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.
I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
George Orwell named nine cases in his essay on the ‘Golden Age of Murder’; six of them are poisonings. So what is it about poisoning that delivers such delicious horror to the writer and reader of crime fiction? For me, it’s the fact that the poisoner has to be close to the victim, and may even be a family member, and because poisoning subverts all our cultural beliefs about food. Food is meant to nourish and restore; we use the phrase ‘comfort food’ to show how food nurtures our mental as well as physical health. How creepy, how insidious then, to transform the substance that’s meant to sustain into something intended to kill.
Poisoning is the epitome of premeditation. It takes thought, time and cunning to devise a way to poison someone. The poisoner is cold-blooded indeed to make these preparations. Having administered the poison, the poisoner needs nerves of steel to watch their victim eat it, and then watch them suffering a long, painful and protracted death, even sometimes being called on to nurse their victim.
The Golden Age of Murder
When we think of poisoning, we tend to think first of the golden age of murder, and the cases that gripped the nation, and which still interest us today. Cases such as Madeleine Smith, the young woman from a well-to-do Scottish family, who was charged with killing her lover with arsenic-laced cocoa. She was tried under Scottish law, and found not proven – neither guilty nor not guilty.
Another sensational arsenic poisoning case was Mrs Maybrick, who unwisely soaked fly papers to extract the arsenic to make a face wash to brighten her complexion. Unfortunately when her husband died of arsenic poisoning, the finger was pointed at her, though later it was discovered that her husband was an arsenic eater, taking increasing doses of the stuff daily to improve his constitution.
Far from poisoning being a ‘woman’s crime’ (though it’s often spoken of that way), many of the infamous poisoners from the golden age were men: Seddon, who killed his lodger to get his hands on her gold; Armstrong, who administered poison to his nagging wife; and Crippen, who silenced his wife with hyoscine.
There are common elements to these cases that spark the imagination: the closeness of the poisoner to the victim, the initial incorrect diagnosis of gastritis or stomach flu, the exhumation and testing of the body, and the fact that arsenic remains in the body, a finger pointing to foul play. Add in the big characters of the time like the barrister Marshall Hall and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, and a domestic drama is transformed into national obsession. To me as a crime writer, these highly emotional set-pieces are almost irresistible.
But is poisoning only for the golden age of murder? If you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, what does poisoning offer as a method of murder that you don’t get from shooting, stabbing or strangulation?
Firstly, you get more choice over the time of death. In poisoning, symptoms may take a while to appear. Though some, like cyanide, are instantaneous, some deadly poisons may take days before the victim realises something is wrong. For example, it takes up to five days before symptoms of paraquat poisoning occur, and several days after that before the victim dies. This gives the crime writer an opportunity to muddy the murder timeline and bring in a few red herrings, as it will be impossible to determine exactly when the poison was administered.
Poisoning also gives you, the writer, some choice over the symptoms and appearance of the corpse. You might want the symptoms to look like an illness such as a heart attack, to confuse all the characters except the savvy detective. Don’t forget that no one will test for a poison unless there is a suspicion to do so, and an idea of what to test for, so your fictional murderer might initially get away with it until the weight of evidence grows.
Alternatively, you might want dramatic, frightening or bizarre symptoms to raise the tension in the story. Your victim might be found with a blackened face (silver nitrate poisoning), yellowed skin (nicotine), or suffer pre-mortem smoking breath and faeces (phosphorous).
Picking the Perfect Poison
When I researched and wrote my novel Paternoster, I learned that it pays to decide on the poison early in the writing process, and check the symptoms, time line for reaction, and appearance of the victim, because it might just change the direction of the story.
Paternoster is set in Cheltenham. Initially, the plot concerned murders at an exclusive introduction agency, and the poison I wanted to use was mistletoe, partly because of the connection between mistletoe and kissing (yes, the working title was ‘Fatal Kiss’), but also because the trees in Cheltenham hang heavy with mistletoe and I wanted a uniquely Cheltenham brand of murder.
However, when I researched mistletoe, I was disappointed to find it wasn’t fatal (unless you scoff a ton of it and I couldn’t see the victim falling for that) so I had to find another poison. Off I went to my writers’ big book of poisons, and browsing through the pages, I came across a deadly poison, little known yet easily available, which was used traditionally in trial by ordeal. Thinking about this poison set me off on a different plot about secret societies in contemporary and Georgian Cheltenham.
I was thrilled to be invited to speak at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival about my new book, Paternoster. It was great to be in front of my home crowd, all eager to hear about the 'dark side of town', and tickets sold out quickly!
I was introduced by fellow History Press and Cheltenham author Anne Strathie, who pointed out that we also both went to the same university (St Andrews in Scotland) and that Paternoster contains a car chase down her street.
