The Kindness of Strangers
With the sad news of the passing of Hilary Mantel, people began exchanging stories of their meetings with her. A picture quickly developed of someone who was kind, generous, and helpful, particularly to other writers. I briefly interacted with her over email (via her agent) to clarify something for my PhD (a minor footnote relating to a geeky, academic point concerning the line between fiction and non-fiction). She had no reason to even acknowledge my email let alone answer it and explain why she had made a certain decision. Given the way many men behave online, I’ve come to expect any well-meant unsolicited emails or messages I send to be met with suspicion and silence. This is sad, and makes being a journalist difficult sometimes, but understandable. However, she did answer, perhaps happy to receive a different question from the usual ones, or perhaps pleased that someone had spotted the minor tweak to The Mirror and the Light that differentiates it from Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. More likely it was just her personality to help when she could.
Having made contact and got my answer, I left it at that. The urge to keep up a correspondence, to ask more questions, to make a nuisance of myself, was strong. How often do you get a direct line to someone you respect and admire? But no, she’d been kind enough to help me, and I wasn’t going to take advantage of that.
It made me recall other interactions I’ve had with famous people over the years. Given the paths of my life, the majority of them have been writers, but I’ve been lucky enough to meet, talk to, often interview musicians, actors, filmmakers, and athletes. Many of those encounters were perfectly pleasant and functional: a few words, an autograph or selfie, a hand shake and done. Some were downright disappointing, like when as a 15-year-old I waited outside the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen to have my CD signed by a UK band that were on their way to become massive and was dismissed by the singer with the words, “You’re not a bird, you don’t have big tits, so fuck off.”
About the same time I hung around after a Terrorvision show at the Music Hall in Aberdeen. Singer Tony Wright and bass player Leigh Marklew chatted to my friend and me for about ten minutes, signed our CDs, invited us to the aftershow party and were generally friendly, generous people.
I have never been that level of famous and barring a miracle, never will be, but those interactions have stayed with me as vivid memories. Nearly 30 years later I’m still angry with that singer for how he made me feel that night, crushing the aftershow high that was too rare since no one ever came to play Aberdeen, but I’m also baffled by how someone could so casually dismiss a fan of their work.
I’m not at the same level as someone like Mantel, but when I am contacted or approached by readers of my work, I try to follow those good examples. I’ve always tried to remember how I felt outside the Lemon Tree and how I felt outside the Music Hall. We should never be casual, or flippant, about having readers, listeners, viewers. No one owes us an audience, and every single member of that audience is just as important as any other.
I wouldn’t have an audience at all if it weren’t for the writers who supported me, who encouraged me, who gave me a kind word, or an opportune introduction, or some apposite criticism. I thanked Mantel at the time but with her passing I wonder if she knew how much outpouring of gratitude would come from those for whom she took a few moments to treat with kindness. Inspired by this, and ripping off an idea from Salman Rushdie’s Substack, I’m going to share some of those stories here in the next few weeks. We spend a lot of time online pointing out people who have behaved appallingly, but rarely do we applaud people for being decent human beings. It’s only after their death that the anecdotes come out and by then it’s too late. So thank you Hilary Mantel, Tony Wright, and Leigh Marklew for being kind, generous people, and for being positive examples of how to interact with your audience.
This is a lovely testimony to kindness and I'm glad you took the time to write and post. No matter how you or others may rate or rank your work or performance, being kind is a "great leveler"--we can all be kind, no matter how talented we may or may not be. People will always remember how you made them feel and, I would argue, in the end that's the most important thing.