I was on my way to a school recently to give a talk about my latest book when I had one of those J K Rowling conversations with a taxi-driver. I’ve had so many of them over the years and they’re always the same. This is how they go:
Cabbie: So what do you do then?
Me: I’m a writer.
Cabbie: What sort of thing do you write?
Me: Children’s books.
Cabbie: What, like that J K Rowling woman?
Me: Well, sort of, but obviously I’m not as successful as she is.
(LONG PAUSE DURING WHICH YOU CAN ACTUALLY HEAR CABBIE’S BRAIN WHIRRING.)
Cabbie I’ve had an idea for a children’s book.
Me: Oh really?
Cabbie: Yeah. It’s pretty good, actually. Do you want to hear it?
Now the truth is that I want to hear the cab driver’s idea about as much as I want to gnaw my own arm off, because I’ve heard a million ideas for children’s books in my time. I’ve heard them from people I’ve met at parties, from drunks in wine bars, from builders who came to work on my house, from parents of children who went to school with my kids, from distant relations I didn’t know I had. And the fact is that most of the people who have come up with these ideas have hardly read a children’s book in their lives. But that doesn’t stop them knowing how to write one.
There is only one word that can explain this phenomenon and that word is greed. Ever since the incredible success of the Harry Potter books everyone and his uncle is convinced that writing children’s books is the quickest and easiest way to become a millionaire. A bit like winning the lottery, only the chances are higher.
All they’ve got to do is get round to writing their story down. On paper. Or on a computer. Or even on the back of their hands. But for some reason, none of them has ever actually managed to get that far. Sometimes they even suggest that I might want to collaborate with them. They’ll come up with the idea; I’ll do the writing. What about it?
Well, of course, what I should have said to the cab driver was, ‘No thanks. I really need to think about the talk I’ve got to give when I get out of this cab.’ But, as usual, I was too polite. Or too cowardly. Or too stupid. So instead, I said, ‘Sure.’ And he proceeded to tell me some load of old nonsense that sounded like something J K Rowling might have produced if you’d drugged her, kept her up for a week without sleep, stamped on her fingers and made her write in Esperanto with a broken biro. It was terrible. They always are.
Then afterwards, he came out with the line that really gets to me - ‘You won’t steal it, will you?’ I wanted to say, ‘Look mate, if it was any good, I would steal it. But since it’s a complete pile of you know what, I won’t bother, thanks.’
What I actually said was, ‘Of course not.’ He looked uncertain, like he was thinking he might have made a mistake telling his precious plot to an old hack like myself. ‘Promise?’ he said, ‘I promise,’ I agreed. Then I paid my fare and got out of the cab, leaving him looking slightly disgruntled about the tip. No doubt he’s been going around ever since telling people, ‘I had that Brian Keaney in my cab last week – you know, the famous children’s writer. I gave him a really good idea for a story and he only gave me a two quid tip. ’
Dear cabbie, if by any chance you are reading this, then you can relax. I will never steal your idea or anyone else’s for that matter. Because, the whole point of being a writer is that you get to tell your own story. In your own way. And if it’s successful, then that’s great. And if it’s not, then that’s too bad. Either way, you don’t waste time worrying about it. You just sit down at the computer and start the next one.