Living in an incredibly bookish town has more advantages than an abundance of bookshops and the ability to take a quick trip to Lyra’s Oxford or visit some of the locations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’m lucky enough to live in a place that has more author talks in a year than there are books in my TBR pile (and trust me, that’s a lot).
I go to author talks the way that music fans go to gigs. Since my early teens, I’ve sat in audiences and listened open-mouthed to authors whose work I’ve loved – Philip Pullman, Jasper Fforde, Malorie Blackman, M.G. Leonard, Philippa Pearce, and, of course, Terry Pratchett. Last week, I got the chance to review a conversation between one of my childhood faves, Garth Nix, and a much more recent addition to my ‘top fantasy authors’ list, R.F. Kuang. The two writers talked about world-building and characters and their upcoming projects, and my little bookworm heart grew three sizes.
Why do I love author talks? I mean, there’s the obvious answer – I get to be in the same room as someone whose writing I admire, listen to the person behind the stories that have carried me away to other worlds and, on occasion, changed my life. There is a very large dollop of fangirling behind every ticket I’ve bought and every festival I’ve attended. I want to find out more about the worlds I’ve loved, and author talks can answer questions I would never even have thought to ask (such as, who names the daemons in the world of His Dark Materials? According to Philip Pullman after a fan question, it’s the daemons belonging to the child’s parents who come up with the name – an answer that got an “Awwwwww” from a crowd of hundreds).
But going to author talks also lets you learn the stories behind the stories – and often much more. A little while ago, I went to a talk by M.G. Leonard, and found out her motivation behind her bestselling Beetle Boy series. A lifelong insectophobe, she wanted to show just how evil her villain was by surrounding her with bugs, beetles, and other creepy-crawlies. So she started researching insects so she could write about just how terrifying they were. And then she fell in love with them. Now, beetles and other insects are the heroes of her books, and she owns several beloved pet bugs that she doesn’t find remotely frightening any more. M.G. Leonard’s talk not only told this story, but was also peppered with fascinating insect facts that I lapped up along with the rest of the audience.
Going to author talks has let me steal little bits of writing advice and approaches that I can use in my own work, including “don’t be afraid to put whatever you’re currently really really enthusiastic about into your work and see if the story fits around it” (I don’t think Jasper Fforde said that in so many words, but that’s certainly why the Crimean War is such a focal point of the Thursday Next series). Since someone always asks an author how they deal with writer’s block, I’ve got hundreds of techniques to try next time I’m in a rut, from “finish in the middle of a sentence the day before” to Kuang’s “listen to some music and try to construct the movie trailer in your head”.
The only disadvantage of authors talks is that, sometimes, they’re not accessible, whether because of cost or location. Luckily, the rise of podcasting is beginning to address this problem. The Nix/Kuang talk I went to was being recorded for Blackwell’s bookshop’s podcast, and I hope that more author talks will follow suit, giving every book-lover a chance to spend a little time with their favourite writers.
If you’re nervous about meeting your heroes, pick up some tips from How To Talk To Your Favourite Authors At Signings. If you’re planning an author event and want to do something a little different, you can find inspiration at Literature-Inspired Ideas for Out-of-the-Box Author Events.