Book launches – are they all literary conversation and erudite jokes, or a booze-up with books? Based on my own experiences of launching Paternoster and Holy Blood, here’s a tongue in cheek account of what really happens behind the scenes.
1. It’s like a wedding
Like a wedding, you spend the whole event saying, ‘Hello, how are you? Thank you for coming’ to people, before having to dash off to have your photo taken, greet new arrivals, shake hands with the man from the newspaper, and sign books. After the event, you spend a week emailing everyone who came, thanking them for coming, and apologising that you didn’t get to speak to them for very long. Also like a wedding, you spend the whole time being hugged and congratulated by people you’ve never met before and have no idea who they are.
2. Your biggest fan will wax lyrical about your work, but only when your publisher is out of earshot
I love it when people tell me they’ve read my work, and love it even more if they tell me they liked what they read! It’s always a real thrill to have people come up to me at events and say lovely things like, ‘I’ve been waiting for your new book for ages. I’ve been looking forward to this.’ It’s incredibly kind of people and I’m always immensely touched. I just wish they’d say it – loudly – in front of my publishers instead of whispering it to me in the corner.
3. It’s not about you
Have you ever been at a wedding and someone stands up during the reception to announce that they’re pregnant? They hijack the bride and groom’s day and make it all about them. Book launches can have a similar effect on people. It goes like this. I pick up a message from a total stranger, which says, ‘I saw the poster about your book launch and it’s such a funny coincidence because I’ve always thought I could be a writer, too.’ Any other week of the year, I’d write back with encouragement and advice; try to swing off my book launch and make it about you? Nah.
4. It’s all about the catering
When I launched Paternoster, I made the mistake of writing on the invitation ‘Wine and nibbles will be served’. To me, this means ‘A range of beverages and small snacks will be available’ so I was surprised by the deluge of indignant enquiries I received:
‘I can’t drink wine – I’m driving/ breast-feeding/ tee-total – what will I do? By the way, I can’t drink orange juice because my dentist says I’ve got enamel erosion and I can’t have sparkling water because of my IBS and I can’t have anything with sugar in it …’
And then it was ‘What do you mean by ‘nibbles’? Don’t forget I’m gluten free/ dairy intolerant/ only eat organic from named and certified happy vegetables.’
Answering these outraged queries took an inordinate amount of time, so when I launched Holy Blood, I simply put ‘Refreshments will be provided’. This also meant the person who came along, drank five glasses of red wine in quick succession and then left, was discouraged from attending.
5. You will forget your friend’s name
Signing books is a complicated business. First, you have to remember to sign with your special ‘author signing books’ signature and not the one you use on your cheques; and you have to come up with some sort of pithy phrase to make you look open, approachable, witty and intelligent (haven’t found it yet – open to suggestions); and you have to make sure that the ink is dry before you close the book so it doesn’t imprint itself on the opposite page. So it’s hardly surprising, your honour, that after thirty minutes of this I’ve completely forgotten my friend’s name. I look at her, I think ‘I know you. I know I know you, but what the hell are you called?’ So I sign the book with a generic ‘All best wishes’ and pray she won’t ask me to personalise it.
6. You look peculiar in every photo
When I was a teenager, a boy told me I had a dead-pan face. This was very hurtful and I told my mum, who said he was right, I did have a dead-pan face. But looking at the photos from every single talk, workshop or launch I’ve ever given, I think I’ve overcompensated. In every photo, I’m gesticulating wildly and pulling a range of bizarre faces so I look like an understudy for Rowan Atkinson. The only ones where I don’t look demented are, naturally, blurred.
But despite all this, when it’s all over and we’re on the way to the bottle bank with the empties, I think, ‘That was great. Can’t wait for the next one.'
Publication day always catches me out. I see my book advertised for sale, saying it’s available for pre-order, and the date when it’s expected to be published; and I get the emails from my publisher with a rough date when they expect the book to be out, but still I’m never prepared. It’s like getting married: you know the date but it always seems to be weeks away, until you wake up on the morning of the wedding and wonder which shoes you’re going to wear.
This time, I was expecting my latest novel Holy Blood to come out at the beginning of April, and had a schedule prepared for blogs and announcements and invitations to the launch. The publication date is always a little hazy to allow for hold ups with the printer and distributor, so when the doorbell went on Friday afternoon, I genuinely thought it must be someone collecting for charity or wanting to read the meter. I didn’t expect a large and hefty box of books to be thrust into my arms. But it was, and there they were, the copies of Holy Blood I’d ordered months ago when it was accepted for publication.
