Sunday, 13 March 2016

That Was The LitFest That Was

I'm feeling slightly shell-shocked this morning. The weekend's whirl is over and I realised, probably massively belatedly but then I am a bear of remarkably little brain, from the moment I started the process of editing and formatting Birdkill, I was preparing for it.

I got roped into a panel on science fiction at the last minute, which was a little bit strange. One of the panellists decided we were all going to start with a reading which I thought odd, but I was feeling benign and generally happy go lucky and so went along with the scheme. There should be a law banning people who assert they 'read rather well' from ever reading their books to an audience.

The invitation to a science fiction panel came because of the mad eugenics, drugs and battlefield enhancement program that's at the heart of Birdkill. I thought of explaining that it's actually reflective of some real-life, modern-day programs run by people like DARPA but threw that up and just agreed to it. In all things bookish, I have a policy of never, ever saying 'no' to anything - something I have rarely had cause to regret, BTW.

It all went well enough, I suppose and we chatted happily about how Sci-Fi has sort of grown up and is no longer the guilty secret read it was when I was a kid, how writing 'near future' Sci-Fi is harder than space opera and other stuff. I was there more as a fan than anything, I suppose. I managed to get in a dig about how explorer of suburban dystopias JG Ballard would have loved writing a novel set in Arabian Ranches, which was all rather fun.

I went to Justin Marozzi's talk about Baghdad which was great. One of the perks of being a LitFest author is your wee badge gives you 'access all areas' and you can attend sessions without a ticket - something I always manage to make all too little use of. I had read Marozzi's history of Baghdad with fascination and similarly enjoyed his presentation. Of course he had to tell the Haroun Al Rashid story. Tsk Tsk.

The how to find your route to publication and onto shelves panel was an absolute hoot. Having in previous years found myself debating the role of traditional publishing vs self publishing with people like Luigi Bonomi (the world's nicest literary agent) and Orion's Kate Mills (an eminently sensible and most likeable lady), it was nice to finally encounter someone who represented the face of traditional publishing I felt I could really disagree with. Jonathan Lloyd is chairman of Curtis Brown, a very big London literary agency, and he was eventually provoked into aiming a sentence at me starting with 'With all due respect' - a phrase all English people know means 'I am about to be rude to you' and Jonathan didn't fail us, advising me that perhaps I might better spend my time learning how to write well instead of dancing around wasting it playing at book marketing.

I am very glad, in hindsight, that I noted the English preamble to discourtesy rather than trying to address the assumption behind it. I'd have come across as an angry and defensive person and I most certainly am neither of those (at least when it comes to writing and publishing my books!). I'm perfectly happy that traditional publishing should continue to strive to exist, as I am that they have clearly decided the things that interest me and how I tell my stories are not for them. Given that, the swipe rather back-fired. Mind, I don't think I'll be signed up by Curtis Brown any time soon...

Arrow's Selina Walker took perhaps a more benign view of the changing face of publishing and the opening up of the market to wider choice and it was clear that publishers and agents are no longer quite as aligned as they once were. Jonathan's assertion that agents were on the side of the author while publishers were in it for themselves drew a polite, measured but I felt slightly pained response.

This was the stuff though - I would describe the panel as lively and it must have been highly entertaining for the audience, which is what you're after really, isn't it?

But I had the most fun the next day, with the panel on crime I shared with Chris Carter and Sebastian Fitzek, both of whom write about serial killers, psychopaths and really, really bad people. I noted to the audience that I felt like something of a fraud - my bad guys are just bad, but they're pussies compared to Chris and Sebastian's bad guys. My bad guys steal ice creams from small kids, stuff like that. They won't rape you while they're sucking out your brains with a straw. Truth be told, my good guys are more of a worry...

We talked about research - meeting IRA members, serial killers and forensic surgeons; about inhabiting the grey area between good and evil; about creating empathy for horrible characters and how you handle putting yourself in the head of a killer. I did a lot of book plugging, for which I am truly contrite.

Both Chris and Sebastian are very nice guys who have some worrying stuff going on in their heads, but they're engaging and genial talkers who conjured a great deal of laughter from the audience. We wrapped up on the hour and it was clear both authors and audience would gladly have stayed another hour and more bouncing all these questions, ideas and experiences around.

We signed books afterwards and some people turned up to have me sign my books which is lucky because that doesn't usually happen and I was dreading getting sandwiched between two international best-sellers with my usual queue of three (mind you, they put me next to 'House of Cards' author Michael Dobbs the day before. As usual, a line disappearing into the horizon next to the yawning space left in front of me after I'd signed a few books. Le sigh.)

As usual, the LitFest team were glorious, wonderful, patient and kind. If there was a single hitch or hiccup, I certainly didn't spot it. Tens of thousands of people, 160 authors, hundreds of sessions, events, happenings, talks and signings. And it was all as seamless as a seamless thing.

So here we are. Facing a world without the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature - at least for another year. What AM I going to do?

Not write another book for a while, I can tell you...

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