Plugging Into The Public

Reading & Writing

Wood Green Fest

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.

Photo 7

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!

13 comments on “Plugging Into The Public”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Ken Dodd does the same as you, only with jokes. He keeps files on which sort of jokes go best in different parts of the country and tailors his act accordingly. Having seen him in Blackpool, Hastings and Harrow, I noticed quite a few differences.

    I hope you don’t go on for so long, though, admin. The late Bob Monkhouse used to say you don’t use a clock to time Doddy’s act, you use a calendar.

  2. Brooke says:

    Re: shaking up the autumn events…have you tried having the audience do the work? Old trick used by us consultants to get paid.

    1) You probably have in your head every question about your characters, how you write, etc. Turn the questions around as quick exercises for the audience–e.g. think about a character, describe in 2 sentences. You can decide on the rules such as whether the audience shares (please, NO!) or not.

    2) Make the venue work for you. Can you (host and colleagues) hold events in interesting places that you can use as topics for audience to write about, as mystery, bodice ripper, whatever? E.g. for team building I use a “puzzle room,” where team is locked in and have to collectively solve a problem to exit.

    3) Use themes. Best locked room puzzles and how to write one. Best “alibi that depends on train schedules” mystery and the writing that makes it real. Most horrifying sci-fi theme that is now true and how to write futuristic stories.

    Thanks for the tip about “Disrupted.”

  3. admin says:

    Hi Brooke – Hmmm, making the venue work can be tricky. When I appeared at a youth centre in the North the first sign I saw was ‘Get Your Free Chlamydia Kit Here!’

    Brian – Ken Dodd said he’d be prepared to follow his audience home and shout jokes through their letterbox all night.

  4. Roger says:

    “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.”
    Perhaps there is space for a new kind of ghost-writer: not someone who writes their books for them, but someone who acts as their public persona. The writer stays behind the books; the “writer” comes out and turns on the charm and salesmanship.

  5. John Howard says:

    As a reader and admirer of authors generally because they can create worlds that are fun to visit and therefore are slightly awe inspiring and a partaker in works meetings / seminars, I think that there can be a collective audience embarrassment when it comes to participating. “Will they think the question i’m going to ask is rubbish, will I make myself sound silly if I speak up”, being a few of the reasons for hesitance.
    Maybe telling the audience from the start that all questions are welcome and no question asked is silly ( I’m sure you put that more tactfully ) might get tongues wagging.?

  6. Brooke says:

    What a great opening line–“get your free chlamydia kit..” for a really bizarre story..something written in the style of Hemingway. Imagine what the “youth” would have written. Well maybe you shouldn’t.

  7. Carol says:

    Did you make any time for us in the USA? You need marketing here. When someone asks “who are you reading”, and I tell them, they say “who is that,” (like I was reading someone obscure.) I explain, “if you like the English murder mysteries on PBS, you will love Christopher Fowler.” By the way, half way thru Strange Tide. I have to order from Amazon UK unless I want to wait half a year to get it here.

  8. admin says:


    It’s surprising how few really dumb questions you get at Q&As – the standard is usually extremely high, by which I don’t mean intellectually profound, just healthily curious – the opposite of something you’d hear on a chat show.

    And in Hollywood it’s not unusual for a writer to hire a younger ‘representative’ to do the pitch.

  9. admin says:

    It’s not a matter of making time, Carol; the days of the author book tour are over for non-US residents unless you have a film to go with your novels. I’ve never been invited on a stateside book tour in 30 years, and it’s not something you can organise by yourself.

  10. Brooke says:

    For USA fans, will you post events in advance? As the GBP falls (estimates to 1.2 to USD) we can hope and plan.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Either that or we could organise our own author tour and pass Chris from host to host. Most of us have been involved in organising events or know people who do and I know at least two as well as having been involved myself. Pick a time when Chris is between projects (hah!) or at least isn’t having to work flat out and see if we can’t expose him (and his spouse) to the best of North America.
    I know I’m fantasizing, but just planning a tour (3 weeks?) is rather fun. Sounds like the plot of a book, actually.

  12. Brooke says:

    Or how about a Skype with Chris. Less wear and tear on the author.

  13. Lisa says:

    Excise the word “kit” from that poster. Now you’ve got a great first line…

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