I was in Cockerton Library on Monday evening talking about the books and a year in the life of a author to an audience that included two of my old primary school teachers, my parents, old family friends and my childhood dentist. I’ve never had an audience with so much dirt on me.
I enjoyed it, and people were kind enough to say that I had come across very well. I got some laughs. At the end one lady came up to me and said she was a writer too, of sagas I think, wish I’d got her name, but she could never imagine getting up and doing a talk as I had just done. I told her I’d learnt to fake confidence as a TV director, which is perfectly true, but the question remains, how can we expect people who write for a living, that is people who volunteer to spend most of their time on their own, to suddenly become performers?
Publishers are kind, and I never felt there was a huge amount of pressure to do events, but the message was always there that to do such things is very useful for a writer. You are, in the early days of a career, in the business of building a readership, and events help with that. I feel very lucky to be published, so I feel I owe it to my publishers and to the book to do whatever I can to help promote the books. I am therefore always very happy to do this sort of thing, but I can’t say it comes naturally to me. Ned found this very hard to understand at first, he’s a natural performer and likes to be the centre of attention. I honestly do not. I am a sociable person, but that’s because I’m interested in people, not so much in talking about myself a lot.
Still, on talks, this is how I manage.
1. Be nice. It’s obvious, but it’s easy to find endless horror stories about authors being unpleasant or snobbish with organisers or book shop staff, or, equally, rude in their talks about other writers. Totally unproductive. If you’re not going to make a good impression on the people around you at an event it would be much better not to turn up at all.
2. Don’t read a prepared script. I think through what I am going to say, of course, and try and give the talk a good shape, and I can often be found an hour before a talk trying it out on Ned (and having a large gin). This was particularly true on Monday because lots of friends are loyal supporters and have heard me talk before, so I wanted to give them something fresh. There are a couple of reasons for the no notes thing. One is even while I am happy to do a talk, I do get nervous and I shake like hell when I’m nervous. If I am holding notes people will see them shivering and that makes them nervous too, and I get more and more self-conscious. Makes it hard for everyone. You have to act relaxed, so everyone else can be relaxed. The other is that just watching someone stand stock still and read is dull. If I have no notes to look at I can keep looking at the audience, see what elements of the talk they seem particularly interested in and respond.
3. Be entertaining. I spent a lot of time with books before I started writing them, but I had no idea what a life as a writer would be like. Specific stories, oddities, surprises and a sense of your own ridiculousness get you a long way. I love getting people to laugh. It’s not stand up, but the occasional ripple means people are listening and having a good time.
4. Not two gins, that would be foolhardy, but one gin before hand makes it easier for me to believe that the world is a benign and friendly place. That’s a good mood to be in.
5. Try and have Ned there. That works.