Michelle Shine, author of Skin Deep (Lovers’ Lies) puts her reader’s hat on and goes to other people’s readings and discussions …
Literature is the only art form where fans can regularly get up close and personal with someone who has delighted and entertained them. For the audience this is an incredible privilege with a financial cost of only a few pounds and very often just the price of getting to the venue. However, as the question and answer session gets underway, it can put the author in a vulnerable situation. I remember going to see Sarah Waters in conversation with Russell Celwyn-Jones at Birkbeck University. It was a huge auditorium. I would guess, perhaps five, six hundred people turned up. Things seemed to be going swimmingly until the microphone was taken to a lady at the back of the audience who said that she wanted to congratulate Sarah on a sex scene she’d written where one of the characters says to the other, ‘you’re so wet.’ Not a literary moment that Ms Water’s wanted to be reminded of as you could see by the reddening of her face, but nonetheless one that the woman found memorable, and wanted to share. Such is the arena that a writer enters into when they sign themselves up for such an event.
And sign themselves up they do. Everyone from Martin Amis to Caitlin Moran; lit-fests are not elitist affairs. They embrace writers of all genres. Personally, I am completely hooked. I love going along to these happenings whether they take place in the cool atmosphere of a tent in Charleston in Sussex that was once the home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant of the Bloomsbury Group, or at a school hall in Hampstead, London, or even a small local bookshop. The prospect of listening to an admired writer talking about their writing never fails to attract me. Memories of Andrew Miller languishing in the fruits of his own imagination whilst ruminating about the green suit bought and worn by Jean Baptiste-Baratte, his protagonist in the award-winning novel Pure was, in my view, not only memorable but also alluring. Or listening to Kate Atkinson who after an admission of aspiring to be a ‘romantic novelist’ answers a question that goes someway towards disputing this fact by plucking out a humorous line that could have been from a page in of one of her own novels. ‘Oh, but I am a romantic novelist!’ she said.
And in this way it appears to me that novelists are very special people. Brave characters who embrace humility, who take little conscious credit for their creations and when talking about the process of writing say things like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, or where things are going to go next. It’s all such a surprise,’ Kate Atkinson. Or ‘It’s like organised dreaming,’ Andrew Miller. As if writing is not something they actively do but something that happens to them.
Book signings at these events are de rigeur, so not only does a member of the audience come away with the feeling that they’ve just met an interesting and unpretentious new celebrated friend, but they also get the chance to own a handwritten dedication to them personally inside the front cover of one of the author’s bestselling works.
How can you compare this intimate experience with watching a favourite musician in miniscule dimension on the stage at Wembley as they shout across the vast auditorium, ‘Hello London,’ or the fleeting moment when a movie star wafts past you on the red carpet outside Leicester Square, or even the complete absence of an artist’s presence when viewing an exhibition of their work at a major gallery? You can’t. In my experience, being in the presence of a writer who is open and generous with their time has never been a let down and is a much more fulfilling experience, something that should be taken full advantage of whilst the tradition still exists, a real opportunity.
Which books have you read recently? Whose imagination has turned you on? If the work is recently published, the chances are the author will be coming to a venue near you in the not too distant future. It’s definitely worth checking out.
© Michelle Shine/ Arachne Press 2013