1. How did you prepare for your first ever book event? Did you go and see other authors to see how they manage events?
Oh lord no, I just jumped straight in, though admittedly after dithering at the edge of the pool for a stupidly long time. I was asked to do something for a local school, and my immediate response was to say yes, of course, I’d be delighted, and then panic and stew in anxiety and dread until the appointed day. I wasn’t completely inexperienced – I’d read to kids from the schools every year on World Book Day in Sheelagh Na Gig, my local bookshop in Cloughjordan. But this was different – this was my own work and I was The Author.
I brought my book, I brought a selection of stories, and I went from class to class reading and answering questions. I knew quite a few of the kids and they were thrilled that I was a local author and some of them had even read the book, which was nice. So that was my preparation. My book and a bunch of stories to read and a willingness to talk about anything they wanted to talk about. It felt totally inadequate before I went in, and it seems totally inadequate now, but it worked and we had a great time. Then the other local school said well why don’t you come and do us next? And I said yes, of course, I ‘d love to, and started to panic and stew in anxiety and dread.
Later on I saw other authors perform and I realised that you can script and structure your event to a greater or lesser degree, depending, but the foundational element is the book or story you wrote. How you wrote it, why, and what interested and excited you about it. There is no greater expert on those things than yourself. You know these things inside and out. If some of those things are ambiguous, confused, contradictory, you also know those difficulties forwards and backwards – just get up and express them, and build on them as much as you like or are able. Think about them, put them into words. Some people can be funny and madcap about it, but all you really have to be is honest and sincere, and that will go a long way.
2. What advice would you give debut writers who are nervous about starting events?
Every person experiences fear and anxiety before an event, but every person’s fear and anxiety is their own. You can’t make it vanish, but you can manage it, and be reassured it’s unlikely to survive the onslaught of words, noise and energy that comes from a classroom full of kids eager for the novelty and break in routine you’re providing. Kids love stories, even kids who aren’t into reading. They love making up stories of their own and they really, really, really want to know how you, a grown-up, can do the same thing is such a way as to make a living at it, or at least get published. Talk about that, talk about it honestly, talk about your ideas and where they come from and you won’t go far wrong. Use your anxiety, don’t let it use you. It gives you an edge, it gives you an energy, it can keep you focused. If you’re not already familiar with Mindfulness, look it up and give it a go. It’s not a cure for anxiety, but it can help you manage it.
3. What’s your worst fear before an event?
That I’ll be boring. That my energy will peter out and I’ll run out of things to say. That I’ll get lost on the way and they’ll be waiting for me to arrive while I’m still running up and down side-streets searching for the right place.
4. Your book is full of humour. Do you think humour is important when presenting to children?
It’s extremely important for me, at any rate, but experience has suggested that it’s not the only approach. I did a Halloween reading last year to two class groups, younger then older. I read madcap stories at the top of my voice to the younger kids, who were loud and rowdy and laughed a lot. Then when the older kids came in my voice was shot and I was suddenly exhausted, so I sat down and read quietly, two much spookier and scarier stories, and you could have heard a pin drop, until at one point in one of the stories everyone suddenly gasped. Kids love humour and jokes and silliness, but a more serious approach can yield rich rewards for everyone.
5. Do you read an extract from your book at events, or do you just focus on the overall story?
I usually read the short opening chapter, and then I let how much I talk about it be guided by the kids and the questions they ask and the interest they show. With readings I try not to dwell too much on the book, unless the kids are into it. I like to get them talking about their ideas and their stories and what they like to read, and then illustrate ways of getting ideas and telling stories with more stories of my own. WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR IDEA FROM is the common obsession with kids, and I have one or two odd stories about my ideas. Ask me sometime about the idea for my Crow Festival story.
With my new book next year, I’m challenging myself to devise a structured talk about the various subjects it touches on, and and how they all became a part of the story of the book, and I’ve absolutely no idea how to go about it or how long it should be. I wish I’d done something similar for The Maloney’s Magical Weatherbox, but it never occurred to me until I was invited to the Mountains To The Sea Festival in Dun Laoghaire by Sarah Webb, and I saw what other authors were doing in terms of talks and presentations. It’s fun to riff wildly on random stuff from a lively audience, but it would have been interesting to explore the ideas and inspirations and their wider context in a slightly more formal way, too.
6. Has anything unexpected ever gone wrong at one of your events, and how did you manage it?
The unexpected happens all the time – if you’re taking questions and chatting with kids the conversation can end up going anywhere, which is the basis for my Story Ideas Workshop. Gone wrong, though? I think I’ve been lucky so far, no disasters. I went the wrong way on a motorway once and ended up nearly being late for an event. My God, the adrenaline! The angst! Mostly the unexpected ends up being quite lovely. At the Halloween event I mentioned earlier, I ended my last story with the narrator, me, arriving to read to the kids accompanied by a ghost, and saying ‘He’s right here beside me. Can you see him?’ All the kids suddenly started whispering, I heard one say ‘Wow I can see him!’ I was very pleased that I’d apparently managed to conjure the ghost so vividly out of their imagination, and it was only later that I realised I’d been sitting near a massive papier mache puppet in the corner of the room, and I’d unconsciously gestured to it when invoking the invisible ghost. At one of my early events, while reading to a class in the DuBray bookshop in Blackrock, I was asked about my next book. I described the story, and mentioned that I was still trying to come up with a title for it. Cue twenty minutes of title suggestions that I had to furiously scribble down. I didn’t end up using any of them, but the enthusiasm was gratifying, if overwhelming.
Nigel Quinlan is the author of The Maloney’s Magical Weatherbox and, coming from Hachette in Jan 2018, The Cloak Of Feathers. He is a small shy creature who curls into a ball under the nearest table at loud noises, sudden movements or just generally getting annoyed. He lives in Tipperary, so to him it’s not a long way to go at all.