Two years ago I was at the Mantova Literary Festival to promote the Italian translation of The View from the Tower (Occasioni di Morte, published by Voland). I was talking with Marcello Fois, the Sardinian novelist and journalist Carlo Annese, and I was struck, as ever, by the gap between writing a book and having to talk about it or, even worse, talk about issues that relate in some distant way to the perceived themes of the book. You have a female narrator? So what’s your view on women in modern society generally? Part of the book deals with the Red Brigades? So what do you think about the threat of Daesh? And so on. At the end of the event, the audience was told that copies of our latest books were on sale and that both authors would be delighted to sign them. A line immediately formed in front of Marcello Fois, a considerably shorter one in front of me. When I’d finished signing and Marcello still had a score or so to deal with, a woman detached herself from his line and came across to me. She told me how much she’d enjoyed the evening and then gave me a copy of Marcello’s latest novel. ‘Could you sign this for me?’ she asked. ‘But it isn’t my book,’ I told her. She looked across at Marcello’s line and shrugged. ‘That’s all right,’ she said. ‘You’re a writer too, aren’t you?’ Reader, I signed it.
Encouraging people to actually buy your work is a funny business. At Mantova I was promoting a book I’d written in another language some eight or nine years earlier. I’ve written four or five other novels since then, a dozen or so short stories, a memoir, all of them fresher in my mind than The View from the Tower, but none of that had to appear to matter. I revised the novel beforehand as though I were about to be examined on it, as, in a way, I was. And, as with exams, there’s always a moment at events like this when a crucial bit of information simply refuses to make itself available. The brain shuts down around it like a startled clam and refuses to open up. Christopher Isherwood talks about a university exam in which he had to write an essay about the dissolution of the monasteries and, terrifyingly, couldn’t remember who was on the throne at the time. Resourcefully, he opted for ‘the monarch’. I had a similar problem with the husband of my protagonist until Carlo, an exceptional host and an all-round good guy, slipped me the name in a question.
Other events are less nerve-wracking, because all that is generally required of me is to read a paragraph or two, stay sober and not write utter nonsense in the copies people ask me to sign. I generally manage to do this, although I remember a Picador event in the Charing Cross Waterstone’s some years ago at which a young man called Felix gave me a copy of my first novel Little Monsters to sign. I burbled on for a bit – no, I was completely sober – about how much I liked the name Felix, and the etymology of it and how Faustus also meant ‘happy’ and then wrote, and I blush to admit this, To Felix, I hope you have lots of it. He looked at the dedication, perplexed. I mean, er, happiness, I said. I hope you have lots of happiness. Thank you, he said, and moved off rapidly. If you’re reading this, Felix, I apologise with all my heart.
Usually though, I keep myself in check with two simple rules. Drink no alcohol until the signing is over and keep the dedication simple. Although I sat next to Ben Okri at a signing table a couple of years ago and felt utterly humbled as he dedicated books with the kind of creativity and enthusiasm that can’t be learned or imitated, that’s just part of the man. Chapeau, Ben.
My favourite launches are the ones that take place in bookshops because, in my experience, they work in the same way as previews at art galleries. People take a rapid glance at the pictures and books that are being offered to the world, to justify their presence, and then get down to the serious business of networking and drinking. The author, whose aims are identical, relaxes and only occasionally glances across to the pile of copies near the till as – he hopes – it shrinks to nothing. In Rome, I’m lucky enough to have the Almost Corner Bookshop, a genuine haven. In London, I’ve been hosted by the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill (yes, that bookshop) and, more recently, by Belgravia Books, also the home to Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau and the publishers of my last novel, The Children’s Home, and my new book, out in October, called Two Dark Tales.
The book contains, as the title would suggest, not one but two creepy novella-length tales and should liven up your Halloween experience no end. It’s what is known as a tête-bêche edition, which means that you’ll find one story at the front and the other at the back, so to speak, by flipping the book and turning it upside down. Or vice versa. Fittingly, for a beast that has neither beginning nor end, it’s a format that’s often used for fantasy and horror, so it couldn’t be more suited to these two stories. Jack Squat is the title of one, as you can see here, and yes, there is a snake involved. The other story is called The Niche and if you want to see the cover of that one, if only to see what you’re letting yourself in for, you may just have to buy the book.
Now that’s what I call promotion!