On Being a Writer
My Very Public Humiliation; the perils and pitfalls of the promotional tour.
I know two kinds of writers: those who love nothing better than to hit the road to promote their latest novel, and those who tremble at the mere thought of it. I am in the latter group. Put simply, I’m terrified of public speaking. Even now as I type these words, I can feel a knot of anxiety tightening in the pit of my stomach.
The truth of the matter is that the promotion of a book provides endless opportunities to embarrass and humiliate oneself. I don’t mean a mild case of toe-curling embarrassment; I’m talking about the kind of humiliation that leaves one shell-shocked and vowing, never again, oh, dear God, never again!
To put my phobia into perspective, some might think that the most embarrassing moment of my life would be the time I realized I’d been wandering round Gatwick airport for a full ten minutes with the back of my skirt hitched up into my knickers. But no, that experience doesn’t come close to the true horror of hearing, what has become for me, the most feared words in the English language – ‘So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, put your hands together and give a warm welcome to Erica James.’
The trouble is you never know what you’re going to encounter at a book event, whether it be a reading, a signing or an after dinner speaking engagement. The organisers are invariably well-meaning, but do they have any idea how crushing it is to be told on arrival, ‘We had Monty Don here for a signing the other day; the queue for him went out onto the street and round the block.’ Another dispiriting welcome is, ‘You should have been here last week when we had Claudia Winkleman. She was marvellous; had us all in stitches.’ Knowing I have such a superlatively hard act to follow makes me want to head straight to the toilets and howl.
Over the years I’ve spent many a moment in a locked toilet trying desperately to quell my pre-performance nerves. I was once so sick with nerves that I seriously considered escaping through the toilet window. For that particular event I was part of a panel of writers, one of whom was a great hero of mine, the comedy writer David Nobbs. Before taking it in turns to entertain a stadium-sized audience, there was the torture of a three-course lunch to get through, which for me means I spend the time pushing food about the plate as eating is out of the question. I was lucky enough to sit next to David Nobbs for the meal, but I was in such a state of abject terror that my legs shook so violently under the table they kept knocking against my hero’s thigh. For the rest of my life I have to live with the shame of knowing that he probably thought I was coming onto him.
Over the years I’ve been given plenty of advice on how to beat stage fright, like imagining the audience naked (heaven only knows how that is supposed to work!) or reminding myself that the audience is completely on my side. What rubbish! The audience hates me. Every single member of it is there to judge and lynch me. Many a time I’ve heard someone say, ‘She’s not very big, is she?’ See, even before I’ve opened my mouth, I’m a disappointment.
It doesn’t matter where I am in the country there always seems to be a stand-out member of the audience who is there to make me feel even more uncomfortable. In Mansfield there was the Man in the Mac who had a Tupperware pot of ‘medication’ under his raincoat from which he took occasional noisy slurps. Later, while I was signing copies of my book, he offered to show me the scar on his stomach from his latest operation. He also had a worryingly large handwritten manuscript with him, which he wanted me to ‘take a look at’. In Manchester there was the Man in White Cotton Gloves who asked if there was much sex in my books. I was later told that he asks every visiting speaker this. I once encountered a man – for ever after dubbed The Buxton Heckler – who shouted out from the back of the audience, ‘You’ve written all these books, but I’ve never heard of you!’ He then went on to grill me on how much I earned. (Not enough, matey!) But it’s the Smart Alec in the audience I most dread. He’s the one – yes, it’s always a man – who asks a question that is so convoluted he could be speaking Swahili for all I know. I can understand a crime writer attracting the cranks and weirdoes, but why me? What have I ever done to invite such crackpots?
The flip side of this is that even an audience made up of crackpots is better than no audience at all. Well, actually, a no-show audience would mean I could go home and pretend the whole embarrassing episode never happened. But an audience of five means the near empty room reverberates for the rest of time to the sound of me bravely making the best of a bad job.
I console myself not only with the knowledge that these days my talks attract a good number of people but that I am not alone in these experiences. I know of a very well-known writer whose talk in a library was interrupted midway by a woman shuffling by on her zimmer frame as she went in search of a book to read. Another writer got to the end of his talk only to discover that someone had actually died in the front row.
As with reviews – it’s only the bad ones an author remembers – so it is with book events. No matter how many wonderfully receptive audiences I meet, or the satisfying number who want a signed hardback, it’s only the ghastly events that stick in my mind. Such as the time in Stafford when four women in the front row started talking amongst themselves in a highly agitated manner until eventually one of them raised a hand and asked me who I was. When I told them they hurriedly gathered up their things and left: they were at the wrong venue.
After each traumatic book event I survive, I swear that I will never leave the house again. But just as the pain of childbirth is soon forgotten, so is the horror of a book tour and before I know it, I’m agreeing to do a book event and the organizer is promising me I’ll be guaranteed a very warm reception. A roasting perhaps?
Addendum July 2022 …
Since writing the above piece, I think it fair to add that all these many years on I have trained myself to be less terrified when speaking in public. I put that down to the wonderful audiences I’ve encountered since I started out as an author as well as learning the best way to go about the process. But … I now have a new bête noire and that’s called Facebook Live Chats. During the pandemic and living in lockdown, this was the only way authors could connect with their precious readers, but it was a whole new world of pain for me. Seeing myself on the screen of my laptop, never a flattering way to see oneself, and talking to an audience I can’t actually see has the effect of making me so anxious I end up jabbering away like a thing possessed. I also laugh far too much, (borderline hysterical would be nearer the mark), and I constantly move around like a whirling dervish. I can only apologise to my loyal readers, some of whom have been with me for more than a quarter of a century, for putting up with my neurotic ramblings.