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Can you hear me at the front? Going on tour at Hay [May. 26th, 2009|04:44 pm]
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I’m on the early train to Hereford, for this year’s Hay-on-Wye festival, nauseous from too much coffee and a certain amount of nerves.

I’m three weeks from publication of the new novel and it seems that every day brings some new opportunity to say the wrong thing in front of a very small number of people.

The first words I always expect to hear at a reading are ‘Would everyone like to move down the front, please?’ Six years ago, shortly after publication of my first book, I travelled to a bookshop in Bournemouth, only to be told by the manager that they hadn’t managed to give away - give away - a single ticket, but not to worry because the bookshop staff were going to pretend to be the audience. The audience were literally being paid to hear me read. I hope that they were at least on time-and-a-half.

Even at a literary festival, there is always the anxiety that no-one will turn up. Just three weeks ago I spoke about adaptation with two other writers in a marquee in the pouring rain. The marquee was a cavernous affair of the kind that is usually found at society weddings, with seating for two hundred and fifty people. Twenty-five people were there, damp but enthusiastic, and we spoke and chatted and answered questions, some of which were a little eccentric (‘Do you think, as a rule, that writers are good at drawing?’). I sold perhaps six books.
It isn’t always like this. I once did a reading at a literary festival in Cologne for two-hundred people, which is practically Wembley Stadium for me. As my publisher explained, listening to an author read is a serious business in Germany, and a reading isn’t a reading unless it lasts at least an hour. But even with the constant pausing for translation, the audience were responsive and engaged. Defying national stereotypes, they laughed a great deal, even at jokes in a second language, and the whole experience was completely exhilarating, the nearest I’ve ever come at a reading to punching the air. The tour rolled on, and the next evening in Hamburg I read for nine people in a four-hundred seat theatre.

But afterwards, I talked with the same nine people in the bar, and it was fun to see Hamburg and to spend time with my publisher, and I was glad that I had come. Like a sixteen year-old’s birthday party, it’s tempting to see the attendance at a reading as a barometer of your popularity, and I suppose in a sense it is. But even when the crowd is small, I usually find that I’ve enjoyed myself. Selling ten books might seem like a small return for the hours spent, but if those readers enjoy the books, and recommend them to other people, then it has been worthwhile. In this respect, reading in public is a kind of low-tech viral marketing. I’d quite happily read to one person if I thought they were interested, though I would still want my train fare paid for.

Perhaps a less appealing truth is that I like the sound of my own voice. Throughout my twenties I was a professional actor, specialising in non-speaking servants and animals, and I once spent a year of my life in a play in which I spoke six words. Acting is not an obvious career choice for the chronically shy, so I ought to confess a certain amount of satisfaction if a joke gets a laugh, or if no-one reads their newspaper while I’m talking. I also take a childish delight in staying in hotels. All those towels. Breakfast buffets.

In this respect, I’m a sort of anti-JD Salinger. Despite my anxieties, I will go practically anywhere. Because writing a book is so lonely that any contact with readers is invaluable. A playwright or screenwriter can always slip into the back of the auditorium and watch the audience’s response, but reading and writing are entirely solitary acts, self-contained acts, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine that anyone at all is actually enjoying the thing that you’ve just spent three years creating.

I’m writing this on the morning after my reading at Hay. The crowd was respectable – forty or so perhaps – but they laughed at the jokes and didn’t shift about too much, and I sold some books too. At breakfast this morning, returning from the buffet for the fourth time, I overheard an illustrious Booker nominated literary novelist anxiously asking her publicist how many tickets she had sold – two hundred in a four hundred seater. Not bad. She seemed relieved, and I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed to know that the anxiety doesn’t go away.

So I went back and got a little bit more bacon.

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