2012 was eventful in all of the right ways. Over the years I’ve been to plenty of literary festivals on the coat tails of my husband Bobby (one half of the comic book duo The Etherington Brothers), always happy in my role as WAG. In 2012 however, I was hitting the road for the first time as an author in my own right. I knew I enjoyed the lanyards, the green room snacks, the linen jacket spotting, but the actual ‘appearing’ part? I seem sociable, I think I probably am, but I also love the solitary side of being a writer; disappearing into my own head, communing, for hours on end, with no one except the people I’m making up. Talking to a crowd of strangers isn’t necessarily the most natural fit with such a cloistered pursuit but it is part of the job of and, happily, I’ve discovered that I really like it.
At the Edinburgh Festival I shared a stage with the brilliant Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard (the New York Times dubbed him a ‘bad boy of European letters’ and I got to feel rock and roll by association). Then there was Appledore, a pretty-as-pie spot on the North Devon coast, for a ‘New Voices’ panel with another Richard & Judy book club author Shelley Harris, and Carol Rifka Brunt. A lovely evening of Q&A at Rossiter Books of Ross-on-Wye, one of the nicest indies I’ve ever visited. The Portsmouth Bookfest for an all-Headline panel, where fellow newbie Morgan McCarthy and I got to line up with Adele Parks and Emily Barr. The inaugural Penarth Book Festival, with my mum in the audience (and under strict ‘pipe down’ instructions). And to end the year, Book Slam Bristol, the Big Daddy and Founding Father of what’s still being called the ‘new wave’ of live literature events.
My first Book Slam experience was in 2009, for the launch of Patrick Neate’s Jerusalem. Patrick was my tutor on an Arvon course the year before, and he founded Book Slam to ‘support a diverse reading culture and stand against what is, for us all, an increasingly monolithic cultural life.’ That evening at The Tabernacle, Roger Robinson read his poetry, Soweto Kinch played sax, and Patrick read from his new novel. I’d never before been to an event that so winningly mixed live literature and music; it was very cool. Book Slam’s monthly nights have been running for nearly a decade now, and the list of alumni is crazy-stellar, as well as supporting new, deserve-to-be-heard voices. The second Book Slam short story anthology, Too Much Too Young, was published a little over a month ago and features brand new stories from the likes of David Nicholls, Marina Lewycka, Jackie Kay, Chris Cleave, and, somehow, me. The collection was celebrated with three launch parties at venues across London, and a first ever event in Bristol at the cool art space of Spike Island. I read from my story, Me and Bobby McGee, along with fellow anthology authors Salena Godden and Nikesh Shukla, while guitarist Robin Allender brought the music.
For all the events of the summer, I’d never done anything quite like this. It didn’t help at all to think of the Book Slam I’d attended the week before, how completely charming and brilliant Jackie Kay was at the mic, or how swept away we’d all been by the whirlwind poetry of Luke Wright. Later, I was certainly glad that Salena Godden, whose Stage Presence is in capitals and underscored, and Nikesh, who’d also doubled as our winsome compere, came on after me. But I did my bit, read from my story, and had a ball. Standing up there, I realised there’s something magical about telling a story to a roomful of people, and a privilege to have them listen; there’s a sense of togetherness, we’re bound just as tightly as anybody wants, and a charged stillness descends.
I’ve employed these next words of Raymond Carver before and while he’s talking about short stories it feels true of the live literature experience too. It’s certainly been mine, whether on the stage or in the audience. ‘…Our hearts or our intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves”, as a Chekhov characters puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.”