8th April 2016
How much do writers need an audience? A readership, yes, we'd hardly be worth our money (little though it usually is) if nobody read the books. A lovely and in my case unexpected thing that happens when you publish a novel is that complete strangers write and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Nowadays if you're lucky they tweet out their appreciation, or put something up on their Facebook page. All of it reassures you that other people really are reading what you wrote with so many pauses and doubts, all those months or years ago.
An audience is a different matter. All my adult life, in my many day jobs, I've spoken in public, to audiences large and small – a few trainees, a class full of pupils, the full Highland Council, and so on. As an author my audiences have been small – rising of course for launches where all your friends and family dutifully turn out. Our poetry group once gave a reading to a woman, her small son, and their dog. The dog fell asleep.
Of course famous authors have their eager public queueing round the board pathways of Charlotte Square at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and Hay on Wye and other festivals are the same. For most of us, that doesn't happen. Then a couple of weeks ago I saw that you can have vast audiences for authors on a regular basis, and not even at a literary festival. I was invited to accompany Ajay Close, a Sandstone author, who had been invited to speak at a Gliterary Lunch. If you've not heard of these amazing events – here's a link to their website: http://gliterarylunches.com/
At Glasgow's Central Hotel, 244 women had lunch in the ballroom, and listened to Ajay and to Kate Williams, as they spoke in turn about their novels, entertained and moved us, and made us think. There was champagne, there were canapés, there was lovely food, and there were glittering chandeliers. I can't think what else you would want to cheer up a rainy afternoon in Glasgow.
Cut to my home patch. A cold winter night. I drive slowly along the street looking for the house where the Book Group is meeting, then see other cars being parked, and women getting out and gathering. I will follow them; this must be the Book Group. I find a parking space a few seconds too late to move into it smoothly and park very badly indeed. I move the car about a bit, without improving matters much, give up, gather my bag and a copy of The Treacle Well, and head for the house the other women have just gone into. I'm there as a visiting author, to answer any questions they might have for me as they discuss my novel.
Everyone is very welcoming and we all have crisps and nibbles and wine or soft drinks. Well, only one person has wine, and I find myself instantly warming to her. I wish I could have a glass of wine too, as this is beginning to seem a bad idea. What if they didn't like the novel? They will all – I can tell already – be much too nice to say so.
They immediately plunge into discussion of a novel the hostess has just finished reading as she saw that my name was on the copyright page as editor. They all want to know about this book, and this author, about editing, and then about publishing. I wonder if at some point they will start discussing The Treacle Well, but don't like to ask. We all talk about other books we've read. Two of the women talk about books they read on holiday. We all talk about our holidays.
Two hours later, having touched glancingly on The Treacle Well ('How long have you been writing?', 'Where do you get your ideas from?' and when I have said a bit about the story, 'You get very involved with your characters, don't you?') and after cups of tea and very nice cake, they present me with a bunch of flowers and a thank you card, and I think maybe this is a hint I should go. So I thank them all too and depart.
'How did it go?' R asks me when I get home.
'Remind me,' I said, 'never to visit a book group again.'
This was all made up for by a – different – warm and welcoming book group, in a library, a few weeks later. Still, I think I'll go back to my attic, and just write. Forget audiences.