Category Archives: Bookshops

Brush Back with Sara Paretsky

If I’d had one of those buttonhole cameras I’d have taken a photo of Sara Paretsky as she gave me that searching look after signing my copy of Brush Back at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh last night. But I didn’t, which is a shame because she looked particularly pretty and happy at that point. I, in turn, got all tongue-tied and eloquently uttered ‘what?’ like the teenager I’d turned into.

Sara Paretsky

Oh well, I don’t think I had spinach between my teeth, and I hope there will be a next time when I might have grown up a little. It’s a blessing that Sara has friends near Edinburgh and that she was willing to break her holiday to meet her fans for an extra early book launch, and that Blackwell’s Ellie had had the good sense to snap her up. (There would have been Harrogate, but it’s another of those things I’ve cancelled, so this was a most welcome break for me.)

Sara Paretsky, Brush Back

And for many others. There were lots of chairs set out, and then there was floor space to stand on or stairs to sit on, because Sara has masses of fans, most of them women who don’t look like they go round murdering people. Or not much.

As Sara was being introduced, she squeezed past where I was sitting on one of the comfy sofas and rested briefly on the armrest (something that slim people can get away with), before standing in front of us saying she hoped we’d have a good time, herself included.

Sara Paretsky

Normally she starts a book because she has a crime she wants to write about, but this time Sara was wanting to set a story at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs* ‘pretend to play baseball.’ Having had Harrison Ford beat her to a chase scene somewhere else in Chicago, she wanted to get in and write about Wrigley Field before Harrison got there. Built in 1923 from poured concrete it is virtually indestructible (although I imagine V I Warshawski could have something to say about that), to the extent that rumour has it there is a toilet which has not been flushed since 1927. After reading the first chapter, she invited us to ask questions, warning us that as an author of fiction her answers could be fiction too.

Sara Paretsky reading from Brush Back

The first questions was what she thought of the film. Not much, is the short answer, but Sara told us much more. In effect she has signed away the rights to her character, and Disney – who own V I – once phoned her regarding ‘a product of theirs that Sara had once been involved’ with…

But it got V I attention, Sara had the opportunity to tread the sacred grass at Wrigley Field; even running the bases. And falling on the home plate. Kathleen Turner also bought Sara and her husband Courtenay dinner, handing Courtenay her private phone number.

Sara Paretsky

The next question was about Totall Recall, which was a very personal book for Sara, featuring Lotty in 1930s London. She’d have loved to write more on London in the thirties and forties, but reckoned it’d be hard to get right. The book came out in America on September 4th 2001, with a reader contacting her to ask who the Taliban were.

Sara Paretsky

Asked how V I came to her, Sara said she’d been fantasising about turning the tables on old style hardboiled crime, and her first character, Minerva Daniels, was much harder than V I. Sara realised after a while that she didn’t want Philip Marlowe in drag, but a woman like herself and her friends who say what they mean.

The final question was one Sara mentioned she’d just answered on Facebook (which I’d seen), about how long it takes her to write a novel. Between nine and 24 months, with research, meaning it’s anything between a human pregnancy and that of an elephant. Sara has been working four months on her next book, and has 16 usable pages. She has an uneasy feeling this one is an elephant baby.

With Sara you always get nice, long answers to your questions, even though she apologised for the length. (It’s good to go in-depth and find out more!) But very sensibly the talk had to end giving Sara enough time to sign a lot of books. You can’t have too much queue left when the shop closes. As I already had my copy, I jumped in early. And then I did that juvenile thing… Sigh.

Sara Paretsky

*Apparently they are ‘over 500,’ which is the same as winning the World Cup, which Sara knows is as incomprehensible to us as cricket is to her. And to me.

Manchester Children’s Book Festival 2015

Oh, how I miss them! That’s Draper and Tew, of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. They – and their festival – could almost have made me not move away. And as soon as I moved, they decided they could just drink lots more coffee and they’d be able to put up a festival every year.

Kaye Tew

Hmph! It’s too late to move back. However, I will make it there before this year’s festival is over. I will, I will.

Unfortunately, I will also have to miss a lot of good stuff before I get there. Like Liz Kessler launching her Read Me Like a Book, again. This time in the company of none other than Carol Ann Duffy. That could actually be quite good.

