Monday, 9 July 2007

Meet the author? Maybe.

When I first started out on this writing lark, no-one warned me that not only would I have to produce wonderful books that had to be sure-fired best-sellers to even stand a chance of being published - but that I would have to turn my skills to pr and promotion, self-publicity and public speaking. By nature the writer is a solitary being. She or he sits alone for hours staring at a computer, or lost in a world that only they can inhabit. Their world is in the imagination - the real one either doesn't come up to scratch, or they simply prefer the one they've invented because with the press of a button someone really irritating can be erased. Therefore it is daunting to be faced with the prospect of meeting strangers, or standing before an audience who have come to listen to your words of wisdom, and hopefully not start chucking things at you when they get bored. This hasn't happened to me yet, although an elderly lady did once drop off to sleep and fall off her chair with a mighty crash in the middle of a women's institute talk that I did. It took some time to get her off the floor, and luckily she wasn't hurt, but it brought a dramatic end to my talk as everyone went off for a cup of tea.
I have been in this business for almost twenty years now, and have learned to take deep breaths, to remind myself that I am giving a performance, and that the audience is there because they want to be, and not just to chuck eggs and shout derision. I find it fascinating that people actually want to hear what I have to say - that they are interested in my travels and my research, and in the influences that have inspired me to become an author. But there are pitfalls, and when doing a 'meet the author,' session I have learned that I should never take anything for granted - to show no reaction such as shock or dismay, and to smile sweetly however sorely tried by the one person who tells me proudly that they have never read my book, let alone any other, but they want to talk endlessly about an idea they've had for a book of their own. This is where bookshop managers come in very useful, steering them politely to one side after a few minutes so that others can take their turn.
I have done signings all over England and Australia, and have discovered that the only thing I can expect is the unexpected. Here are some examples.
Alice Springs is a pleasant little town in the heart of Australia. The main street still looks much as it did in the early days, with the locals sitting in the shade of the trees and passing the time of day. I had driven down from Darwin on my way to Uluru - Ayers Rock - and was asked to do a book signing in the large bookstore on the main street. I arrived on time, suitably attired in a cotton dress which kept me cool in the blistering heat. The manageress met me with a smile and a long glass of iced water, but there was an edge to her smile, and she looked a bit shifty as I glanced around at the empty shop. Where is everyone? I asked, for I had never seen a place so deserted before - I thought I might get one man and his sheep dog, but no sign of either. 'Oh, they won't come in now you're here,' she said breathlessly. Her blue eyes were definitely avoiding me now and she seemed desperate to tidy up the already neat pile of books stacked up on the table.
I tried not to look too stunned by this announcement, but I knew my smile was faltering. 'Why?' I dared to ask - knowing I shouldn't, but unable to resist.
'People are shy around here,' she explained. 'They feel intimidated by someone famous like you. But they're all outside somewhere, just waiting for you to leave so they can come in and buy your books.'
Okay, I've heard it all now. I peer through the window, spot several likely looking customers hanging about and wonder what they would do if I suddenly shot out of the shop and approached them. I decide it's too hot to do anything so rash, sign all the books she's put out for me and take my leave. From the safety and anonymity of my car I watch as a slow trickle of people emerge from surrounding shops and cafes and from under the trees to go into the bookshop. The trickle becomes a flood, and I'm gratified to see that when they re-emerge, they are carrying plastic bags that are obviously filled with books. I just hope they were mine.
The Outback is a wonderful place, filled with marvellous people who love the peace and tranquility and live out their lives in one of the harshest places on the planet. They are shy, yes. Friendly and warm once you get to know them, and I can understand why they might find me a bit odd - for goodness sake, my husband finds me odd at times, so why shouldn't they?
On the tablelands of Queensland, up near Kuranda, I had been asked to speak to a group at the library. It was summer, and of course there had been tropical rain falling gently onto the verdant palms throughout the night and that morning. With overcast skies and the humidity steadily rising, I drove to the library expecting perhaps five or six people waiting to hear what I had to say. I was met by the librarian who was in a definite twitter. 'Would you mind waiting for a bit? Only the Mayor and the town council are in session and they want to come and hear your talk.'
I begin to feel nervous, something all too familiar. They offer me a drink, and I decline. Nerves and the necessity to give a speech don't mix well with alcohol - but I have to admit, a gin and tonic would have gone down very well by then. The library is new and vast and fantastically stocked - but outside in the garden there is a shock waiting for me. Row upon row of seats have been placed on the patio. A lectern and microphone put carefully at the front. The nerves are really kicking in as the Mayor and the counsellors arrive and photographs are taken for the press. I can hear a low hum of noise coming from outside, and as the Mayor, who was very gallant, steered me towards it, I realised that there had to be two hundred people waiting for me. Thank goodness I didn't have that drink. Two hours later I finally come to the end of the talk and the questions that follow. Almost dropping with nerves and the adrenaline that has been pumping through me, I realise that actually I enjoyed it - that the audience enjoyed it - and that I'm getting the hang of this public speaking at last. But oh, for the safety, silence and solitude of my office where I can dream and drift and let my imagination run riot.