Sunday, 24 October 2010

All the world's a stage

As a writer, you tend to spend a lot of time on your own. You develop an outer skin that encourages other people to flow off it like a drop of olive oil on a non-stick frying pan. You lose the power to communicate in words of more than one syllable. Yes. No. Tea. Out. You don't need a Do not Disturb sign, because it's written on the back of your head - the only bit of you anyone ever sees.

Then your book comes out and everybody wants to be your friend. The shy, reclusive creature who has just spent six months in solitary and has forgotten what the sun looks like is invited to sign books, speak at events and appear before vast (hopefully) audiences at book festivals.

Suddenly the hermit has to transmute into the performer.

Some take to it quite naturally, for others the process is terrifying and as much fun as a visit to the proctologist. But these days no writer can avoid it, any more than they can avoid writing blogs, keeping their Facebook page turning over or Twittering about things no-one is really interested in

But just how much does a writer have to be an entertainer?

I've come to enjoy talking about my books and the craft of writing, even to large audiences, because generally they're there because they're interested in what I have to say. But I know my limitations. I was at the Manchester Literary Society/Historical Novel Society weekend in Manchester. On the Saturday I appeared on a panel with four women novelists: talented, witty, feisty and clever ... and me. It was great fun, especially when they started to talk about sex and I began to slide down into my seat before the inevitable happened.

'So what was sex like in Roman times?'

Now an entertainer would immediately have recalled that the sex in Caligula was so erotic that his wife thought he must be having an affair. Doug Jackson, author, threw up his hands and said: 'I surrender!' Yes, it got the biggest laugh of the day, but that wasn't the point.

Day two I shared the platform with an Oxford professor who could have doubled as a stand-up comedian, a lovely young Irish fella with the gift of the gab, and a larger than life Viking re-enactor with a beard you could hide a badger in. What do you do? You try to compete in your enthusiastic, earnest, but slightly dull way and just hope you're adding to the mix. And you learn.

Not everyone can be an entertainer, but you have to remember that in all the best comedy partnerships one of them is the straight man.

That'll have to do for me.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

No rest for the wicked

I've been guilty of neglecting the blog for a couple of reasons. The first is that sometimes you have things to say but you're not sure how to say them, which may sound strange for a writer, but in my case is undoubtedly true. Better in this case to say nothing than the wrong thing.

The second is less complicated. I have been hellish busy.

The first draft of Defender of Rome went off to Simon at Transworld a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by the usual angst and soul-searching which is only made worse by the fact that Hero of Rome has been doing so well. You're always conscious that the next book has to be better than those that have gone before and Defender took me out of my comfort zone into murky, sometimes dangerous territory.

At the moment, I'm working on the final chapters of my new thriller The Doomsday Testament, which will also be out in the middle of next year. The plan is to finish Doomsday before the suggestions for the Defender rewrite come back.

In the meantime I was preparing for last night's Booker prize event at Stirling library, which was great fun, but meant reading six quite difficult books in about a fortnight. (Is it the Booker judges who are out of touch with real people or is it me?). I've also been trying to get ready for my big weekend in Manchester. Four events over two days. A debate on the place and popularity of historical fiction, at which I'm the only male in a scarily talented panel that includes Alison Weir, Maria McCann and Robyn Young, a readers' workshop on research techniques, chairing a debate on where historical fiction goes next (any ideas welcome) and another panel with Harry Sidebottom, Robert Low and Ben Kane on violence in books (hopefully it won't come to blows, Bob Low is a scary bloke, especially with a broadsword in his hands).

I'm out of puff just thinking about it.

Oh, and when I was at the library last night they asked me to chair the Stirling launch of Robyn's new book Insurrection (first in a trilogy about Robert the Bruce) on Tuesday at the Tollbooth Theatre.

Truly, there is no rest for the wicked.