Last evening, as part of New Zealand Book Month celebrations, I was a guest author at the Lower Hutt Library. It’s been an amazing month so far, kicking off with Joy Cowley at Te Papa giving the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, an event that attracted almost two hundred people. Of course, Joy is greatly loved and revered by readers and writers alike. As the local Chair for the Wellington Branch of NZSA, I was involved with the promotion and organising of this event, albeit in a small way, because the prime movers and shakers are Nikki and Beth at New Zealand Book Month – not to mention the quietly efficient and extraordinarily helpful Jude Turner at Te Papa.
Not all authors are as fortunate as Joy, not all are as worthy. And when you are a lesser known author and invited to speak somewhere, there is always a little sense of panic that perhaps no-one will turn up.
Some of you may have read Mortification ‘Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame’ edited by Robin Robertson – the sometimes hilarious and sometimes very salutary tales by famous authors of their moments of mortification. My favourite is Margaret Atwood in the Hudson’s Bay Company Department Store in the Men’s sock and underwear department, at her first ever book-signing (The Edible Woman) surrounded by books and what she describes as “the sound of a muffled stampede as dozens of galoshes and toe rubbers shuffled rapidly in the other direction”. She evidently sold two copies of her book.
My own first mortification was also at the launch of my first novel About Turns. Our local bookshop Rona Gallery, who are tireless supporters of local literature, duly decorated their entire shop window with posters of me and my novel and set up a darling wee desk and chair right in the window as you came into the shop. There I sat one Saturday morning, my pen poised, surrounded by piles of books and a couple of curious customers who chatted about my book but didn’t buy. And then, in came the local butcher Barry in his striped apron and shorts. Barry is a tall man and not a small man and he cuts a dash in his shorts. It seems he had been sent dashing from his shop by one of my friends who told him “Maggie’s in an empty shop surrounded by books, go and buy one.” And so, my first sale was to Barry the butcher and I’ve never forgotten this. He’s famed for his bacon chops (Steve Braunias put them on the literary map) and of course, now I’m a loyal fan of bacon chops and my local butcher. And then I have to add, a very lovely neighbour rushed in, sent by his wife, to purchase a copy.
And so, last evening, setting off in my car on a wet cold evening I was bracing myself for the idea that there might well be no audience at all, apart from the generous Friends of the Library who had invited me to speak. Well, as it turned out, it was a small and intimate group, but a most enjoyable evening. Two loyal friends also turned up to support me and the audience were warm, receptive and flattering. I sold five books. Let me repeat. I sold five books. I had not expected to sell any books and especially not at the library!
My new novel, (first chapter), as yet unpublished, got an airing and seemed to be appreciated and we chatted informally at the end about libraries, publishing in general, the covers of books (oh that is a whole other blog some day) followed by a cup of tea and biscuits. What delight, when a young man (well young to me anyway) approached me to talk about both my novels (hooray, a reader) and we began talking about Adam from Turbulence and whether or not he was going to stay with Louise. Oh, there’s nothing a writer likes more than talking with someone about their characters in this way. To think that the character matters that much to someone, or that they care. He thought that Adam would get thrown over for one of the ‘suits’ eventually, once the girls left home. I agreed that might happen, but best of all, this reader wanted to know what happened with the strike on the bridge after Adam got home. A number of readers have told me they felt Turbulence ended too abruptly, and indeed, a friend phoned me to say she had really enjoyed it but the copy she purchased had pages missing at the end!
The same young man also didn’t like what happened to Paula in About Turns and tackled me on this topic. It’s quite startling to suddenly be re-engaging with your characters in this way. He said he’d really liked the book but couldn’t understand why I had to do that to Paula. I recall Iain Sharp’s review in the Sunday Star Times which was rather glowing, and he had felt the same. Of course, for me the Paula theme is central to the title About Turns but it’s always good to know what a reader thinks. And dare I suggest, that perhaps these two male readers were disturbed by something they couldn’t really believe in, whereas most of my women readers (well, the ones who spoke to me), got it.
And in the end, no mortification for me last evening, and instead a lovely local affirmation, a good conversation and for this, I must thank the Friends of the Lower Hutt Library. It is a very special feeling to be feted in the library, to know that your book is on the shelves and that sometimes it goes out the door under the arm of a hopeful reader. More even than on the shelf in a bookshop, this to and fro from a library of their book is I think the dream that most writers hold in their hearts.
I’ve added a link to a scathing review in the Guardian of the book ‘Mortification’ because it also lends a view to idea that writers are not actually due any sort of adulation and therefore probably deserve their moments of mortification – and to some extent, I can’t help agreeing. It’s the terrible tussle of ego, the wanting your readers to care, but in the end what really matters is whether they read your book, not whether they like you, or turn up to listen to you.