A Letter in Response to an Article About Teaching Eva

Dear Professor Carter ,

I enjoyed your article about Eva in The Horn Book. Very interesting, not only because of what it said, but also in the way it brought home to me how different my relationship to one of my books is from that of anyone who’s going to read it. In some ways the naïve reader — the one who simply reacts to it as “enjoyable” or “awful” — can seem nearer to me than the sophisticated and thoughtful reader, because he/she is doing no more than experiencing the book by re-imagining my invention, in something like the manner in which I imagined it in the first place. In fact I don’t believe any reader of plain, non-experimental fiction, however sophisticated, can be said to have really read a book unless this has been the primary reaction. Everything else comes later.

As a writer, enormously the largest part of my attention — 95% or so — is divided between using my brain to make the plot work and my instincts to imbue what I am inventing with imaginative solidity. I didn’t write Eva to embody my thoughts on animal rights, for instance. I never meant to write it at all, as a matter of fact. I had embarked on something else when it struck me with a jolt that this was what had happened to my central character. The question of animal rights then came up, and had to be dealt with, but it wouldn’t have bulked anything like as large if I hadn’t found I could use it as a major part of the plot. As for the deeper themes, I don’t think about them at all. Indeed, sometimes I haven’t realised what they were till a reader such as yourself pointed them out to me. Occasionally I’ve set out with a theme in mind — what might it be like to be a child soldier in a bush war — with in that case the deliberate aim of trying to communicate some sense of what drives the apparently mad chaos of central Africa. But even then, once I’d started, the what-is-it-like and the machinery of the plot occupied my full attention. If I got them right, the larger theme would take care of itself. I would expect the sophisticated reader to consider and perhaps judge it, but it’s enough if the naïve one simply takes it aboard as a part of his/her subconscious awareness.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Dickinson

Copyright © Peter Dickinson 2001
Written in response to a Horn Book magazine article by Professor Betty Carter (2001)