Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Meeting the Author

I've enjoyed going to book launches, signings and talks for a while now. Whether it’s Waterstones or the Southbank, an excuse for a country weekend, or my local library, I’m there flipping my note pad and swigging any wine that’s going.

The LRB Bookshop has the perfect format. It’s partly the type of book they publish that attracts me: political/travel/ historical fact, and 'serious' fiction. The organisation of events, too, is spot on. The small shop filled with rows of seats from counter to doorway has the intimate ambience of a fringe theatre. Even the technical side is expertly managed: no strained ears or whistling mics. It’s a formula that works: an introduction by an expert, usually some professor, who’ll give an overview of the genre and the writer’s career so far; an extract reading; presenter’s questions ; questions from the floor. Finally, there's the signing, which I must confess I usually skip.

Authors sometimes complain of the ‘media circus’ associated with publishing, the obligation to participate written into publishers’ contracts these days. You can’t blame them for diffidence; not every writer who routinely spends hours in a room with only a computer for company will suddenly adapt to conviviality and chat. It must seem daunting at first. When they've done a few, though, it's obvious they enjoy it. Why not, since the audience generally come to admire, as well as buy.

When two authors are combined it’s double the value. Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant, for instance, illustrated the difference between writing fictionalised biography and creating a ‘composite’ historical character, in Wolf Hall and Sacred Heart respectively. Joanna Burke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, spoke about historical fiction, its practitioners, fans and detractors. Most interesting for me were the writers' comments about their very different research methods. Sarah Dunant only gives up when she's compiled several notebooks and can't stand any more, putting them aside and trusting to memory with occasional checks. Hilary Mantel says she researches and writes concurrently. The discussion touched on other authors in the field, from Walter Scott to C J Sansom, and even TV representation of the Tudors.

What a contrast with Chinese dissident author Ma Jian on a previous occasion: ten minutes late, unsmiling and relying on wife/translator Flora Drew to communicate with the audience. For a student of the language like myself it was a treat to hear the spoken Mandarin and the translation but it made for a tedious session, I suspect, for most members of the audience.

He was there to promote his latest book Beijing Coma a fictionalised account of the 1989 Tianamen Square event, when Chinese students and other protestors were killed by the PLA, ordered to clear the area. The presenter, another professor, described it as 'a landmark novel'.

The author left the room immediately after the session, and I didn’t get a copy of the book. I re-read his earlier Red Dust, an account of fleeing Beijing to escape imminent arrest, and his journey to Tibet, fascinating as a portrait of China and encounters with isolated peoples, as well as for the author’s comments. Strangely enough, the experience of reading was enhanced by being able to visualise a younger version of the author on his travels.

So maybe it’s just the familiarising process that works and the publishers are right to insist on the author agreeing to appear in person.

LRB Bookshop: http://www.lrbshop.co.uk/


ireneintheworld said...

very interesting post shiela. i really enjoyed reading x

Sheila Cornelius said...

Glad you liked it, Irene. I think it was one of the best talks I've been to.