On the pleasure of attending book signings

Something I’ve been doing as I prepare to transition from “aspiring novelist” to “actual novelist” is attending a lot of book signings. I’m fortunate to live near a number of good independent bookstores, so there’s never a shortage of interesting writers passing through town. I’ve gone to these events on occasion over the years, but just in the past few months I’ve felt drawn to them in a whole new way.

At first, my motive was practical, with purely professional aims. As I got closer to finishing work on my book, I became curious (and perhaps a little impatient too) about what it looked like on the other side of publication. One bookstore organized a panel on debut authors over 40, none of whose books I planned to read (just not my cup of tea), but since theirs was a category I intended to join soon, I wanted to hear what they had to say. I was also looking for ways to occupy my writer’s mind as I waited for my very first readers to finish the draft I’d given them. (The waiting is the hardest part.)

At the same time, I became much more open to reading new and recent books. For a long time, I was terrified to read anything just-published, out of a fear that other new writing would put my own to shame. There was one book in my genre (historical fiction) that actually had me stricken with terror before I got to page five. I couldn’t sleep that night.

I’ve shed some of that insecurity now. I’m ready to face the competition. And, more importantly, not to see other authors as competition. I’m even ready to enjoy the fruits of their success, to take pleasure in their books, rather than be afraid.

I’ve just read an article in The New Yorker by Tim Parks called Why Read New Books? and, with remarkable timing, it helps me understand the fear I’d been experiencing, which seemed so irrational. Parks points out that older books, particularly classics, are settled, and therefore comfortable, texts. We can dive into them without thinking. We know where they stand. There’s a whole body of received opinion about them, and we can accept or reject that wisdom as we like, but it requires little mental exertion. On the other hand, he says, as Virginia Woolf believed, “one of the pleasures of reading contemporary novels was that they forced you to exercise your judgment.” New books make you flex an entirely different literary muscle.

Applied to my situation: for a writer in limbo, in transition, exercising that muscle can prove an intense, potentially painful activity. Judging someone else’s writing reminds you that, soon, others (hopefully, many others) will be judging yours too.

But you know what they say: no pain, no gain. Heck, there’s all kinds of pain involved in writing, and that’s just one among many. But no matter. The point is that I’ve gotten over that hump (and you will too, if you’re experiencing anything like the same thing — it’s a common feeling, apparently) and I’m ready for the challenges and the pleasures, of reading new fiction.

So, the authors I’ve seen recently:

Peter Lovesey, a British mystery writer I’ve read before (but only a couple of very clever short stories, “you-dunnits”), who just released the 14th in his second detective series. I bought the first book in the series, The Last Detective, for him to sign. He told a funny story about his awkward induction into the Detection Club, the society that has counted Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton among its members. The first book he ever published was an entry into a mystery writing contest, and he still has the magazine advertisement announcing it to show audiences!

Jasper Fforde, whose Thursday Next series I enjoyed, now touring with his new young adult novel, The Eye of Zoltar (I went to the signing with my daughter, also a Fforde ffan). Fforde held up the copy of his book he was reading aloud from and showed how he’d marked it up, in order to “cut out the boring bits.” He’s a witty speaker, always ready to put a new twist on tired subjects. He has his own special method for coming up with zany plots, which he calls the “narrative dare”. I recommend seeing him if you have the opportunity.

Anjali Mitter Duva, who recently published her elegantly written and titled Faint Promise of Rain, a novel about a family of temple dancers in 16th century India. I’d been waiting for this one to come out, and wasn’t disappointed. Duva imbues her characters with elements of both kindness and cruelty, making them not only interesting to follow through their travails but utterly human as well. She’s devised a clever way for her first-person narrator to have a unique voice and a degree of omniscience. To set the mood at her book launch, she supplemented her reading and signing with a beautiful performance by students at the Kathak dance school she co-founded.

Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book, another new one I’d been waiting to read. It’s a mystery set in 14th century England featuring real-life poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and, more prominently, his real-life fellow poet and friend, John Gower. It’s full of royal intrigue and prostitutes, if those things are your cup of tea (not usually mine, I admit), and the level of historical detail is incredible. It’s woven as thickly as the poetry and tapestries that lie at the core of the mystery. I originally discovered Holsinger, a professor at the University of Virginia, via the world of MOOCs, having taken a course he taught on historical fiction.

Finally and most recently, William Gibson, the inventor of the cyberpunk genre, whose novels I’ve admired ever since reading Neuromancer just after graduating from college. His latest, Peripheral, is just out. Gibson is a thoughtful commentator on writing and its relation to the world and technology. When asked why technology and the military pervade his fiction, he simply called himself a naturalist, and asked in turn how one could write about the modern world without those things. He’s known for the neologisms he introduces (“cyberspace” being the most famous); do they cause trouble for readers, does he think? On the contrary: if readers find themselves confronted with a challenge, a learning process, they’re rewarded in the end. My son was curious to hear Gibson as well and came with me. We both play guitar, and liked Gibson’s explanation of how he was influenced by the Beat writers, particularly William S. Burroughs. It was their style, not substance, he said: Burroughs was like the only electric guitarist in the world with an effects pedal, and he wanted to have that effects pedal.

I haven’t even mentioned the slew of fascinating writers I saw at the Boston Book Festival last month, but that gives you a taste. I’m looking forward to more author events. I love how they let you discover a little about the origins of stories, and give you a glimpse of the personalities behind them.