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What is the most annoying question you can ask a writer? It’s hard to zoom in on one because there are so many contenders for this dubious honour. As most of us know from first-hand experience, writers are often expected to answer questions that would make other professionals dial 911 for help. These questions are always lurking around the corner. They can ambush you at familiar spots – at the grocery store or the park or at the coffee shop next door. They also show up – decked out in formal, longwinded phrases – at literary festivals and book launches and readings.
I am not complaining about people taking an interest in writers and their work. Questions about a writer’s process and craft, the characters she/he has created, stories told, plots woven, metaphor and meter, are a blessing. Writers cherish them because questions like these spark exciting conversations. They raise interesting points and open up new vistas of thought, giving writers the opportunity to share their ideas and insights with readers. A writer is grateful for them because they give readers a glimpse of the creative process up close. These questions are the lifeblood of a vital relationship. They keep the dialogue between the writer and the reader going.
But there are questions and then there are questions. The distinction between the two kinds is as clear as the divide between healthy curiosity and malicious gossip. If writers around the world were to make a roster of annoying questions they have had to grapple with, the ones I’m about to list out (in no particular order) would feature on it for sure.
* “What do you do?” This one comes at you like a bullet from a gun soon as you open your mouth to say you are a writer. The timing is impeccable. The question instantaneous. The tone of voice is tinged with a mix of impatience and disapproval and the conversation always goes like this.
“I am a writer.”
“So, what do you do?”
“Write, you know…”
“Yes. But what do you do?”
This could be a philosophical observation of course. Writing being an exercise involving a great deal of mental effort may be seen by some as a state of being, a way of life rather than just an activity. Talking to a writer brings out the philosopher in all of us… Hence the question? Anyway, if you think you can fob it off by sharing your writing schedule or rattling off the number of grueling hours you spend working on your novels/stories/poems, you’re mistaken. Nothing can save you. A mention of your day job may win you a smile and a half-hearted nod of approval from your interrogator though.
* “Do people read anymore?” This one never fails to surprise me. Nobody walks up to a doctor and asks, “Do people fall ill anymore?” No one asks teachers if students need teaching or chefs if food needs cooking or bankers if banks need to be around in the 21st century. Stories have always been a part of us and they’ve been told – and written and read – since the beginning of time. Chances are this is going to continue until climate change or nuclear war annihilates the human race.
* “Why write?” This one is best answered with a question (or half-a-dozen). You may as well ask, “Why breathe?” “Why open your eyes in the morning?” “Why have a beating heart?” “Why eat three meals a day?” “Why build houses and roads and cities?” “Why carry on living?”
* “Are you going to be the new XYZ?” This question raises its hydra head when you tell someone – usually in a social setting – that you are working on a book. Instead of asking you about the story or characters or the ideas that inspired you or the time and effort you are devoting to getting the manuscript into shape, you are handed a question only a fortune teller or a fool would risk answering. The only possible way to handle it is to admit that you have no clue about (or interest in) predicting which famous author you will morph into when your book is published. Also, it helps to mention that you are killing yourself revising your manuscript, rewriting entire chapters, and agonizing over every word. As things stand, there is a high probability that lack of sleep and an overdose of caffeine will finish you off before the book is in print. So predicting the future would clearly be a waste of time at this point!
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).