Did I mention it starts on Friday this week, on the 26th? Before that they have some trailblazers during the next few days. On Saturday 27th it’s the Family Fun Day, with Steve Hartley, Ruth Fitzgerald and Matt Brown.

More bookish events on the Sunday, before the Monday 29th Liz Kessler event. During the week there will be lots to do, including Alex Wheatle, Alex Scarrow and Sam & Mark, who I don’t know at all, but understand I should know…

Then we have the poetry weekend 4th and 5th July, when Mandy Coe will simultaneously be at two local bookshops (as if I believe that!). Meanwhile at the library and at Waterstones more poetry will be flowing, and James Dawson, the reigning Queen of Teen, will appear on Saturday afternoon.

James Draper

I have probably missed something off, but that’s because I’m missing Kaye and James. And you won’t mind me posting ‘library’ photos of them from last year, because it’s all I have, and anyway, they will be needing that coffee. I think I might label the last photo James and the Giant Coffee. That’s literary enough.

Forget about the red carpet; and just put a reserved sign on the chair at the back, please.

What can you say?

Daughter was browsing in Toppings in St Andrews a few weeks ago, when a young teenage girl and her mother came in. The girl looked around and noticed a copy of Celia Rees’ Witch Child, which seemed to have some significance to her. So she picked it up and handed it to her mother, presumably in the hope that she’d be allowed to buy it.

The mother looked at the cover and read the blurb on the back and looked inside the book, before telling the girl it wasn’t a book for her.

So, what should this Witch’s Daughter have done? She badly wanted to tell the mother that she had just rejected a tremendously good book, and that the girl had excellent taste, and should be allowed to read what she wanted.

But she didn’t dare interfere. Perhaps rightly so.

I’d like to think if I was that mother, I was simply making a rash decision from a quick look, and that I wasn’t involved in any serious gatekeeping regarding my child. That if another young person stood there and said they loved the book, I would change my mind and buy it.

But what if she was a strongly minded gatekeeper? Then she’d look a fool, and might feel forced to either buy the book, or to stomp out of the shop in anger.

And would this kind of advice or suggestion be better coming from a ‘recent teen’ reader, or from a trustworthy adult who is also a parent?

Coffee, beer and a book launch

You’ll have to excuse me, but I saw so many authors on Thursday that I am unable to list them all here. Not because the list would be too long, but simply because I no longer recall absolutely everyone, nor did I necessarily see or recognise them in the first place. But if you were there, tell me and I will add you to the list.

I had crawled out of bed to go and have ‘coffee’ with Marnie Riches who was also in town. She’d been doing her own book related things the night before, and was now up for grabs while on her way to CrimeFest via Paddington. We chatted and drank ‘coffee’ and then I accompanied her to her train and made sure she got on it, to join her murderously minded colleagues in Bristol. (I provided her with a secret list of who to talk to there, but I doubt she’ll obey.)

After some admin and a good rest (because having ‘coffee’ is hard work…), I packed my going to do an interview and going to a book launch bag and went off to Hampstead in the rain.

Anthony McGowan's beer

First I did a recce at my second Waterstones in two days, before walking uphill (they have some surprisingly steep hills in Hampstead) to a very old pub suggested by Anthony McGowan as a suitable venue for me to grill him on all kinds of authorly secrets. He was right; it was a good place to go, even if there was a slight but steady drip of water from the skylight above me. Before leaving for the book launch we were going to, Tony took his t-shirt off, but that wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

He brought me along the scenic route to Waterstones, and we encountered new author Nicole Burstein in a café across the road, and she came along as well. And then everyone started the game of turning their books face out on the shelves. Nicole’s bookshop past also meant she had to tidy all the book piles on the tables, and I have to admit it’s hard to resist…

Caroline Green, Rachel Ward, Joy Court and Anthony McGowan at the Read Me Like a Book launch

Laura at the Read Me Like a Book launch

More and more authors kept arriving at the shop, and even a few ordinary people. Liz Kessler, whose launch it was – for Read Me Like a Book, arrived accompanied by her wife. Before long the upstairs at Waterstones was full of guests, and after a while it was just about too crowded to move about and take photos of people, because there was always someone else ‘in the way.’ But believe me when I say they were all there.

