There ain’t no party like a book launch party

(Title quote stolen shamelessly from the deathless anthem “S Club Party”, which had the distinction of being my favourite song for about two weeks when I was eight or so.)

I haven’t been around here much recently. Sorry. Easter holidays came and went, and I was in Hampshire/West Sussex with the Revered Ancestors, dealing with their ridiculous parish organ and seeing the gorgeous, elegant flower arrangements in the church and eating roast chicken. Then I was in London, seeing friends and going on a houseboat and drinking outrageously priced cocktails. Sometimes when you’re happy you don’t want to spend any time in front of a screen. Who knew, eh?

Last week, though, as a result of Quadrapheme’s growing profile and some fabulously nice publicists, I was at two book launch events—two! My first two, so I was both wickedly nervous and wasn’t quite sure what to wear. The first was in the top room of a pub in Farringdon. I was meant to be meeting one of Quadrapheme’s ace reviewers, the erudite and charming Martin Cornwell, outside the venue, so that we could go in together (there’s nothing less fun than entering, alone, a party where you only know one other person). That night I was staying at the Duchess’s house in North London, but she was tired out from our boating exertions earlier that day (can’t say I blame her; locks are hard work.) After some deliberation, I put on a black sleeveless dress, black flats, and lipstick, and wended my way to Farringdon.  (Though not before having the following conversation: “Okay, does it look like I have my shit together?” “Yeah. It’s kind of scary, actually.” “Good.”) Brilliantly, I turned the wrong way out of the station and walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction to the pub; by the time I worked out my mistake, the event was about to start. I hailed a cab from the street—something I’ve never done before in my life; it was rather exciting and professional-feeling—and texted Martin with apologies. He was waiting outside for his friend in any case, so we had ten minutes to kill before going in. His friend turned out to also be about six feet tall, so I spent most of the evening craning upwards.

The event itself was for a literary thriller called Orient, by the American arts journalist Christopher Bollen. Martin had read it, and will be reviewing it in Quadrapheme, but I hadn’t, so swiped a free copy from the mantelpiece as I was leaving. It really is good. Set in a tiny village on the tip of Long Island, it explores gentrification, small-town resentment and pettiness, and the New York art world, in a way that makes you both fascinated and repulsed. You wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters, really, with the possible exception of young Mills, the nineteen-year-old foster kid on whom the murders (there are lots of those) are pinned. It might give you an idea of how compelling I found it to say that it’s about six hundred pages long, and I finished it in two days. Stay tuned for Martin’s review! Also, although these things shouldn’t matter, the author is lovely. I was introduced to Christopher Bollen near the end of the event, and he immediately corralled me by the elbow, took me over to the wine table, and began to talk with great enthusiasm about his online Scrabble habit, which has, apparently, turned into an online chess habit. When I told him I played chess (I do, but I lose most of the time), he cried, “Well, you should play me!” Despite suspecting that he wouldn’t remember the conversation the next morning—there really was a lot of wine floating around—it was thoroughly charming.

The second event wasn’t a launch per se, but it was the only event that Sarah Hall is doing in London to promote her new novel, The Wolf Border. I absolutely loved the book, and her publicist at Faber was kind enough to send me two comps tickets to an “in conversation with” that she was doing at Foyles on Tuesday night. Since Darcy is from Cumbria, and the novel is set there (plus it’s Hall’s home county), he was my plus-one. Transport woes also stymied my arrival to this one: the coach from Oxford was badly delayed leaving, and when I finally got to the Central line, it was to discover that trains aren’t stopping at Tottenham Court Road all the way through 2015. Trying to get a taxi from Oxford Circus was a bust, too, since half of Oxford Street is shut to taxis due to Crossrail construction. My taxi driver only told me this after I’d gotten in. I swore a lot, and commiserated with him on all the fares he was losing as a result. He dropped me about two blocks from Tottenham Court Road and refused to let me pay him, which was rather kind. I practically sprinted to Foyles, and, panting, presented myself twenty minutes late to the front desk bookseller, who informed me that the event was on the sixth floor. I’m not proud of the fact that I then sighed, “Oh, fuuuuuck me”, although discovering the lifts improved my mood a bit.

After some rather embarrassing peering-about for Darcy, who had saved a seat for me but had then sat directly behind a large bank of A/V equipment, making him difficult to find, I slid into the seat next to him, grinned in what I hoped was an apologetic yet rakish manner, and paid attention to what was happening on stage.

Sarah Hall’s a very interesting human being. She doesn’t do tropes, really, or seem to subscribe to any of the things that people tell you about life experiences. This comes across most profoundly, for me, in the way that she writes sex and relationships. Sex in her books has this inconclusiveness that rings truer than all the myths we’ve ever been told about how “love actually” works. She also has a self-confessed obsession with realism and detail: the research for The Wolf Border involved her acquisition of an enormous encyclopaedia on lupine behaviour, from which, she says, she dropped far too many details into the first draft. (She insisted, however, on keeping the fact that wolves can swim eight miles. It is, admittedly, a pretty great fact.) She’s also wary of giving potted answers, which is absolutely wonderful in an author; there’s no glibness at all, no insincerity, no pomposity. A successful author without pomposity is a magical thing.

She also signed my copies of The Wolf Border and The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of her short stories published in 2011. I barely have any signed books, but the ones I do have—hers, and the entirety of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet plus Possession—are among my most treasured.

So, there we have it. Networking, wine drinking, question asking, book signing. More fun than an S Club Party any day, methinks.

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2 thoughts on “There ain’t no party like a book launch party

  1. OMG Possession is one of my favourite books. Pretty jealous.

    Thanks for this post. Our book launches in Edmonton tend to be in book store basements. This sounds so glamourous!

    Both books sound interesting too, and I hadn’t heard of either.

    PS I never had a favourite S Club song but I did just have a vivid flashback of slow-dancing with a random guy in a club to “I Never Had a Dream Come True.” Gotta love those late 90s manufactured British pop bands 🙂

    • AS Byatt is very very babely. She also let me gush all over her, which was kind.

      London is good at glamour (although I am not, witness my late, red-faced and slightly-puffing arrival at Foyles…) I would definitely recommend both of these books. Hall’s is the more assured, but Bollen’s is a great thriller that you won’t want to just throw away when you’ve finished it.

      I love your slow-dancing memory! Just realized that “Bring It All Back” was also one of my favorite songs ever. Oh, the shame.

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