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Christine Dwyer Hickey, Dermot Bolger & Belinda McKeon on Reader’s Block

Article by Christine Dwyer Hickey, Dermot Bolger & Belinda McKeon ©.
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Christine Dwyer Hickey

Novelists are not supposed to be in the spotlight; they should be standing at the helm in the dark behind it, drawing a slow beam across this thing called the human condition.

For the most part we live in near isolation, keeping company with characters that don’t actually exist. We engage in dramas that have never happened, give our hearts out to experiences we haven’t, in fact, ever had.

And then we publish a book. Suddenly it’s time to crawl out of our caves and into the arena of interviews, reviews, and God help us, the public reading.

Six novels in and I’m an old hand by now, which of course won’t stop me finding new ways of making an arse of myself. Here are a few tips and/or examples gleaned from my own experiences which may prove useful to newcomers.

1. Always expect an oceanic silence to follow the words: ‘‘And now, if anyone has any questions?” But there will, from time to time, be that sweet, deep silence that means, my God they are really, really listening.

2. Don’t always expect to be paid.

3. The piece you have timed in your head will always be longer when read out loud.

By this point it will be too late to do anything about it.

Practise aloud.

And with a stopwatch.

4. Compatibility. There is nothing worse than being mismatched with another writer. In fairness the guy did warn me when I met him briefly beforehand and he promised to wipe the floor with me. I thought he was joking.

As it turned out he was deadly serious. He was one of those new performance writers, the type who acts out each scene as the audience chuckles merrily along. I had picked a morbid piece to follow. I also had a migraine.

All I could do was fantasise about having a gun in my handbag and wonder which one of us to shoot first.

5. The most frightening can also be the most exhilarating: the Dublin Swell Unesco concert 2011. ‘‘You’ll be grand,” a stagehand in the wings assured me. ‘‘Two thousand people out there, including the president, you can hear a pin drop.”

I thought I was going to die on that stage. I thought my voice was going to fall out of my mouth onto the floor, that I’d have to bend down, pick it up and shove it back into my throat. I prayed for courage. Somehow I got it, and remained on a high for days.

6. Know your location. A weekend festival on the grounds of a big country estate does not mean you will be afforded the comforts of the big house. I’m referring to the rock cumliterary event. It rained and it rained. The master of the big house thought I was a burglar when I dared to poke my nose round his door. I had been given the graveyard slot ie, the first event on a Sunday morning.

Later that day, I was due to attend a wedding celebration and for some reason which I can only put down to brain damage incurred from wet rot and starvation, I thought it would save time if I dressed accordingly.

And so in my little cream shoes, pink dress and poplin coat, I arrived soaking wet on the back of a trailer.

Over the chattering of my teeth I could hear my name being broadcast across the estate as a voice half-threatened, half-pleaded for people to drag themselves along to my reading. I won’t say there was no one there. But there was nearly no one.

Three little girls with pink feathers in their hair put paid to the semi-obscene bit I had picked for a cool festival crowd.

There was my husband, of course, a few people he knew. And a large, black dog.

As the reading progressed, stragglers in welly boots began to appear and soon a respectable enough crowd had formed. I didn’t even get to the ‘‘and now if there are any questions?” bit, as the MC dismissed me.

Would that have been the worst reading I ever did? Certainly not. Not by a long shot. Because above all, remember this – no matter how much you worry or how much you prepare – the worst is always yet to come . . .

Dermot Bolger

Often you feel there must be easier ways to make a living.

That thought came last year when I mounted a podium in a park in Beijing, amid a raging sub-zero snowstorm, and looked down at a frozen gathering of diplomats, Chinese students, television cameras and photographers, secret and not so secret policemen there to ensure the T word (Tibet) was not mentioned, and – in the background – bored ranks of fantastically dressed acrobats ignoring me as they chatted in Chinese.

With no idea how many people understood one word I was saying, I commenced what I’d been flown there to do and read a poem in English.

My feet were in China, my clothes – after a mix-up – were in Canada, and my heart wasn’t in it, but the days when writers could be recluses are over. While it was an unusual story in China (parades are so rarely allowed there that this tiny St Patrick’s Day parade received national coverage), for me it was just another gig.

Surviving financially as a writer requires a schizophrenic existence. Ninety per cent of your time is spent alone engaged in unarmed combat with a computer.

Ten per cent is spent on the road, buying the time to write. Last week I read in Pittsburgh, followed by a gig with Colum McCann in New York’s Lincoln Center, then flew home to do gigs in Clare and Farmleigh, while battling with the iambic pentameter of a spin-dryer in between.

Audiences often have a standard profile, but in September I curate the Arts Council tent at Electric Picnic, where the vibe is utterly different: curious young people wander in to chill out and take in the words of John Banville, Kevin Barry, Peter Sheridan, Leanne O’Sullivan and many others I will be introducing and interviewing.

Some purists might call it literature contaminated by show business, but I see it as something far more authentic – a chance for writers to actually meet people who read their books. Writing is a solitary affair – novels and poems are pebbles tossed into an impossibly wide lake where you never know if the ripples reach another shore.