Alex Clark was my interviewer, nobly stepping in at the last minute after the original interviewer was ill, and asked great questions which elicited some things that surprised even my friends:
- I don't just read crime fiction - I like to read a variety of books including the classics, history books, chick lit, and contemporary literature
- I wrote my first novel when I was nine, and yup, it was a time-slip murder mystery, this time about a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne
- I have a reference book I call my 'Writers' Big Book of Poisons' that I consult when I want exactly the right poison for a story
The audience had super questions, too, asking about how I soak up the atmosphere of Cheltenham to add authenticity in my books (answer: I walk the streets. I've been advised to re-phrase that in future!); how to make characters become real to me (answer: talk to them, take them places, see what happens. Though this can backfire - some of them are so loud now I have to tell them to be quiet!); and how I do my research.
This last question led to the sorts of scrapes you can get yourself into as a writer. A number of years ago I was writing a novel about a dirty bomb, and consulted people about weapons grade anthrax. When I wrote Sacred Site, I needed to know about guns and rifles. And when I wrote another thriller, about Aboriginal terrorism, I needed to know about petrol bombs. I had a bit of explaining to do!
Then after the talk, the questions, and the book signing, I was taken off for champagne with my friends.
It's a tough life on the mean streets of Cheltenham!
I always think that if I can get a character's name right, then the character is much easier to write. Once I've got their name, they're real to me, and spring off the page. But getting that name in the first place can be tricky.
I'm the sort of writer who hears her characters. They talk to me, argue with me, and go off and do things that I hadn't planned. And when I'm in the early stages of writing a book, and finding out who the characters are, they often have their own opinions about what they're called. Initially, the character of Aidan in Paternoster was called Matthew. But he didn't like being called Matthew, and grumbled about it, arguing that 'I'd better not shorten it to Matt.'
So there I was with a loud character but I didn't know what his name was. So I went to my book of baby's names, and flicked through the pages, trying out names I liked on this opinionated little so-and-so until he agreed that he liked being called Aidan. And there was no question of shortening it to Ade. Once I'd got his name, he was off and running. Next was my protagonist, the character who is now Eden Grey, and she wasn't easy to find at all.
The trouble with Eden is that she's self-contained. She's used to keeping secrets, working undercover, and keeping her own counsel, so getting her to open up to me was tricky. Originally she had a very old fashioned name, and I wrote the first few chapters with my private eye called Thora Harte. But Thora Harte was very safe, very measured, and frankly, very dull. A new name was needed, but no matter how much I tried to prize it out of her, she just shrugged at me and said, 'It's not my real name anyway, so it doesn't matter.'
I tried rewriting the chapters with various different names, looking for a name that was punchy, exciting, and different. And eventually Eden Grey stepped onto the page. As soon as I had the name I knew it was right. Two short words, only three syllables, and that repeated 'e'. And as Eden Grey, she certainly wasn't boring. I started to rewrite, and within minutes she was rescuing a child, wrestling a beefy man for her camera, and dreaming about her glory days undercover.
And now I can't imagine her being called anything else.
Sometimes when I tell people about writing Paternoster, they ask how I started to write it, and where the idea came from. And sometimes they ask frankly why I decided to write a crime story set in Cheltenham.
The answer's quite simply - someone asked me to. Or rather, challenged me to.
For a few years I wrote murder mysteries set in the Australian outback. And then I wrote a murder mystery set in England. A friend read the book and asked, "Why don't you ever have a detective?"
Because I don't know where to start with a 'proper' crime book with clues and detectives and red herrings and important things like that. But it got me thinking. Why not give it a try? And why not set it close to home, where it would easy to research locations.
So I did what I always do when I think I've had a bright idea, I set to with a big sheet of flip chart paper and some crayons, and brainstormed everything I could think of about Cheltenham and its history, and then I added in things that didn't happen in Cheltenham but they might have done, until I'd covered the paper.
When I sat back and looked at it, frankly it was all over the place. Ideas and images and snippets of half remembered bits of history all jumbled up together. Time for another cup of coffee and a new marker pen, and I drew lines round bits that might fit together, or that didn't fit together but it would be cool if they did.
I came up with potential plots and scenarios for several novels. But there was one that really grabbed me and a few ideas that I was excited to work with, so I picked those first, grabbed another sheet of flip chart paper and set to again.
At this stage I had no detective, no clue how the two strands of the novel fitted together - the bit in Georgian Cheltenham and the bit in the present - but I wanted to find out. I knew I wanted the novel to be dark and not pull its punches. Murder is murder, after all, and I didn't want to pretty that up. And I wanted male victims because there are too many women getting killed in fiction at the moment, and I wanted a detective who was a bit of a maverick, was brave and opinionated and a little bit damaged.
And I cracked open a new notebook (always have to have a new notebook for each new project - choosing exactly the right one can take hours) and started to write.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.