Read Me Like a Book launch

There were drinks, and there was the most enormous cake. And you can’t celebrate a novel like this without some speeches. Orion’s Fiona Kennedy spoke of her decision to publish Liz’s book; because she ‘didn’t want anyone else to have it.’

Read Me Like a Book launch

Liz herself talked about why she wrote Read Me Like a Book, and how things on the lgbt front have changed over the last twenty years or so. She thanked all the people in her life who had made the book possible, from her former English teacher, to her wonderful agent and her publisher, to her wife.

She read a chapter from the book, where Ashleigh stays behind to talk to her English teachers, just because she needs to.

Liz Kessler at the Read Me Like a Book launch

Finally there was a short speech from Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall. And I believe there was even a little time left for the buying and signing of books

‘Extraordinary tellers of stories’

Daniel Hahn had trouble getting his tongue round the above words, but as he said, it might have been worth the wait. It was.

The witch travelled yesterday. Remind me not to do that again. Ever. There was a major IT hitch on almost all fronts on arrival in London, but if you are reading this, then it ‘solved itself.’ You know, sort of putting petrol in your mobile phone kind of thing.

OK, so you’re at Waterstones piccalilli (I thought Anne Rooney was being funny, but it seems she just suffered predictive texting) and you’re there to hear Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman tell Daniel Hahn anything he asks. Who – apart from your good self – will be in the audience? Anne Rooney was there, and so was Celia Rees, without whom I wouldn’t have known this was even on. Thank you! And then there was the lady in the row in front of me (i.e. second from the back), Judith Kerr. That’s what I call class.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

(And before I forget, please let me mention how friendly and helpful the organisers were. They were friendly and helpful. I was trying to do really weird things with tickets and then it turned out to be dead easy, and they were pleased that my friend was Anne Rooney.)

I very nearly sat down on the chairs where Penelope and Philip went to sit before going ‘on stage’ so it was lucky I didn’t. I’ve not seen Philip for almost three years. I’d hazard a guess that he hasn’t seen his barber since then either. Very cool.

In his introduction Daniel Hahn reflected that when he grows up he will become Penelope Lively. I think this was based on the fact that all three of them either are or have been something great in the Society of Authors. And he listed their books, making a wild guess that if we wanted to buy any, then Waterstones probably had them somewhere in their shop.

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Penelope seems to be proof that home education works, since that’s what she got as a child in Egypt. She read a lot. By WWII, Arthur Ransome’s books had arrived in Cairo, and all those lakes and all that rain seemed like fantasy. Later on she was sent to boarding school, where punishment for bad behaviour was an hour’s reading in the library. Both she and Philip are of the opinion that the kind of reading you do as a child is something you’ll never get back.

Philip learned how big the world is on his many trips round the globe by boat. He read the Just So stories, Noddy and comics (they were allowed in Australia, apparently), and he read Moomin in Battersea library. He needs the rythm of words, and when he’s writing he can’t tolerate music. Penelope agreed about rythm, and often reads her writing out loud to see if it works.

Penelope Lively

Her writing career came from her obsessive reading. She writes less these days, but always writes something. Philip compared the early days when he worked as a teacher all day, and still was able to write at night. Now he manages his three pages per day, but that’s it. (And no, no one asked about the Book of Dust.)

While Penelope generally knows what is going to happen in a book, Philip writes ‘in the dark’ and is quite opposed to planning. Daniel wanted to know if they are optimists, despite last week’s [political] results, and they are. Both agreed that stories are a human necessity and always will be. Both prefer paper books, and Philip pointed out it’s so difficult to dry your Kindle if you drop it in the bath, with thousands of books on it.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Philip reckons that the good thing about the very large publishing companies we have today, is that their sheer size means there is room for smaller publishers in the holes between them. And that’s good.

Philip Pullman

Book festivals and book groups are new concepts for authors, and Philip likened author events to a roadshow, but without the possibility of filling large arenas or selling any merchandising. Although Daniel tried to suggest we could buy some HDM hats afterwards…

A book that really affected them when they were young, was a version of Robin Hood where Robin dies, for Philip, and Nicholas Nickleby for Penelope. The reason Philip introduced daemons in HDM was to make it easier to write; it was his version of Raymond Chandler’s idea of introducing a man with a gun whenever necessary.

