Empathy

Empathy

48 days ago

I recently read an interview with Billy Bragg where he was asked about the common thread between his political and his more personal songs; his answer was empathy.

‘I’ve long believed that as musicians, the currency of what we do is empathy. We’re trying to get people to feel something. Whether it’s a love song or a political song, giving them the opportunity to draw some empathy from the song by chiming in with their experience so that they can feel they’re not alone.’

That stands for fiction writers as well. We’re not just telling stories, we’re asking people to invest their time and emotions in those stories, in our characters. We're in the business of making connections. When I tell people the basic concept of Dead Man Singing – has-been rock star fakes his death to boost record sales, then goes on the road as his own tribute act – I almost always see their eyes light up. As a premise, it seems to intrigue people and draw them in. That’s hugely satisfying (particularly if it translates into book sales) but on its own it isn’t enough to make the book a success. People may come to the book for the premise, but they’ll only stay if they care about the characters. If readers don’t care about Dave, Cindy and the others, they’ll toss the book aside and I wouldn’t blame them for it.  

I recently had a reader review for Dead Man Singing which included one of my favourite comments so far: ‘I was at times cross, frustrated and fed up with [Dave] and yet ultimately wanted him to find his peace.’ Another reviewer speaks of holding their breath as they waited to see how it all worked out for Dave, calling him ‘egotistical and frustrating, yet loveable and at times admirable’. I knew that Dave’s flaws meant readers wouldn’t necessarily like every aspect of him, but for the book to work they had to be rooting for him by the end.

As in so many things, Billy Bragg is right. It’s all about compassion and empathy. Great writing, whether in song or in prose, has to connect with people, to make them feel something. If my books manage to do that for some readers, I’ll take that over all the sales in the world (but I’ll be more than happy to take the sales too – if this was your experience of Dead Man Singing, please tell your friends!)

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