Author On Tour 2
It was a glorious summery day yesterday in Somerset, which was just as well as it involved about seven hours’ travel to attend a literary festival in Yeovil. The oddest part of this already odd job is the juxtapositions it throws up. So, squeezed into a taxi with Michael Portillo and Mark Billingham (both big men) would have been unusual enough but we were in a pink vehicle advertising Yeovil’s Cinderella pantomime. I wondered if Michael had ordered it to match his trousers.
The events are organised by armies of volunteers who shepherd their confused, blinking attendees about. Below the auditorium stage in the green room, an unlikely mix of people sits munching biscuits and comparing notes about other places they’ve been like battle-scarred veterans talking about tours of duty. I bump into Joanne Harris and we compare notes; ‘Did you do Bath Spa yet?’, ‘No, next week.’ I quickly realise that I’m utterly left behind when it comes to bigger events; the authors talk of being sent to Rome and Dubai and Toronto. So far the furthest I’ve got is North Yorkshire.
The difference is simple to explain; when you write light-hearted books you don’t get the gravity of writing so-called ‘serious’ novel even if you cover serious themes – it’s one of the reasons why I’ve created a pseudonym, LK Fox, to produce more straightforward thrillers. ‘Little Boy Found’ will be out in paperback next year.
I team up with David Young, author of the excellent ‘Stasi Child’, and this on-stage interview becomes a friendly chat about writing techniques. Meanwhile another army of readers and, it must be said, gawkers who have come to simply see someone from the telly, assemble for the next session. This festival is offering a mix of familiar faces, from Paddy Ashdown to Harry Hill. Here, luck plays a part because multiple events are often scheduled at the same time, which decimates your audience.
An author I know had his very first book launch at a festival, but it was ruined by Neil Gaiman, who decided to pop in at short notice and do a signing. Neil had unwittingly picked the same time slot, and was not to know that the first-time author in the next room with the pile of books was tearing his hair out as the crowds filed passed on the way to the room next door.
Sometimes authors who live nearby step in to conduct interviews. I was lucky enough to get Lulu Taylor, taking time out from her own gothic-romantic suspense novels to do the honours. She kept the questions fresh and original. The audiences at these events can be astoundingly knowledgable and ask demanding questions during Q&As. In London, audiences are hard to please and sometimes difficult; I was heckled by drunks at one prestigious event, as if I was a stand-up.
In the larger towns you sometimes can’t help noticing that a large municipal venue has been constructed to encourage local arts but remains half-empty at best. It’s hard to lure people away from shopping to sit in an arts centre. The arts are in danger of being thought of as something that’s boring but good for you, like vitamins or the gym, and there’s usually an absence of males.
Yesterday our own Jan Briggs popped in for a chat. I met Polly Toynbee from the Guardian, and various authors who you’d introduce yourself by admitting, ‘I’ve not read your work.’ Sometimes you buy their books after, sometimes you don’t. Between gigs I wander the maze-like corridors of dressing rooms, noting who else has appeared here (there are always framed photos); Oh, One Direction, The Bachelors, Ken Dodd. Wherever you go, Ken Dodd has already been there, and usually quite recently.
I’d like to be invited to the Bangalore Literary Festival, or to Dublin or Madrid, but I’m just another English writer with no added-value TV strings to my bow. So now it’s back to the station, where I wait on a deserted platform and listen to sunset birdsong in the trees (only an hour and a quarter before the next train) and study the Hallowe’en display in the waiting room.