d like to. You can’t go wrong with “I really like your books!” or “I really like Specific Title.” The worst thing that can possibly happen is that the writer will say “Thank you,” and you’ll stand there tongue-tied by being in their presence. This still happens to me occasionally when I meet writers I really admire. The last time I met Samuel Delany I managed an actual sentence with words in it, rather than just awestruck gurgling. Most writers can cope even with the gurgling if they have to.

If you have read their books and you hate them, don’t say “I have to say, I really hate your work.” You don’t have to say it at all. Again, it leaves the writer with no possibly honest and polite reply. If you’re having an actual conversation with the writer about something and it’s actually relevant to say that you hate all alternate history including theirs, or their treatment of dragons, then it can be OK. But marching up to them and saying you have to say it—and it’s something people always feel they have to preface that way—is just a waste of time.

Pick your time to approach. If a writer is eating or busily engaged with other people, don’t interrupt them just to gurgle at them. There’ll probably be another moment.

Oh, and finally, if you meet a writer and they turn out to be four foot tall, or immensely fat, or terribly ugly, or old, don’t say “I thought you’d be taller/thinner/prettier/younger.” As I was saying, writers are people and can have their feelings hurt by this kind of thing just like anyone else.

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