Writers never used to have to do this kind of thing. With a few notable exceptions, such as Dickens, who was an actor at heart and loved to be performing his work in front of an adoring audience, they went around unrecognised. There was usually no photograph of them on the jacket, no biography, and sometimes not even a real name- especially if you were a woman. The books were left to speak for themselves. Writing was a self contained, private even secretive activity. That has all changed. Today, if a writer wants to build a paying readership there is no way of avoiding spending time and energy promoting their work. Giving an agent evidence that you are confident, interesting and marketable as a person as well as a writer is an important part of getting yourself a book deal, and if you don’t work hard to maintain a high profile once you have one you may not keep it for long. The high visibility of modern authors is a huge pleasure for their readers who have the chance to gawp at their heroes and ask sometimes fatuous questions but I daresay the writers themselves would rather give it a miss.
I haven’t read much of Sara Paretsky’s work as it isn’t my kind of thing but it is well written and very popular. Her hard nosed Chicago born detective V I Warshawski has gathered a lot of fans since she first appeared in 1982. A long running book franchise with a popular central character is one of the few sure fire ways to make money in the book business and Paretsky’s only complaint seems to be that she has been unable so far to get the film rights to her character back from Disney. They made one unsuccessful film and have sat on them ever since. As I am not a fan and was there courtesy of a free ticket I was able to concentrate on watching her at work, introducing herself, reading with enthusiasm and taking questions for exactly the allotted hour. She is an old hand at the promotional tour business having been a published author for almost thirty years. She had a politicians control, listening carefully to the questions asked and repeating them for the benefit of the audience before branching out in her answers to say what it was that she wanted to say. I wouldn’t imagine there are many questions that she hasn’t been asked before. She is a confident likable presence who wore her great success lightly (as well as the fact that she knows and has worked with Barack Obama) but this made the evening just a little too predictable to be really interesting. We were not going to be told any secrets and there would be no surprises. I suppose we have no right to expect them but it would have been nice to feel that there was a possibility of finding out something a bit more personal about her writing life. It was interesting to hear that she has to get her characters moving and talking before she can get her plot to take off, finding ideas from small things which they do as she writes, and that writing outlines does not work for her, as I find exactly the same, but she has spent her career mostly delivering the literary equivalent of a well made television soap. Her readers know what to expect and she knows how to provide it for them. I don’t mean that as a put down- a TV soap like Eastenders at its best can be great drama and she can be very proud of what she has achieved. At the same time I do wonder whether she might have challenged herself more and gone further. She thought about making a novel from the Enron collapse for example but decided that she would need to do a lot of research and it wasn’t really going to make a V I Warshawski book.
An interesting evening, and by no means a disappointment, but not one that was ever going to set the world alight. Perhaps you needed to be a fan.