The author event. That mercurial entity where the audience expects magic from the author and the author somehow expects…well if not magic then what? Some kind of sense of connection with an audience? An audience they would otherwise experience only through Amazon reviews?
Last week my 2018 Read Regional tour in promotion of my novel An Honest Deceit began with two dates in Darlington and Doncaster. My sole experience of Darlington has, fittingly enough, been at a literary reading in an admittedly enchanting café to two (it might have been three) people before being ejected into the rain and enduring a long wait on a cold train platform. Probably ideal preparation for the start of a book tour actually, because it is unlikely it will be as tough as that. Without wanting to slip into exaggerated recollections this experience was on the whole a lot more pleasant.
A full room (one benefit of having to sell out a small room is it less hard to do that – something I have learnt the hard way) with about a third of people having read the book and armed with specific questions or (in one case) passages they’d like you to read. For any budding artist the question of how to handle an event around your work – be it an exhibition, book launch, or reading – is an intriguing one.
The idea of turning up and gorging yourself on a ego fest of reading excerpts you fondly imagine to be your ‘greatest hits’ appeals to me only a very little, and to audiences even less. What is curious to me is how a room of people will find a compromise and a common ground. As I discussed recently over a beer with my publisher, different events seem to require different facets of your work to be shared. To the reader unfamiliar with your work the opening of a story can be arduous but one way to avoid lots of explanation. To a room you need to win over a dramatic scene (providing too much explaining isn’t required) can work well. And to people who know your book, or who are writers themselves, a much more layered scene, full of undercurrents about your characters inner worlds can be best. I ended up doing a blend of both, with gaps filled in by questions from aspirational writers. How do you research a novel? What kind of pressure from publishers is there to change your story to fit the market? How long did it take you to write (the subtext from the questioner clearly being ‘will I ever finish my novel?’) Being confronted with strangers who expect something from you – and with people who’ve read your book was a challenging but ultimately rewarding expertise. But one, I have to admit, that left me with a sense of exhilarated unease. I expect it will never go away. To prepare for the tour I saw Matt Haig host an author event at Waterstones in Newcastle, and he was very articulate and honest about the inherent sense of awkwardness, absurdity, but in the end connection that these events foster.
A couple of days later I was up eye wateringly early for a 10am event in Doncaster. Being ably introduced by a charismatic young librarian (the brother of a rock star, I was later informed) set the tone. I realised how in any artistic event the setting of a warm, open tone seems essential and humour perhaps a great enabler. Here the questions were almost all about my research experiences (in Russia and Morocco) in service of previous and future novels. I came to understand that the imperative to sell your recent product is not, and cannot be key. People understandably have a limited interest in that.
As the event progressed it became more and more about people sharing their experiences too, with it becoming very apparent to me that there is no real divide between writer’s whatsoever and we all struggle with the same issues of expressing our inner worlds. At the end of an event one very pleasant woman gave me a list of corrections she would like to make to my novel. Although I am unsure if this will be a component of the tour it didn’t dampen an interesting start to my itinerary.