Saturday 23 February 2008

The Not So Secret Lives of Authors

In my previous blog entry I wrote about what authors get up to in private: hanging around the house in sweats, eating too much cheese, talking to themselves in the mirror. This blog entry will be about the public life of a writer: the interviews, the book signings, the literary festivals. Oh, yes. We are talking GLAMOUR.

My first book signing took place in Borders, Oxford Street in London, on a desperately cold and rainy Halloween. The event was billed as an evening of South African writing and two other South African writers – Deon Meyer and Gillian Slovo -- shared the gig with me. The idea was that we would not only sign books but do a reading and talk about our novels as well.

I was excited. I was really excited. It took me two hours to decide what to wear. Should I go for the bohemian writer look – ankle-length skirt, unstructured jacket, beads – or should I go for the sexy look – short skirt and well, short skirt? I chose sexy. The chairs they gave us to sit on were these low slung monstrosities where your seat almost touches the ground and your knees are pushed up to chin level. Ms Slovo, an old hand at these events, wore slacks and looked unruffled.

We had nine people in the audience: one agent, three long-suffering editors, my husband, the store manager, two people who were browsing the shelves (before deciding that the free South African wine on offer looked good) and one homeless guy. As the rookie, I was on last and when it came to my turn, we were down to six people. By the time I had finished my reading, we were down to five. The homeless guy had decided the rain outside was preferable to the boredom inside.

Book signings can be depressing affairs but if you mess up or don't sell any books, relatively few people are witness to your humiliation. Interviews? Now that's where it gets tricky. You can end up with the incestuously friendly interviewer who does not give you a chance to get a word in edgewise; the hostile interviewer whose goal it is to make you look stupid or my personal favourite: the interviewer who hadn't read your book -- this is when you know you are in for an adventurous time. My first novel, The Midnight Side, is a ghost story about two cousins. In one memorable radio interview – at least I will never forget it – the interviewer who had obviously read only the blurb, fixated on the word "cousins". Her first question to me was, "Could you please give us your views on family relationships in the twenty-first century?" Her second question was, "China's one child policy means children grow up without cousins. How do you feel about that?" As I was expecting questions on the topics of lucid dreaming and telephone calls from the dead, I found this line of questioning rather challenging.

Visiting book clubs are the promotional events I like best. They feed you and give you glasses of wine and everyone tells you how wonderful you are and how fascinating your book is. Most of the time, that is. At my last book club event one member complained that the characters in Season of the Witch were unrealistic. For those of you who haven't read the book, my characters are two sisters who live in Chelsea, do bungee jumping, practise witchcraft and pose in the nude. So I was rather baffled by this comment. When I told her that I bump into women like these every day on the King's Road and whenever I step into Peter Jones (department store on Sloane Square), she was not amused. When I added that I had not set out to write a kitchen sink drama, she became aggressive. (It later transpired that her favourite read was Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting.) Another member told me that the book "dipped" for her at one point. When I asked -- rather feebly -- where exactly, she snapped back: 'Well, you can't change it now, can you?' True, very true.

And then there are the literature festivals. How wonderful: a chance to exchange ideas with fellow writers and interact with eager fans. Admittedly, I have never been invited to Cheltenham or Hay-on-Wye; the kind of affair I get to go to is altogether more modest. But even high-profile authors cannot escape the low profile festival. If you look through the photographs in the revolving carousel on my page, you will find a pic, which shows me in the presence of two very well-known and successful authors: John Connolly and Paul Johnston. On this particular occasion (the venue was glamorous Clacton-on-Sea) the attendees were bussed in and their average age was around 80. But make no mistake, these ladies – and the odd gentleman – were avid readers and critical. They had all read our books before the event and were asked to fill in cards with their comments. One reader wrote the following about The Midnight Side: "Interesting story. Obviously written by a woman with a past." I took this as a huge compliment and ever since the card has been tacked up on the message board in my office.

My most cringe-worthy moment did not happen during a promotional event for one of my own books, however, but at a book signing by another author: none other than Ruth Rendell. As was expected, I bought a copy of her new book but also pulled from my handbag an older novel, which I had brought along specially for the occasion. Placing the book reverentially in front of her, I asked if she would please sign this copy for me, as it is one of my very favourite suspense novels. She opened the book on its title page and smiled gently. Yes, she agreed, PD James is one of her favourite authors as well.

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