At least this time I got my copies of my book before my mother. When Paternoster was published, I knew it was coming out in June, and for some reason I thought that meant the end of June, so I went away on holiday. I was staying in a seaside cottage, weirdly called ‘Eden Cottage’ (the name of my protagonist) and along from it was an ‘Aidan Cottage’ (the name of the other major character in the books). Just to add to the weirdness, there was a little ornament hanging up in the cottage with ‘Paternoster’ written across it. The signs were all there. The cottage was only a couple of hours from my mother’s house, so I went to see her for the day. She lives 300 miles away from me, and I don’t get to see her that often. A mere two hours to get to see her was nothing.
I was at my mother’s house when a parcel came for her, and in it were six copies of Paternoster that she’d pre-ordered. She got her copies before I even knew it was published. When I got home at the end of my holiday, my author copies still hadn’t arrived. I had to wait another few days. But Mum got hers, and mightily pleased she was to get hers before me, too.
Anyway, this time it was just me and the cat to open the box and take out the books as carefully as if they were new born lambs, and line them up on the table and admire them.
This is my fourth published book, and I still feel the same sense of disbelief as I did when I held the first one, Sacred Site. It’s a mixture of wonder that the book is finally, actually done and finished and a proper book, the text neatly aligned and the cover all shiny and thrilling. And I can’t quite believe that I’m the one who wrote it. Every time I flick through the pages a bit of text catches my eye and I think ‘Did I write that?’ Sometimes I’ve forgotten how I wrote and crossed out and rewrote and got fed up and walked away and came back and tried again. I forget the bits that made me laugh when I wrote them the first time, and still make me laugh when I read them now. Again there’s that sense of amazement for forgetting them. They seem like someone else’s words, not mine. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a long time from finishing a book to seeing it published (almost a year for Holy Blood) and I’m so deeply into writing a new book that I’ve dismissed the old one from my mind, or whether the writing was simply channelling, after all. Sometimes it jolly well feels like it.
I think that the thing that makes it all wonderful though, is it that when it's a ‘proper’ book it distances itself from me: the book is an entity all on its own. The umbilical cord that tied it to me has been cut: it’s time for it to make its own way in the world. It’s a strange and amazing feeling, and one I never get used to.
This beautiful chapel of ease, dedicated to St James, is in Stoke Orchard, a few miles outside Cheltenham. Inside, the walls still bear traces of their mediaeval paintings. Though the colours are faded now, in their heyday they would have been vibrant, even garish. Their purpose was to illustrate the Bible’s teachings to people who couldn’t read or understand Latin, as all services in the church would have been conducted in Latin. The fact they’ve survived the rigours of the reformation of the church and the hammer blows (literally) of Oliver Cromwell’s vision of England, is astonishing. In other churches, the paintings survived only to fall foul of Victorian whitewash. Any that survive, as they do here, are incredibly fragile and increasingly rare, a fact that makes them doubly precious.
But what makes this church so special to me is that it contains a number of pilgrim crosses. The church was on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela: pilgrims heading there from the north of England or from Wales would break their journey at certain points along the way, offering up prayers for a safe journey and return. This chapel is one of those stopping off points. On their way to Spain, pilgrims carved crosses in the stonework of the church, just inside the door. On their way home, they carved a circle around the cross they’d made, indicating they'd safely made it back. To me, these marks are so poignant: a tangible mark of both the faith and fragility of previous times.
My interest in pilgrims and pilgrimages started long ago, as a child taken to visit church after church, abbey after abbey. Was I the only ten year old who could spot a Saxon tower? Later, when I lived amongst Aboriginal people, I came to see correlations between pilgrim routes and the songlines. Walkabout is, arguably, a form of pilgrimage.
And now my latest book, Holy Blood, concerns itself with the holy relics housed in abbeys in the middle ages. Some relics were regarded as so sacred they attracted thousands of pilgrims, whose offerings at the shrine provided a valuable source of income for the abbey. In Holy Blood, the abbey is Hailes, near Winchcombe, a few miles from Cheltenham. It housed one of the most sacred Christian relics of all: a phial of the blood of Christ, collected at the time of his crucifixion. Pilgrims flocked to see the relic: the mere sight of it was believed to ensure salvation.
But Henry VIII, forgetting that he himself had walked barefoot in pilgrimage to the shrine at Walsingham, ordered the destruction of the relics. The Blood of Hailes was removed and tested, and declared to be a fake. A short time later, the Abbey itself was Dissolved, the land given away, and the buildings dismantled.
The plot of Holy Blood came about when on a visit to Hailes, one gloriously sunny summer day, I found myself wondering, ‘What if the Holy Blood of Hailes wasn’t destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, after all? What if it survived somehow?’
