Riddle of the Sphinx by Barbara Nadel

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A question frequently asked at crime fiction conferences is, what distinguishes writers from non-writers? Answers to this are many and various but one that has always struck me as a little bit odd is the notion that writers have the ability of get inside the heads of other people. I’ve never really bought into this. Not totally. We’ve all read books where the author does indeed appear to get under the skin of his or her characters. I certainly have also read books where this doesn’t happen, sometimes for very good philosophical and stylistic reasons. Dislocation can be a good thing.

Although I can now walk with crutches on flat surfaces, I am still not allowed to let my broken leg bear weight on staircases. Bad news in a ‘normal’ house, a nightmare in my huge, Lancastrian mill workers house. Basically there are 4 floors of big, weirdly shaped rooms plus peculiar half landings and extensions that veer off in all sorts of unexpected directions. From the outside this place looks like an ordinary Victorian terrace, inside it is Dr Who’s TARDIS – with extra stairs. What this means for the broken limbed is that climbing stairs happens either via crawling or shuffling up and down on my now quite sore backside. Getting to the extension where the bathrooms reside involves shuffling up a flight of stairs, crawling across a half landing, then up a further two stairs and into the hall outside the bath and shower rooms. I usually find myself on all fours at the end of all this, often staring into the inscrutable face of my cat who likes to lay about on that landing.

I rarely, in the normal course of events, come as close to Lily the cat’s face as I do when hauling myself into my bathroom extension. She is an ultra Persian which means that her face is very flat and probably, as a result of this, even more inscrutable than that of a ‘normal’ cat. Up close I find her stillness and the steadiness of he gaze fascinating. God knows I have enough to do, even with my broken leg, but I find that I am still fascinated by Lily and could spend a lot more time than I do looking at her. I find I want to know what she’s thinking. I realise it is a doomed enterprise. We belong to different species and even if we didn’t, could I really even begin to speculate about what Lily is thinking? Can any of us ever know what is going on in the mind of another? I don’t think so.

But to turn back to writing and what may contribute to the making of a writer, the conclusion I have come to is that it is the desire to explore the worlds of others that is the key. I want to speculate upon Lily’s thoughts. I want to talk to and observe people and build up pictures of how their lives might have been and what their thoughts may be like. That said, I do not think that this desire is peculiar just to writers and other artists. Enquiring minds came in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of enthusiasms – artistic, scientific, practical.

What makes writers different from non-writers? Maybe nothing, maybe magic, maybe everything. Maybe it just comes down to having a desire to be a writer – and of course, a pen (or laptop).

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