It is wonderful to turn up and meet someone for whom one of your books meant something special. In Clifton I met an English woman who read my novel, A Second Life, aloud to her husband as he died of cancer. I felt humbled that it was the last thing they shared. Such moments are magical, a chance to put a face on that vital piece of the jigsaw that make up books – the reader.

The road brings you to weird places.

On a German reading tour, I was forced to read in the concourse of a Berlin shopping centre, ignored by everyone except for a tiny girl on a scooter. In Paris, my venue was an ‘‘authentic Irish bar’’ in the Pompidou Centre.

Three walls gave the impression you were in Cahirciveen. The fourth wall was missing, so I stared out at Japanese teenagers in a McDonald’s queue.

At the Gothenburg Book Fair a teenage boy, awash with pimples and hormones, was first in my queue for a book signing.

He scowled while people reached over him to get books signed. But his scowl was replaced by a brilliant smile when the organiser put down the name tab of the next author due to sign at my table. I stood up to find the actress Britt Ekland taking my place.

I once gave a morning and afternoon reading in Dublin Castle and sandwiched in a lunchtime reading to prisoners in Mountjoy prison, thanks to my push-bike tied to the castle gate.

I can’t recall what famous French writers I read with that day, but years later I met a former Mountjoy prisoner who had been partly inspired by my talk to do a third-level creative writing course.

That’s the magic of reading – not grandiose venues or crowds, but the chance to make a genuine connection through words with another human being, which is at the heart of writing.

Belinda McKeon

My novel, Solace, has just been published here in Ireland, but in the US it came out a couple of months ago, so May and June were spent touring various bookstores and festivals there.

On almost every occasion, the weather was vehemently against me; monsoon-like rains in New York on launch night, an actual tornado near Boston a week later, a mind-warping heat wave (42 degrees at 10am) for the next stop in Chicago and, back in New York, a thunderstorm so epic that I got to know my heart muscles in new and intimate ways.

It all made the business of reading in public a few degrees even more nerve-jangling than usual.

When people give their time – and, in some cases, their money – to sit and listen for half an hour as you read something you wrote, you feel you have to give them something in return.

And this feeling tends towards exacerbation when those people have just, say, driven in whirling winds under green skies to a tiny, middle-of-nowhere bookshop, while their car radios bark instructions to seek refuge in the nearest basement.

Four people turned up for my tornado night reading in Newton, Massachusetts. I think this might technically have entitled them to a percentage of royalties for the rest of my life, but nobody pushed it; they were all very kind.

Very patient.

They listened as I read, and they asked interesting questions after I’d finished, and then they bought books and asked me to sign them. There was a moment when I felt like scrawling, on the title page of one person’s copy, the words ‘WHYDIDYOUCOME HERE?!’ but the impulse passed. I know why people go to readings.

At least, I think I do. I go to readings myself all the time because I enjoy them. I like hearing an author read their own work aloud. I like hearing them talk about the things they read, and talk about the process of writing those pieces, and about the work of writing more generally.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever had about writing has come from authors giving public readings.

At a reading in New York a couple of years ago, the novelist Alice McDermott handed me the key to finishing my novel with a very casual statement she made in response to another audience member’s question.

Every couple of months, a literary blog will announce that the reading is over as a phenomenon – most recently, the New York Observer ran a piece called ‘Nobody Cares About Your Reading’ – but authors’ events continue to get healthy attendances.

As someone who loves going to these things, I find it easy to shrug off a question like the Observer’s: ‘‘Is it a coincidence that this is how parents get their children to go to sleep?”

As someone who now has to actually deliver these things, however, the shrugging doesn’t come so naturally. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading in public; actually, I do. I imagine it breaks some writerly rule to admit that.

But the voices I read in, when I read from my fiction, belong to my characters, or to my narrators.

And maybe it’s a kind of nostalgia for those voices once I’ve moved on from them and am mired in the business of trying to write another novel, but I like occupying them, animating them, spending time with them, even if my hands are sweating and my heart is hammering as I do so. My problem is with the bits in between the actual reading.

The awkward moment when you try to segue lightly from one extract to the next and wind up, in a nervous attempt at humour, straying into a statement of mind blowing political incorrectness.

Or the introductory prattle which, accepted tradition dictates, should combine stand-up comedy, the personal touch and a killer pitch with a slick current of cultural commentary thrown in for good measure.

It doesn’t work quite so well if you just grin maniacally at the audience, blush so intensely that your skin begins to tan, confuse the names of your own characters and then accidentally send your book clattering to the ground.

But look, I tell myself, your audience will forgive you.

They’ve come to hear you.

And probably they’re all related to you anyway.

So they know what you’re like. All four of them.

Now get on with it.

Christine Dwyer Hickey will be reading at the Mountains to Sea dlr festival in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on Wednesday, September 7. For further details, see www.mountainstosea.ie. Her new novel The Cold Eye of Heaven is published by Atlantic on 8th September 2011.

Dermot Bolger will be hosting the Arts Council Literary Stage at Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois on September 2, 3 and 4

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, is published by Picador.

By kind permission of the Sunday Business Post