Author in the Wild

Before I became a children’s writer, I didn’t really know about author events. I imagined it was quite straightforward; a person wrote a book, if they were lucky it would be published, then it appeared on bookshelves. Ideally after this, you wrote another. That was it. I didn’t realise at the time that a big part of the job is visiting libraries, schools and festivals. I didn’t know about The Author Visit.

Fortunately I like showing off in funny clothes and telling stories so this part of the job is right up my alley. However, in the beginning, I wasn’t really sure about the nuts and bolts of the thing. I’d been a teaching assistant for years, so I was happy with big groups of children, but that was always in the same place. Would it be like being a travelling chef who turns up with familiar ingredients but in an unfamiliar kitchen? What should I expect? What would actually HAPPEN on the day? What were the brass tacks of getting about and appearing in different places? What were the travel logistics?

This gave me the idea of recording the events of my latest visit, in case anybody else was preparing for this and would like to know, or was just wondering what an author’s event trip – or this author’s trip anyway – is like.

This particular jaunt started with a diary date months earlier. Writing about ghosts and witches, Halloween half-term is always a busy time for me so it’s good to get dates in the diary early. I do many sorts of visits, mostly organised by me, but not always. If I’m lucky, they will be arranged for me. The publicists I work with are brilliant and two of them cleverly put together a joint agenda for the publishers of both of my series Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog (Usborne) and Picklewitch and Jack. (Faber). They booked my train tickets and my hotel and sorted out the details with the venues. All I had to do was get to places on time and do my job in the best way I could. How hard could it be? Piece of cake.

So how does an author visit begin? Well, in my case it often starts very early in deepest darkest Devon*

*Actually it starts with hours and hours of planning powerpoint presentations, practising readings, trying out tricks, quizzes and props… but you probably figured that so I’ll gloss over that bit. .

On this particular day I get up at five am and drive for forty minutes over Exmoor to Tiverton.

My train is late hey-ho and tra la la.

I finally get on the train and take out my list of Very Important Things Not To be Forgotten.

Yesterday it made sense, but in the dawn light it looks like the scribblings of a madwoman. Nevertheless I stare at it for a long time.

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Soon my addled brain starts firing out helpful questions like WHAT IF YOUR NEXT TRAIN IS LATE? and HAVE YOU REMEMBERED YOUR PYJAMAS? and (despite the fact I have done hundreds of events) WHAT IF YOU FORGET EVERYTHING YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SAY? I have a coffee, which only serves to make the voices louder.

Conductor appears and says, ‘Sorry, this train is only going to Taunton now – you’ll need to hop off and catch the next one!”

Breathing deeply, I find a lucky pigeon feather on the platform and pin all my hopes on it. Pigeon comes good and I make it to Paddington station on time. Hello Paddington.

Did I mention my props? I have a suitcase full of hats and leaves and balloons and fruit (obviously). As I’ll be doing two different events for two different series I need to bring it all. Also, me being me, it has to be a falling apart 1940’s hat box with no wheels, so I also have a trolley with me. Let’s not forget I’m wearing a bright flowery dirndl and wearing victorian boots and everyone is staring at me? Haha – ONWARDS TO THE TUBE!

Car, train, train, tube, train.

Remember: my actual job has not even begun yet.

Finally I arrive in Great Missenden – 5 hours and 228 miles away from home. This is an event I’ve really been looking forward to three events in a row and signings at the Roald Dahl Story Museum!

Danny The Champion of the World happens to be my favourite book ever, so no pressure. I am excited and nervous in equal measure. Begin praying to God and the pigeon feather that the tech works**. Normally I bring my own USB with my presentation on it but this time I’ve sent it over on a digital platform so I can’t personally check its foibles until the day.

**Any author will tell you that the tech is often the bit that goes wrong. I’m like a travelling branch of Maplins. In my case I have 3 back up usbs, an iPad and a Thunderbolt, my own clicker, and chargers for my speaker. In my experience, it’s best to be prepared. Did you know that playing your presentation on a Chromebook can wipe out bits of the presentation? Ha, me neither but I do now.

On the outside I look like I’m calm. On the inside I’ve got all the sangfroid of a greyhound in the starting gate. But of course the team at the RDSM are way ahead of me and it works like a dream. They even give me a guided tour and plenty of tea!

And this is where it starts to get REALLY, REALLY GOOD. Once the room is full of children and adults the afternoon flies by in a wonderful blur. I reach into my prop case and find all manner of pre-prepared goodies – wish leaves, walnut ink, hand-made booklets, postcards and little packets of bird seed. I’m striding about, reading, talking about my pets, doing spells and waving my arms around, I’m talking to children about how much I love to write and how happy I am that they like my stories. Events sell out, books sell out. I am in author Heaven… and then suddenly the party is over and it’s time to leave and go to the next event.

Outside it is beginning to get dark. All of my oomph mysteriously disappearing along with the audience, I walk back to the station, clicking my tired heels and trundling my trolley. Where am I going now? What is my name? Where am I? Check the list again. Ah, Aylesbury, that’s right.

I get in a taxi and wend my way to a lovely*** hotel. It has glowing lights and good wifi and a shower.

***They aren’t always lovely by the way, particularly if I’ve booked them myself. Once I stayed in a hotel with bloodstains on the carpet and someone let themselves into my room at 3am. Still, I digress, this one was very smart indeed, thank you kind publisher.

I take off my boots, collapse on the bed and look at where I’m going tomorrow. I’m going to need to get some sleep because my feet have gone on strike. Must try not to fall asleep in my tights and petticoat. Yawn.

As it happens, I sleep really well, except for the bit where I wake up convinced that someone is getting shot, only to realise it’s fireworks. But the good news is I feel like a new woman! I have a delicious breakfast, put on my squirrel brooch and I’m ready to go again.

I’m picked up from the hotel by the event organiser and taken to the venue. She very kindly tells me a little about he history of the place. How many people will be there I ask? Who knows? Some to many. Being a wandering children’s author means being flexible and adapting to the audience you meet. As it turns out it’s Halloween, so it’s very busy indeed.

The good news is the tech is working perfectly, I have loads of fun and also got plenty of shouting practice in the dome #outdooracoustics . I sign a pile of of books and meet many brilliant readers too. Before I know it, the fun is over and it’s time to go. I’m driven back to the station, in time to catch my train.

I sit on a platform bench and wait. Suddenly hungry, I eat 3 slices of cheese and a whole packet of blueberries from my handbag. I watch a mummy pigeon feed a baby pigeon in the railway bridge rafters. Am struck by our similarity of circumstance.

I get on the train and then like a nutter I suddenly decide to stop off enroute to visit a bookshop to sign and say hello, dragging my cases behind me. Miss two trains as I’m busy yabbing.

Finally I get back on the train, head for Marylebone, jump back on the tube with my trolley and head for Paddington. I grab some lunch from the ever-faithful Leon at Paddington station. It’s 4 pm and I’m still starving. I love Leon, although I’m not sure the man on the train sitting next to me does. Suddenly I feel very, very tired.

Trains are very good places to think because of the dodgy wifi. So I spend the two hours of the journey coming up with potential new story ideas, new characters and new titles.

I get into Tiverton station with everyone else arriving home from London, find my car in the dark car park, and drive home beneath a starless Exmoor sky.

Finally, 38 hours after I left, I open my front door again and sit down. ‘Where have you been?” ask the dogs.

“It’s been brilliant!” I say, putting down my cases. “I’ve been hundreds of miles away in a completely different place visiting hundreds of children.”

“You?” they say.”The pyjama lady? A likely story. Pass the dog biscuits.”