It's troubling to be a writer on the receiving end of this hunger for autobiography. When my play Shopping and Fucking was produced in 1996, I was totally unprepared for the fact that many people would read it as autobiographical. The play is inhabited by rent boys and junkies. Suddenly, people I knew well were scouring my arms for track marks.We've all had similar experiences. The most annoying for me was when a journalist who knew nothing whatever about me stated sagely that my depiction of my protagonist suffered because of my own pain. Maybe she really had hit on a failure in the writing, but I do think this judgement was fuelled by a (wrong) assumption of autobiography.
At the moment I'm producing one of my own plays. I talked to several directors interested in working on it. 'Is this protagonist you?' asked one of them. I was shocked, and went hot and cold all over, because, as I am so often saying, once you start looking at a play or a book in the light of the author's life you are no longer looking at it for what it is, and indeed it becomes something less than it should be.
I've just come off the phone from talking to a journalist to whom I had found it necessary to send a press release about the play. Actually, she rang three times. The first time I deflected her nicely from the personal questions I knew she would ask. Then she rang again: her editor had asked her to get more colour. Not about the play (of course: who's interested in literature, what we want is the lowdown on the writer!), but I managed to keep her on the subject of my writing career. The phone rings again. Her editor still wants more. What age did I say I was? (I didn't). What years were my children born? What year was I divorced? What is it my partner does? Oh, what the hell, I told her - I could sense her desperation, and it's only a local paper, and anyway everyone locally knows all these things anyway, and quite frankly nowadays I'm past caring what anyone knows or even thinks about me, but then the moment comes: 'And how does this relate to your play?' and I do care how people view my play.
Even Mark Ravenhill seems to miss the real point about fiction. He says it's often the differences rather than the similarities between an author's life and work which are interesting. But the whole point, as I've said before, is that you can't make those divisions: fiction is an indivisible meld of fact and imagination, something different from either and carrying its own truth.
And I'm totally puzzled by all this fuss about JT LeRoy: what, so no one ever makes up a persona for the rest of the world? So you wouldn't expect a fiction writer to be better at it than most?