First of all, can I take a moment to applaud the inimitable Jeff Cohen for his stand on behalf of ‘all guys’, whoever they may be. Since we’re not mentioning any names, I’d better not say what I would like to happen on the next TV debate between two people we’re not naming (is there another one scheduled? We’re a long way away over here), though I hope a lot of people on both sides of the gender divide are thinking similarly. And whoever ‘all guys’ are in the relevant context, I hope I never meet them. Or them me. They just might regret the encounter, especially if... Yes, well, let’s not go there.
Enough of that. There are more interesting things to post about. Books, for instance. Today, in particular, the way some authors sometimes choose to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.
The thought was triggered by a book I finished earlier this week. The author is well known for a police procedural series which has gone the distance: small beginnings, then growing fame and popularity, culminating in a top-rated TV series with a very familiar face in the lead role, and continuing bestseller success on the page. Set in a beautiful part of the UK, natch; aren’t all the best TV crime series?
It never occurred to me for a moment when I took this book off the shelf in the shop that it wasn’t one of the series; I haven’t read them all, and these days my memory simply isn’t capable (see yesterday’s place-holder!) of storing a couple of dozen titles on the off-chance that I’ll spot one as I indulge in a spontaneous, I-was-just-passing browse. (Yes, that does mean I occasionally buy duplicate copies. On the plus side, they come in useful as gifts.) But when I started to read it, I soon realized it was something quite different. No series protagonist, not a single familiar character; even the location was eight thousand miles and a whole continent different from usual. And it was great.
Aside from the usual conventions of crime fiction, I haven’t encountered many series authors who are one-trick ponies, churning out the same plot over and over with slight variations – perhaps because on the rare occasions I do, I stop reading the series pretty quickly. But I’ve heard well-regarded authors say that embarking on a new title in a series is like checking what some old friends are up to next, or even like relaxing into a pair of well-worn slippers. It’s comfortable. Not necessarily easy, but you know the world you’re entering. A comfort zone. Stepping outside that comfort zone must be a little like arriving in a strange town, maybe even country, without a map.
Writers or not, we all have our comfort zones. It’s always scary to step outside them, but sometimes it can be hugely rewarding. When I was younger and fitter than I am now, I used to try to step outside mine quite consciously at least once a week. Usually in a small way; I’d try a new food, or visit a new shop. But sometimes it was more. I learned to drive in my thirties, having said I never would, and my life opened up. In my forties I started teaching – adults, not kids; tried the latter in my twenties and almost cracked under the stress – and again found a whole new world to explore. A decade later still I started a publishing company. Lots of people said I must be insane, but I learned a whole new set of skills, met some great people and had a ball. Didn’t make any money, but hey, there are other rewards.
I don’t know how the author of that book felt about the town, and country, he decided to visit, but for me the book revealed a whole new side to him. I hope he enjoyed his journey outside his own comfort zone as much as I did.