And from there I started reading, widely, about pilgrims and pilgrimages, the Dissolution, monastic life, and what happened to people who continued to believe in relics and the Catholic church. And I did my own pilgrimage, to Walsingham, in Norfolk. Not barefoot like Henry VIII, but still. It was as I imagined pilgrim sites to be in the past: groups travelling together with their priest, some solemn and overawed, others laughing and with a ready quip; the sales of badges and stickers to proclaim ‘I was there’; a strangely festival atmosphere and a disconcerting rubbing shoulders of the sacred and the profane.
But as I stood in the Slipper Chapel, silent and overawed by the press of history, I understood how it might have felt to a mediaeval pilgrim, weary and travel stained, to reach his destination at last. And I saw how embodied an experience pilgrimage is, to undergo the rigours and perils of the journey, which could easily last for months. No wonder they bought badges to mark the event. I’d done nothing more strenuous than sit in a car, but I too, bought a badge, to mark my pilgrimage.
I finished the first draft of a new novel at the weekend, and fought off the flat, empty feeling by taking myself out for lunch to celebrate. At the end of a book I always feel a bit depressed - I want to be back with the characters and in that wonderful state of discovering what's going to happen next in the story. Believe me, as the author, I'm the last one to know!
Anyway, I finished the first draft, and gave myself a pat on the back and a nice lunch, and the manuscript will be left fallow for a little while before I start the rewrite. Amazing what new ideas and insights come into play when it's been left alone for a while.
I think celebrating every milestone in writing is important: the first draft, completing a novel, sending off a short story, winning a competition. It's easy, as time goes on and the writing credits pile up, to take it all for granted, but one thing about writing is that it's uncertain. You never know definitely that you'll ever have anything published again. When I was a new writer, and sending work out was a Big Thing, I used to be so frightened of putting the manuscript in the post box that I pretty much hyperventilated. I used to hold the package in the slot, wish it luck on it's way (out loud, to the amusement of passers-by), and cross my fingers as I let it drop.
I don't hyperventilate when I post off work now (at least not as much) and I rarely wish my manuscript bon voyage or cross my fingers. But I do take time to acknowledge that there's another story on it's way; another story I've crafted and rewritten and stamped on and cursed at and rewritten again and again until I think it deserves an outing in the world. Sometimes it's just a moment when I think about the story and say to myself, 'Well done for finishing it.' Sometimes I have a little treat - a walk in a beautiful place, a poke round a junk shop, or a manicure.
Celebrating the conclusion of this latest first draft was a big deal for me, as a few months ago I thought the novel wouldn't get written at all. I normally take about a year to write a novel, end to end, but this one has been on the go for about eighteen months. Why? Because I caught flu five months in and was out of action for weeks, and have been pretty ropey since then. When I returned, eventually, to the manuscript I was part way through, I realised I didn't know my victim well enough, and I hadn't got a clue what made the murderer tick. It needed a complete overhaul: new scene outlines, new character sketches, a few red herrings to keep people guessing, and a subplot or two.
It was a while before I could face starting again, but I did, and the first draft was - eventually - finished. I learned a lot from having to start again, to rip up what I'd written and rethink the whole blessed book. And that's worth celebrating.
This chap is John Schorne, a thirteenth century miracle worker. During a drought, he's said to have struck the ground with his staff, and water poured forth. From then on, pilgrims flocked to the well to drink the holy water and to be cured of gout. Those who visited the well would very likely have bought a badge as a souvenir of their trip, like the one represented above.
This is a replica pilgrim badge, based on an original design. It sits on my desk to help me with my writing. Not by working miracles, (though some days it would be handy!) but by helping me to understand faith, religion and miracles in the past.
Having something tangible to ground your writing was a tip given to me by fellow History Press author Anne Strathie. She writes biographies, and told me that she likes to have some tangible link to the person she's writing about close to hand, to keep them real and to keep her focussed.
I'm currently writing Holy Blood - the second in the Eden Grey series, and the historical part of the action is set at Hailes Abbey, and concerns a relic known as the Holy Blood. During the middle ages, Hailes was one of the major pilgrimage sites, as it housed the blood of Christ. It's likely that Hailes, too, would have sold pilgrim badges with images of the Holy Blood, but I haven't yet been able to track down what a Hailes badge looked like. In the meantime, John Schorne reminds me that during the time I'm writing about, people believed that seeing a holy relic could earn them some time off in Purgatory.
It helps me to build the world view of someone who knows that when he or she dies, their soul will spend some time doing penance before they're allowed into heaven, and that the length of time spent there is negotiable through prayer and religious observances.
The pilgrim badges bought by those who visited shrines served not only to show others where their devotions had taken them, but was a tangible reminder that they had done everything they could for the sake of their soul.
A little badge, a scrap of metal, yet it helps me to connect with a world view and absolute faith that otherwise would be alien to me.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.