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When people ask you what you write about, what do you say?


People ask me this question all the time and it never gets easier to answer.  This query has been fueled by  Greg’s post featuring the Kubrick quote, and, also, Chuck Klosterman’s theory that, when asked a question (particularly of opinion or experience specific to one’s own life), a person will try to answer, even if they’re not sure of the answer.

16 thoughts on “When people ask you what you write about, what do you say?

  1. Heh, sometimes I mutter, “Oh, various things,” and then tack on a very loud question like “BUT TELL ME ABOUT YOUR JOB!”

    If I think the person is expressing actual interest, as opposed to just an attempt at polite conversation, I’ll say things like “mostly magical realism or sociological science fiction” and then grab examples most likely to be familiar to a casual reader, e.g. Octavia Butler, Leguin, Morrison, Allende, not that there aren’t really big gaps between what they do and what I do (their infinitely higher quality being the most important).

    If the questioner is another writer or someone who reads a *lot* then the answer becomes both more specific and easier to give.

    I think I treat this question with a certain degree of legitimacy because I write a lot of fiction that’s not mainstream. When people ask, I don’t hear them asking me what themes I’m trying to write about, or what the essential style of my work is, so much as just “If I were a bookstore, where could I stick you?”

    The MOST awkward person to ask me a variant this question is my mother-in-law, who — weeks after the wedding — informed her son that she had read my writing and that it revealed I had “a dark soul.”

    “What are you writing about these days?” she asks when she comes to visit.

    Rapidly, I change the subject.

  2. “Librarians, human guinea-piggers, sadistic FBI agents, corporate litigation, children with horns or wings.”

    That, or “You know, the human experience ‘n stuff.”

  3. like Rachel, i mostly try to avoid this question. but if pressed i tell people that i write about human relationships, because i am interested in how people can get along with one another despite all the odds stacked against us getting along. that usually does the trick in keeping them from asking more questions. sadly, it’s also the truth.

  4. What works for me is that good old fashioned standby, that comfortable robe of query replies, that apple pie of interrogation concession: “Your mom.”

  5. I say, “Whatever I want.” Then I say, “You should buy my book and find out.” Then their eyes go all hazy like they might pass out so I say, “I like your sweater.”

  6. Ususally I will be quiet long enough for them to fill in the space by saying, “Boy I’ve got some stories for you,” or “I should be writer.”

  7. I like all of these answers, especially the “easy to solve mysteries.”

    Greg, I think the close cousin of “Boy I’ve got some stories for you,” is “You know what you should write about?” Love that.

    I enjoy, when people ask, “What is your novel about?” and I can give the stock answer of, “Ohhh, 200 pages or so.”

    What I need to get better at, I think, is changing the subject after my cheeky answer, otherwise you get the look that says, “No, but really…”

  8. god how I hate that conversation, especially with relatives or friends who I know don’t really want to know or won’t like the answer.

    easy, sure: Inconceivable Wilson is about a man being eaten.

    people just walk away. nice.

  9. Thank God most of my friends and all of my family know about the writing – although some of it is embarrassing to the family. I am sure most have that issue.

    However, when asked by others I typically stick to:
    … Man, I barely graduated high school
    … Yes, I write about mathematic theory concepts
    that typically quiets the folks.

  10. When they ask me this question, my mind goes expansive for a second. I see the universe, beyond the galaxy, the stars. I see black and then the edge, and I see lots of endless white. I see us, the room, them looking at me waiting for an answer. I see myself, my face, my glazed over eyes. And then I snap back and respond with, “Everything.” Which then requires a follow-up sentence as they will naturally ask the question again. But I like to layer that first answer with *everything*, then I try to answer along the lines of, “I try to write about you. About the woman behind you, the stranger 100,000 miles away who we don’t know. The baby not born yet. Some alien I can’t even comprehend who might one day find and/or hear my work and think, hey, I can kind of relate to this weird little alien guy. Sometimes I write about what a dust particle would think if it thinks, or about my own ignorance that I have a resistance to the idea a flicker of dust *can think*. Sometimes I write about how fine a girl with a short dress is or how dumb plants make me feel because it seems like they just get it, like plants and dogs and stuff just get the world and we’re fucking morons.”

    And I kind of stop somewhere in there, mid-sentence or so and just kind of look at them with a stupid grin or smile on my face and shrug, wanting to change the subject, so I scratch my head and say, “But, uhh, yeah, you know, I dunno. Its whatever.” As a way to shrink myself a little so that they feel the need to talk about other things.

    God I hate that question. It feels weird. Writing exposes you enough, and if I’m not performing and I’m asked a question directly related to the heart of my writing, its like they’re cutting me open and I’m on the table and I’m awake.

  11. Whenever I write something, or am writing something, I always take a few minutes to make up some kind of response to this inevitable question. I often even write it down and revise it, so I can paraphrase it from memory later on.

    (And then of course no one ever asks me…)

    But one thing I’ve learned (from harsh experience) is that people don’t really want to know “what your writing is about.” What they want to know is, “might I be interested in what you’re doing?” Like with all conversation, the trick is to find out what interests the other person, then relate what you’ve done to their interests. Make it relevant to them, and they might approach it.

    (Assuming you want someone to read it.)

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