Usually, when a novel comes out I’ve found you have about six weeks. Six weeks of daily notifications on Twitter telling you about a new review. Six weeks of your publisher asking you to be interviewed by this blog, or this magazine. Six weeks of getting the buzz of seeing your shiny new tome prominently displayed on the shelf at Waterstones. Then, (unless there is some unexpected surprise further down the line) a subtle but pronounced fade in the attention your book gets. For my latest novel, An Honest Deceit, it has happily been a different experience.
The novel was published in October 2016, but last year I was delighted and honoured to be told it had been selected for New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign, along with a host of great titles. Having had to keep this news buttoned for the best part of the year, at the start of 2018 a photo-shoot and publicity campaign took place before the news was announced. A tour of author events at various Northern libraries for the writers involved was planned.
The author event. That mercurial entity where the audience expects magic from the author and the author somehow expects…well, if not magic, then what? Some kind of connection with an audience? An audience they would otherwise experience only through Amazon reviews?
In March, my 2018 Read Regional tour began with Darlington and Doncaster. My sole experience of Darlington has, fittingly enough, been at a literary reading in an admittedly enchanting café to two (it might have been three) people before being ejected into the rain and enduring a long wait on a cold train platform. Probably ideal preparation for the start of a book tour actually, because it is unlikely it will be as tough as that. Without wanting to slip into exaggerated recollections the experience was, on the whole, a lot more pleasant than that.
A full room with about a third of people having read the book and armed with specific questions or (in one case) passages they’d like you to read. For any budding artist the question of how to handle an event around your work- be it an exhibition, book launch, or reading- is an intriguing one.
The idea of turning up and gorging yourself on a ego fest of reading excerpts you fondly imagine to be your creative ‘greatest hits’ appeals to me only a very little, and to audiences even less. What is curious to me is how a room of people will find a compromise and a common ground. As I discussed recently over a beer with my publisher, different events seem to require different facets of your work to be shared. To the reader unfamiliar with your work, the opening of a story can be arduous but one way to avoid lots of explanation. To a room you need to win over, a dramatic scene can work well and too much explanation isn’t required. And to people who know your book, or who are writers themselves, a much more layered scene, full of undercurrents about your characters’ inner worlds can be best. I ended up doing a blend of both, with gaps filled in by questions from aspiring writers. How do you research a novel? What kind of pressure from publishers is there to change your story to fit the market? How long did it take you to write (the subtext from the questioner clearly being ‘will I ever finish my novel?) Being confronted with strangers who expect something from you, and people who’ve read your book was a slightly challenging but ultimately very rewarding experience. But one, I have to admit, that left me with a sense of exhilarated unease. I expect it will never go away. To prepare for the tour, I saw Matt Haig host an author event at Waterstones in Newcastle and he was very articulate and honest about the inherent sense of absurdity that must be overcome in these events for the author before a connection with the audience can be forged.
A couple of days later, I was up eye-wateringly early for a 10am event in Doncaster. Being introduced by a charismatic young librarian (the brother of a pretty famous British rock star, I was later informed) set the tone. I realised how in any artistic event a warm and open setting seems essential and humour perhaps a great enabler. Here, the questions were almost all about my research experiences (in Russia and Morocco) in service of previous and future novels. I came to understand that the imperative to sell your recent ‘product’ is not, and cannot be key. Understandably, people have a limited interest in that.
As the event progressed, it became more and more about people sharing their experiences too. It became very apparent to me that there is no real divide between writers whatsoever and we all struggle with the same issues of expressing our inner worlds.
These events so far have certainly whetted my appetite for the Read Regional dates to come.
To see all of Guy Mankowski’s Read Regional dates and to find out more about An Honest Deceit, click here.