I was asked this when my book on coeliac disease (or gluten intolerance) came out, by a potential reader who had the condition. She seemed offended, almost, that someone who wasn’t a coeliac sufferer, or a nutritionist, or a gastroenterologist, or a doctor or medic of any kind, and not even, say, a caterer with knowledge of special dietary requirements, but a mere plain old writer, could dare to assume enough expertise about such a niche subject to write a book on it.
I told them this. As someone with no personal knowledge of the condition and not qualified in any aspect of it, in order to write about the subject I was compelled to research it in great depth, from scratch, leaving few stones unturned. I interviewed people with gluten sensitivity, and I interviewed dietitians and other experts. Lots of them. This enabled me to build up a clear and broad spectrum of knowledge and information, from which I could draw in a balanced manner to write the book – one suitable for all readers.
A coeliac sufferer writing the book? There would be a risk that he or she would assume their experience of the disease was complete and representative of all others’ – and perhaps skimp on research. A specialist writing the book? There would be the chance of it being perhaps too ‘medical’ – not lay enough.
A writer writing the book? I can’t see an obvious disadvantage – as arrogant as that may sound. Without question, sufferers and medical experts have written great books about a wide range of health conditions (I have read many), but a writer can be objective in a way sufferers can’t, and clear in a way some specialists may not be able to manage – essential when writing consumer health guidebooks.
I don’t think my doubter was convinced, which I took as a failure of my powers of explanation.
‘How on earth can you write about childcare issues when you don’t have any children?’ I was once asked by a childcare expert I was interviewing for an article for a parenting magazine.
My response was similar: I interview parents, I interview parenting experts… but she was unsure too.
You see, it happens quite a bit.
It should start happening to you at some point. And I do mean ‘should’ not ‘might’ – because you should be writing about subjects which are perhaps outside your comfort zone. I see too many students stick safely to their pet subjects, and this is a bit like trying to learn to play tennis by only experimenting with and practising your favourite serves. No, no, no – you need to tackle volleys, drop shots, lobs, forehands and backhands as well. And if you want to write, you need to write all sorts of stuff for all sorts of markets.
When writing for magazines and newspapers, you not only need to interview those experts I mentioned – but quote them too. Editors and readers expect this level of authority. They want to hear the words of specialists.
When writing books, I don’t think you do. At least, I didn’t – and I’ve written four books on food allergies and food intolerances in which I can’t recall quoting a soul. For some reason – perhaps one of you can tell me why – editors and readers seem quite happy for you to author as the expert, entirely in your voice. Perhaps because the reader assumes, what with you Being an Author and all, that you’re very, very trustworthy. Your name is on the cover. They believe you. You’re Important. Even if you’re not.
Anyway, my point: you should never think you do not have the right to write about everything. You do. The beauty of concrete, the mating rituals of elk, the history of Corsican monks, the psychology of singing in the bathroom, the people who drill holes in their heads (raises hand), the haunted hotels of Luton, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Anything.
Never forget it. Nor doubt it. Never apologise for it. Know why you have the right. Explain it when questioned. Defend yourself when scoffed at. And never let it stop you.
What’s the subject most alien to you which you have written about? Or would like to write about but don’t feel you can?