You don’t have to be a celebrity to get published. What you discover, when you’re having that crucial meeting with your publicist, is that her job is to make every author, however dull and obscure, sound irresistibly fascinating. Blurbs and covers can only do so much, and the chief function of reviews is to provide quotes for the paperback. But introduce the writer as a person – a person with a story – and people get curious. And who are we, as professional story-tellers, to balk at that? So your publicist will order the Chardonnay and interrogate you until you come up with something interesting – a hook, an angle – about yourself.
If you’re a banker writing financial thrillers it’s easy. Ex-SAS writing chicklit? Better still. Even a sensitive dissection of bourgeois life in Dewsbury can grab columns if you’re a professional deep-sea diver from Tierra del Fuego. But what if your only angle is nothing to do with you?
I’m putting off getting to the point because I was brought up not to mention the 2-3% of my genes which I have in common with my great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin. (I know the percentage because my genome was dissected on one of the big biology blogs. Weird feeling.) The Darwin industry has been getting steadily bigger for years and my name is my name, as well as my great-great-grandmother’s: I get asked about it anyway. In the tooth-and-claw battle of the bookshop tables you use what you have, and all I have is Darwin.
I’m sure I’m not the only writer whose chief publicity interest is entirely irrelevant, and I’m not complaining: it’s got me coverage I’d never have got otherwise, particularly in that uneasy time before the book’s out there. And if I’m being interviewed, then fair enough: it’s part of my identity. But in a thirty-word listing, sixteen may be about The Ancestor. And bad reviews are an occupational hazard, but how about one which starts ‘Emma Darwin may have smart genes but she doesn’t deploy them well here’? I’ve been asked many times if I would have got a book contract if I weren’t a Darwin. I hope it’s just ignorance that you don’t have to be a celebrity, but maybe it was meant as an insult: in our don’t-show-off culture, am I showing off to talk – when I’m asked to, like now – about my huge, high-achieving family tree? If I say it’s a double-edged sword, which it is, since it plays sometimes painfully to my own middle-child hangups, am I whingeing?
Now my novels The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy are out there, there’s more else to talk about, but here comes the Bicentenary. Being freelance, I have a web presence and journalists phone: do I say no, when it gets me and my books out there? And, yes, there’s a reason this post is appearing today, The Birthday. I’ve learnt to use what I can’t help having. But I’d rather be read and known for what I write than for such a tiny bit of what I am.