There are precious few satisfying answers to the question above. I have gone to the trouble to list them for you here.
“Oh, I dabble in literary fiction, you may have heard my address at the Nobel Prize ceremony?”
“Joanne Rowling. Lovely to meet you.”
“Mainly plays. Probably nothing you know. Ah, you’ve read King Lear, have you?”
Or even: “Very few, actually. I’ve barely put pen to paper since dashing off Catcher in the Rye back in the 50s.”
What you don’t want to say is this:
“Well, I’m technically speaking a children’s writer, but not entirely, I mean, older children, some not children at all, many perfectly sentient adults, in fact, seem to like my books, which do, of course, feature adolescents, but often incorporate quite difficult themes, say, on the subject of life and death, so that about half of my UK readers are over thirty and many of my Finnish readers are over fifty…oh, and by the way, I’ve also written three or four picture books, and am kind of mulling over a middle grade series, just for a change of pace.”
And if you think it gets simpler, think again. I’m just finishing up my new book, with a protagonist who has graduated from art school which makes him at least 22 — a good two or three years older than many of my past protagonists.
Imagine that for a radical departure.
The new book is called Duck Zoo, and my hero has the wrong job and the wrong girlfriend, and two dogs who are trying to sort his life out for him. It’s pure Meg Rosoff territory, if you’ll allow me to refer to myself in the third person for a minute here (ala Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s a comedy, kind of surreal, all about love and work with lots of dogs.
But it’s a whole new genre because technically speaking, Jonathan is not a young adult.
And all I can think is, oh dear god, won’t someone save me from marketing departments.
I wonder if anyone said, “Hey, Harper Lee, whaddaya mean you’re writing a book for grown-ups featuring a six-year-old protagonist? What are you, nuts? Who’s going to be interested in a six-year-old other than another six-year-old?” Did anyone say, “Hey, Henry James, you know this What Maisie Knew book you’ve written, could you make Maisie thirty-six so your adult readers can identify with her more?”
“And really, Mr Shakespeare, your Prince Hamlet is a student? Do you know how hard it is to get nineteen-year-olds to read plays? How bout we make him twenty-seven so we can appeal to a broader fan base?”
Predicting the publishing market is not a precise science – after all, did anyone ever imagine that so many young adult novels (55% by all reports) would be bought by adults?
I like William Golding’s wonderful quote about Hollywood, that “nobody knows anything.”
On which note, I think I’ll get back to work.
So. What sort of books do you write?