Diversity is obviously important; it’s what you seek in books. Both to find yourself in the book, as well as learning about others. Neither of them writes a last page or chapter to use as a goal for their writing. Penelope might have an important scene, whereas Philip writes in the order you read, and he knows when he gets to the end.

He is superstitious and prefers to write at his own table, with all his ‘lucky’ things around him, although he has written in many different places too. Except in a concert hall. Penelope can write anywhere and often has done, including in airports. She quite likes to write in the garden.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn

And on that note Daniel brought things to a close, which meant that the audience got wine and an opportunity to chat with the two Ps and to have books signed. And Daniel also had his book there (which I should have thought of!) to be bought and signed.

Before returning to my temporary home to face my IT woes, I had a nice chat with Celia Rees, thanking her for her part in this evening, and saying how this is the way we like our events.

The drawbacks of being Scottish

Well, I’m not, obviously. But some people are.

There are good books being published by Scottish publishers, written by Scottish authors or authors resident in Scotland, sometimes actually about something Scottish. But not always.

It makes a great deal of sense to highlight the Scottish aspect of these books when you do PR in Scotland. We all like to buy homegrown, be it haggis from the next field or whatever. Nearby is good. Fresher. More like you. Just look at how the voting in Eurovision is done.

But that’s not to say that the Scottish author and his/her book does not travel well, or that no one outside Scotland would ever want to read a Scottish book. It’s not all tartans and heather and ‘och aye.’ Scottish authors are just as capable of writing books that will appeal to people all over the world as, say, J K Rowling. (Oh. She wrote the Harry Potter books in Scotland, you say?)

Scotland has about five million inhabitants, while the UK is more than ten times that, and as for the number of people in the rest of the world who can read books in English, that’s a wee bit larger still.

I spoke to a Scottish author recently. One who writes marvellous books, and which as far as I can tell are not particularly Scottish (any more so than a novel set in Newcastle would be deemed suitable only for the good people of that city). Anyway, this author told me of speaking to booksellers south of the border, and they were puzzled. Because they didn’t stock these books, and the reason they didn’t, was that the publicity had been such as to suggest ‘tartan books to be read in Scotland only.’ Sigh…

So, when selling at home, do point out it’s by ‘one of our own’ and when selling anywhere else, say it’s the best book ever. Maybe that the author lives in Scotland, like J K.

Ye ken?

Working for free

This is what I do. It’s by choice. Often I feel as if I’ve got a tiger by the tail and I can’t let go. That’s when I harbour thoughts of giving up/slowing down/having a holiday. I like being Bookwitch, and I suspect that when my grasp on the tiger’s tail wavers, that I might stop being quite so Bookwitchy.

Authors don’t expect to write/work for free, but sometimes it ends up like that anyway, or very nearly. And then they are invited to events, with no payment for their effort or the time invested in travelling. ‘It will be good publicity.’ Annoying, but part of life for many writers.

I’m just amazed that this has now moved on to me. I too am requested to do stuff for organisations, for free. Because it’s useful to them (they don’t actually put it like that, but I can see that someone salaried in their office would get material for free and with very little effort), and I can ‘gain visibility.’

Maybe they believe that I also sit at a desk all day long, being paid for my efforts. In which case it should be easy enough for me to share my work with them.

I Bookwitch because it’s fun. If it wasn’t, I could have endless time available for actually reading more books, and socialising with friends (might not have any left), baking bread and, well, stuff. I have no wish to add to my workload by blogging for others, for free. Not when they are large companies, who could actually afford to pay for the few hours they’d like to hire my services for.

Where did all this using people because it’s convenient come from? Why do they think I should be grateful? I recently asked how much someone would pay for the work, and got a sniffy email back. What’s more, the request/suggestion originally sent out was so wooly and longwinded and half incomprehensible that I didn’t really want to read all of it. Nor was it totally clear what they were doing, after I’d done so anyway.

If companies do employ someone to sort out the company blog, say, they would do better to get someone who can write. That way they could do their own work, and not approach others with poorly written requests. But it does make sense to pocket the money while doing none of the work.

I might just get myself a high visibility vest. Should do the trick.