Plugging Into The Public
Church hall. Rainy Sunday. Hardly any audience. We’ve all been there (luckily the very funny Lloyd Shepherd was there).
Every author will tell you the same thing; in general, meeting the public is a fantastic experience, but every now and again you get someone who makes you question why you bother. I once had a drunk approach me at my own launch and say, ‘I loved your first book. Everything you’ve written after that is shit. And you’re a lot older than I thought you’d be.’
You take it in your stride. Most people are utterly charming. Online conversations can be a little trickier if you mention politics (as I recently found), but most people have an opinion you can appreciate and work with. A woman on this site got upset with me and vowed to never read another word. I contacted her privately and we discussed politics for a week or so, until we could see each other’s point of view. Isn’t that what social networking is for?
Similarly I once spent a week on a boat with an American lady who said ‘I’m a hard-right Republican and I’m intelligent. We may never agree but let’s discuss our views over a bottle of wine.’ It was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating evenings I had that year.
Some people have a strange view of authors, thinking we’re disconnected from reality or the public, that we’re rich and live in ivory towers, all notions we’re quick to disabuse them of. I’ve been on panels when another author has quickly lost their audience and have felt hostility rise like a wall. Worst of all is the lecturing author who has a set speech that’s trotted out irregardless of the audience. This is what some readers think our lives are like.
Before I do a public appearance I always take careful note of who I’ll be talking to. I try to figure out what they hope to get from the event. When I was invited to give a luncheon speech in Yorkshire I talked about regional authors, funding and Northern writing groups. Research before an appearance is simple good manners.
The risk is growing older and listening less. At one dinner I sat next to a Famous Author who held court at great and boring length without once asking anything about his listeners. I came away resolving to not bother reading his new book. Similarly I did a panel with a lady who announced herself as ‘the Queen of historical crime’, and ignored everyone else all night.
JK Rowling is probably the author who has presented herself best in public, clearly connecting thoughtfully with her readers. Some writers don’t want to speak of themselves at all, but with social media we are all required to step out from behind our books.
There’s one rule to all of this; an author will usually reveal their true colours, whether s/he means to or not. You can sense the person behind the narrative and it’s up to you to decide if you want to read on. This is who I really am.
I’m currently reading Dan Lyons’ ‘Disrupted’, about a 52 year-old man’s misadventures working in a young persons’ profession, a tech start-up. He’s a fair-minded, reasonable man who sees his co-workers ignoring his expertise because of his age, and it all rings painfully true. Admittedly the book is biographical but even in fiction you find clues – the roman a clef.
It’s fairly obvious from my books that I’m a liberal with a sense of humour, but I am not remotely like any of my characters, and people are often surprised by the disparity.
While I love doing festivals, panels, signings and interviews I often wish we could change the format to make it more informal – they do feel restrictive sometimes. If the purpose is to have public contact, then that’s what we should be doing – making real connections, not just promoting books. I once sat next to an author who had a huge pyramid of his books on the table in front of him, and kept running his hand down the side of the stack like a quiz show assistant presenting prizes. He’d clearly attended some kind of sales course and had been taught to mention his new novel every ten seconds by the title.
As I’m putting together the autumn events schedule, I think we need to shake up the format of such events – any advice welcome!