There is a very funny book called HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR by Francis Plug (actually Paul Ewen). In it Francis Plug, a deranged, drunken gardener and putative author trawls round literary events, (focusing on Booker Prize winners), in order to gain tips about how to behave when his book is published. His journey is a sort of Dantean descent into hell. My feeling about it even though I am not an alcoholic gardener is, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ By the end he is snaffling as many as two bottles of free wine per event and his encounters with writers are becoming more and more chaotic. It seems that Paul Ewen did attend these events because all through the book are the title pages of books signed to Francis Plug by the likes of John Berger, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salmun Rushdie, etc, etc. I presume the encounters are made up but it is noticeable that all the authors are tolerant and friendly in the face of their surreal encounters with the deteriorating and unhinged Plug.
When I first met my editor he asked me if I was willing to do publicity for my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN and I thought it was very sweet of him to ask. I had assumed I had no choice in the matter. This is what you are expected to do now.
It is quite thrilling to discover that some writers won’t do it.
Italian writer Elena Ferrante was very clear that she had a choice and she made her stance clear from the beginning. Here she is in her book FRANTUMAGLIA writing to her publisher Sandra Ozzola, who had enquired what she intended to do to publicize her book, Troubling Love:
“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it … I believe that books once written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say they will sooner or later find readers; if not they won’t.”
LETTER DATED SEPTEMBER 21, 1991
Well, she couldn’t be clearer, could she? There is a part of me that loves this. My guess is that a great many authors would love to say this to their publishers but wouldn’t dare! And it has to be said that she’s right because her books which include the bestselling Neapolitan Quartet have certainly found their audience without her doing any personal publicity.
Putting on my reader hat, however, I really enjoy hearing my favourite authors talk about their books and it does make me buy them. At the Historical Novel Society conference last year two people who were outstandingly good at it were Melvyn Bragg and Tracy Chevalier. They both spoke fluently and entertainingly for about 40 minutes or so and then took questions. They were not being interviewed by anyone, they were not on a panel. It was simply them talking. I daresay it takes practice to be that easy in your own skin in front of a large audience. Many writers do not have that practice unless teaching, lecturing or broadcasting is part of their everyday existence, so then what do you do?
Quite a long time ago now I did a very good course run by The Society of Authors about giving an author reading. There were bits that involved breathing deeply and exercising the vocal chords. One of the most interesting bits was listening to someone reading out the same piece (I can’t remember what it was) at two different speeds. The idea being that you took on board how much easier it was to listen to the slower version. At the end we had to give a reading from our own work and all I can remember is the very nice woman who was teaching us saying, ‘Slower, slower, even slower, Vicky… Err, shall we start that again …’
There is a book I love called QUIET by Susan Cain. The subtitle of the book is :The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain admits that she had to persuade her publishers that she wasn’t so introverted that she would be unable to do publicity for the book. To any author out there for whom the idea of a public event holds as much pleasure as doing the Cresta run, I highly recommend CHAPTER FIVE: BEYOND TEMPERAMENT: The Role of Free Will (and the Secret of Public Speaking for Introverts).
Incidentally, one of the most interesting author events I went to was John Berger at the South Bank. The main thing that I remember was how much time he gave himself to think before he answered questions. No one I had ever seen on a public platform allowed themselves that much time to consider their reply. The silence that resulted was both impressive and disconcerting. He also had Tilda Swinton to read out his work. I can’t help feeling that all my problems relating to author events might possibly be solved if I could get Tilda to do that for me.
Now over to you – what have your experiences of going to author events been like? Are you more likely to buy the book of someone who you’ve heard talk about it? Or (and this is slightly more interesting and worrying for a writer) have you ever been actively put off a book by going to an author event?
P.S. It’s worth buying HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR for the author bio of Paul Ewen which has this gem: “His first book, London Pub Reviews, was called a cross between Blade Runner and Coronation Street.”