Well, it has been just over a month since publication and my biggest learning experience has been how long it takes for actual books to reach actual people through the multiple and proliferating chains of distribution. Why my overseas readers seem to get The Inheritance Powder a lot quicker than readers in London remains a mystery. And then of course readers need time to read it. Given the ever accumulating pile of â€œmust readâ€ books in my house in varying stages of unread-ness, I am both amazed and grateful at the number of people who have already done so.
There is nothing quite like the frisson of anticipation that the first-timer experiences waiting for a readerâ€™s verdict. Of course, you want it to be positive but you are also really curious about how they have read it, what themes and characters they picked up on, what convinced or did not convince about the fictional worlds you have created. While waiting anxiously for my first responses I found myself thinking about some of the literary theory I had read on my Creative Writing MA. In particular, there was the infamous edict of Roland Barthes declaring the Death of the Author. For this strand of theory, the reader is the author of all meaning, the text only lives in its readersâ€™ interpretations. This is a very provoking thought for a writer. Are all my writerly intentions for the narrative of no value or relevance? Is any readerâ€™s reading of my novel as valid as anyone elseâ€™s?
I have never decided exactly where I stand on these questions, but I do think all reader feedback is valid and of value. Even readings that you feel are in some way â€œwrongâ€ are important in signalling what may be a weakness or limitation in the writing.
The act of writing fiction is a very strange one. The impulse is a story you passionately want to tell (yes, Roland Barthes, I am definitely alive!). For many writers, the question of â€œaudienceâ€ is not foremost. Yet I suspect the issue of â€˜who are my readers?â€™ hovers in the background for most writers, if only because publishing mandates attention to this question.
The Inheritance Powder is based on a real situation â€“ the mass arsenic poisoning of millions of Bangladeshis due to a well-intended but disastrous programme to provide clean drinking water to rural people. It incorporates a love story and elements of mystery and intrigue. It uses fiction to reflect on the little known world of international aid and development, which is the world I have lived in professionally for many years. So I started from knowing that I would have several different audiences; that they live in many different parts of the world, have intimate knowledge of the world of international development or of Bangladesh, or little or no knowledge of either. In a word, they are diverse, and this has been part of the pleasure and surprise of the responses.
First, Iâ€™ve been delighted with the overall response and readersâ€™ close engagement with the themes and characters. A clear favourite character has already emerged - the main (Bangladeshi) female protagonist. While some readers have engaged most strongly with the love story (will they/wonâ€™t they get together?), others have been most gripped by the unfolding tale of corruption and the wider politics of the arsenic problem. A fascinating conversation with my sister â€“ a serious and eclectic reader â€“ focused partly on her interest in the use of the present tense in much of the narrative. Every reading has been slightly different and new readings have been offered. One reader was struck by the metaphorical contrast between the rootedness of what lies under the ground and the global movement of populations signified by so many of the charactersâ€™ histories.
Some of my most challenging readers have been those who are familiar with the international development setting of the novel. Understandably, they are looking for situations, places and characters they recognise. But for writers in the realist tradition, there is a constant to and fro between faithfulness to setting and the impulse to the imaginary rather than the literal truth.
One of my biggest concerns was to do justice to the setting, to give the novel a strong sense of place. I have a long familiarity with Bangladesh but I am obviously not a Bangladeshi. So far, I seem to have succeeded both with those who know and donâ€™t know the country. â€˜Bangladesh shoots off the page,â€™ one reader commented. A bigger test will come once the novel becomes widely available in Bangladesh. But even with place, I am constantly reminded of the blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy to which Hilary Mantel draws attention in her brilliant fiction. In her novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, set in Saudi Arabia, she writes of the â€œthreeâ€ cities of Jeddah â€“ the fossil, the epic and the trivial â€“ which are inhabited by her different sets of characters and which are the stage upon which the action is performed.
Furthermore, as author, I want to insist that none of my characters are based on â€œrealâ€ people. Yes, reader, I made them all up! But readers will of course â€˜findâ€™ these people from their own universes, and this is in itself some kind of testament to the (imaginary) truth.
Finally, reading and listening to readersâ€™ responses has made me think about the inherent ambiguities of endings. I do not like neat endings, as life is not like that, and I felt I had left the ending somewhat unresolved. Predictably, therefore, readers have read the ending in different ways. But only one reader that I am aware of so far has â€œreadâ€ my own intention in the ending, which â€“ by having the principal (British) character return to Bangladesh under very different terms of engagement â€“ was to reverse the usual power dynamics between â€œeastâ€ and â€œwest.â€ Was my signalling too weak? Does it matter? Now what would Roland Barthes have to say about that?
And my favourite response so far? â€˜I dumped Iris Murdoch to read your novel.â€™ Sorry, Irisâ€¦.
The Inheritance Powder, by Hilary Standing, was published on 8th October 2015 by RedDoor Publishing:
It is available to order from any UK bookshop. For on-line orders (worldwide), I recommend: