I'm sitting in the authors' tent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and it's time to put out the bunting. I've had an idea for my next book, a slim but vital volume entitled "Smart Questions for Dumb Authors, and the Occasional Tricky and Boring Question Thrown In for Good Measure." This will be based very much on my experience of talking at book festivals over the years, with particular reference to the last three months, but it will also include the odd nugget from other authors.
Because even the best-intentioned humor can sometimes be misconstrued, I should explain at this point that this book is not actually a going concern, but something I imagine all writers would like to publish sooner rather than later. So what would it include? Like most of my writer friends, I genuinely admire and appreciate my audience and readers. I obviously value their good taste. I am also struck by their intelligence, particularly at Q&A sessions at the end of readings. My paperback updates attest to the insightful comments from readers about complex matters I may have misunderstood first time around, or illuminating side-issues about things I could have mentioned but didn't, and almost inevitably the signing queue contains at least one person I wish I had met when I was writing the manuscript, often a relative of a subject in the book.I know this will appear almost unbearably corny, but meeting readers is what it's all about, especially if they're not over-critical, particularly if they're not of the stalker variety. And without them I wouldn't be able to write as a living. So that's it — the nice, normal, usual bit: I love you all.
But then there are the last 10 pages of my mythical book. The dumb stuff. The insanely boring questions. The observations that all authors have to pinch themselves during and after, lest they let out a sigh so insulting and smothering that if you return to the venue three days later it will still be hanging there.
Actually, the extreme incidents occur infrequently, but the milder ones do tend to come in waves. Some years ago, promoting my book Mauve (about the first artificial dye and the astonishing impact it had on the world), the most common question was, "Where do you get your ideas from?" I think what the inquisitors really wanted to ask was, "Where on God's kind and beautiful earth do you get your ideas from?" or just "Are you completely nuts?" It seems like a fair question, and this one had a plausible answer: The idea for Mauve came from a couple of pages in a book that one of my children brought home from school one day. I have been asked the same question many times about other books too. Most authors I know face a similar fate and deal with it with varying degrees of patience and good grace. As do I, I hope, though after the 10th such occurrence in a week, I am tempted to reply "I pick up most of my ideas next to the granola section in Walmart."
At the Edinburgh Festival I've been talking about Just My Type, my book about the history and best use of fonts (it's really just a good bunch of stories about who makes all those exotic names like Baskerville and Garamond on your pull-down menu, and an excuse to write about the hidden powers of Comic Sans and Helvetica.) The book's been popular, the Edinburgh audience has been erudite and generous (just the right mix of geeks and the generally curious), but of course there's always the exception. This took the form of a man in the signing queue who wanted me to explain the use (or non-use) of the ampersand in Cyrillic. I came clean from the start: I was sure it was a fascinating subject, honestly, but it just wasn't my field. I hadn't looked at Slavic fonts at all. That was a separate book, perhaps, but for the time being I was concentrating primarily on fonts in the English speaking world. But what about the Mongolian or Kazakhstan variations, my new friend wanted to know. "I'm really sorry," I said, glancing at the line behind him, "but it's not my bag. I can tell you fun things about the man who tried to drown his type in the Thames, or the terrible affliction known as Typomania, or where to see the quick brown fox jump over a lazy dog in real life, or Obama's use of Gotham, or even the private life of Eric Gill and the time I asked Paul McCartney about the Beatles logo, but not the Russian ampersand." My inquisitor looked very disappointed. He knew more than me, it was clear, and he was very keen to show it. In the end, after a prolonged period of headshaking from us both, he walked away (he didn't buy a book).
A friend of mine, who is Anglo-Scots, says that the one comment that always stumps her is when someone approaches her at an event and announces, as if it were the first full explanation of string theory, the big bang, and Darwinian evolution all in one, that "my great-great grandfather is also Scottish!" There's really nowhere to go with that.
A few days after my Edinburgh event, I went to see the writer A. L. Kennedy. She was mid-flow at the lectern, reading a witty passage about people on a cruise ship, when one member of her packed crowd started walking out. The author asked the leaver whether her performance was really that disappointing, and the leaver replied, "I remember you from before." Then she repeated it, "I remember you from before," and it sounded slightly menacing. Again, no way back from that. But there was more fun to come. The first post-reading question came from the front row. Not strictly a question, in fact, more a complaint. The reader didn't like the way Kennedy had looked on a recent television appearance — way too much make up, she said. Kennedy apologized, at which point the audience member said "You should breed, have babies." The rest of the audience shuffled uneasily in their seats.
But of course, this is what makes readings unmissable and memorable. This is what distinguishes one event from another and keeps writers on their toes. And all writers will tell you that any questions — even the ones about where ideas come from, even the ones about ampersands from Tajikistan, especially the valiant claims to Scottish ancestry — are better than no questions or comments at all, that terrible black hole of fidgeting and silence as the lights go up and the roving microphone is poised to go round but doesn't. So ask me anything. The answer will rarely be Walmart.
÷ ÷ ÷
Simon Garfield is a feature writer at the Observer (London) and the author of nine works of nonfiction, including Mauve , which was a New York Times Notable Book, and The End of Innocence, which won the Somerset Maugham Prize. His latest books is Just My Type.
Books mentioned in this post