Complimentary grapes, train photos, warm lager; ShortList's columnist Danny Wallace draws the veil on the debauched world of regional book tours
As an author I am often asked, “Is a book tour of regional bookshops or other nearby affiliated venues as rock’n’roll as it sounds?”And the answer, of course, is that what goes on a book tour, stays on a book tour! But the answer is also yes.
There’s an unwritten rule in the authorial community that we don’t talk about book tours. Today I break rank. Sure, at our weekly Author’s Meeting I may be ousted from my Comma (we move in Commas) by a disgruntled Val McDermid or a furious Fay Weldon. But as I prepare for a signing tour, is it not worth this inconvenience to bring light to a subject often considered too unconsidered to consider?
That is not for me to say. But the answer is also yes.
Travels with Ed
Life on the road can be hard. Often there’s no buffet service on the train and you have to literally remember to bring crisps. Oh, what’s that? You forgot your crisps? Well, this game’s not for everyone. Maybe try another vocation, kid.
Plus, you need to do something to while away the hours. This is where classic authors’ high jinks come into play. Honestly, authors are nutters. They can read for an entire journey, or gently rest their head against the window and close their eyes. Are they asleep? Aren’t they? You never know where you’re at with an author, and that’s what makes it so bloody exciting.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve done many book tours, usually accompanied by a panicky man named Ed. Every time I’m on a train with Ed, I take a picture of him on that train. They’re for when I retire; a way of looking back and reminiscing. “Oh, that’s when we went to Shrewsbury. Look! We must have gone to a Pret!” – that kind of thing.
I once set up a Facebook page for these photos and called it ‘Ed On A Train’, and invited all Ed’s colleagues to join it – but not Ed. Not because I like to limit my interaction with him. But because I need Ed focused and to stop panicking.
So after I’ve taken a picture of Ed on a train, I’ll ask him a few questions.
Where are we going? Important question. I need to be primed. I need the name of the location, and I expect it to be the first word out of Ed’s mouth. Anything else, and you’re wasting my time, baby.
Who’s going to be there? How many people are coming? What is the name of the store manager? Ed knows what I’m asking here. It’s the kind of shorthand you can only develop with a man you’ve spent years on the road taking pictures of.
Are these clowns adhering to my rider? The true mark of any bookshop is how they deal with your rider. Mine?
I’m a man of simple tastes. Banana, sandwich, can of lager – if it’s an evening event. Your choice of sandwich (no fish) if it’s afternoon. But make no mistake – I will judge you by what you choose. Don’t try to distract me with flashy extras – a muffin on the side, a box of grapes, anything with elderflower – that doesn’t impress me. As novelist Ian Rankin recently sang, “The sandwich forms the centrepiece of the rider and it has to be spot-on.”
If it’s not, well, you might just about get away with a signing. “But Danny, it’s a signing and a talk!” Yeah? Good luck, bozo, because you’ll need it. Way to sabotage your own event. And I’m not saying this for me. I’m saying this for the fans. Fans of words. Fans of grammar.
Man of the people
Because that’s whom all this is for. I remember last year, in Glasgow, I arrived a little early at the bookshop. And I was humbled, as outside I saw a kid named Michael, no taller than a man of average size, hunched against the wall, a plastic bag in his hand, looking nervously around.
Michael was more than 45 minutes early for my signing.The poor guy had been camped out, all on his own, for approaching an hour (50 minutes).
“Are you coming in?” I asked, kindly.
“No,” he said. “I’m waiting for someone.”
“I’ll see you in there,” I smiled, knowing exactly who he was talking about: me.
I didn’t see Michael in there that evening. I like to think that maybe he’d already got what he wanted and had no need for the signing. He’d had a money-can’t-buy one-on-one audience with D-Wall. But I did see him one more time.
As Ed and I approached the train station, Ed was panicking because he wasn’t sure if there would be a McDonald’s or a Burger King at the station as I had specifically asked him to find out. And there was Michael again, and he had met a friend. But he pretended not to recognise me and moved off. “The ultimate sign of respect,” I told Ed. “Just letting me move around as a normal member of the public like him.”
It’s at times like that when I enjoy seeing all these unfamiliar towns and cities and what they have to offer. Glasgow train station has a Burger King. Did you know there’s a Starbucks now in Milton Keynes? Would it surprise you to learn there’s more than one? Little nuggets I make a note of in the back of my tour copies of books, along with date, location and store manager sandwich choices.
Sometimes Ed and I will be able to go out after the event. If a signing finishes at 9pm, that leaves just enough time to hit the streets, see everything that Northampton can offer and still be in bed by half 10. I also take photographs of interesting sights. Like this one, which I find particularly inspiring. It was taken in Bolton last year. It’s a shop where men can swap magazines they’ve already read with other likeminded guys. It’s wonderful to see people tackling these austere times head on, and I wouldn’t have seen such a sight had I not been booked for a two-hour signing by Waterstones Bolton on Deansgate, just next to Superdrug. Cheers, guys!
And then it’s back to the hotel, or home. One more picture of Ed on a train, that can of lager from the rider (which should now be just warm enough), maybe something from the buffet car, or the crisps I’ve brought in case there isn’t one.
The Code of the road
By the way, Ed recently told me that after 10 years or so of solid rock’n’roll, he would not be accompanying me on “any further book tours at all ever”. I get it. I get it. This business can burn you out. So off he went to work for a company that sells cookery books instead. For the first time, there was no panic in his eyes. He looked at ease. So I made him go to the buffet carriage to buy some warm chardonnay we could use to toast his journey (I am being literal and metaphorical – and smiling wryly as I do so). So now it will just be me again.
The lone figure – the author – the pained wordsmith, so isolated, so solitary, so alone. And also Hannah from the publishers.
And as so many rockers of old have shouted, their voices already strained at the thought of the endless dates, the relentless travel, the pure showbiz rock of it all… “First stop – Swansea.”
See you on the other side.
The paperback edition of Charlotte Street is out now. Danny will be signing books in Waterstones on the following dates:
7 May, 12.30pm, Swansea; 5pm, Bristol.
8 May, 12.30pm Leeds; 4.30pm, York;
9 May, 1pm, Leicester; 5.30pm, Nottingham; 10 May, 12.30pm,
Leadenhall Market, London
(Image: Rex Features)