On Saturday, I attended the launch of the anthology of short stories, published by a literary magazine. The event happened in a pub in London. My connection with the magazine is pretty tenuous. My short story Zhuang Zhu’s Dream appears in their current issue. I engaged in a to-and-fro with the editor, revising the story before it was accepted. Other than that, I knew nobody there.
I’m not by nature a gregarious person, and pushing myself forward like this is my idea of hell. But, sticking my courage to the screwing point, I decided it was the Sort-of-Thing-I-Should-Do. It was a good opportunity to meet the team, and to talk perhaps to other contributors. When you’re a published author, you attend Literary Events. It goes with the territory.
I wondered whether I could get round my terror by going as a character. I could play the author, I thought, and perhaps I should polish my Literary Conversation before I attended. Maybe I should prepare some clever remarks about the Arc-of-the-Story in modern African fiction. I had, after all, just finished an eight-week course on creative writing run by the University of Iowa. So I was well up on the terminology for the Craft Skills of Character, Description, Setting, Dialogue, and so on. But the reality is I’m the kind of person who at parties avoids the People-Who-Know-Everyone, and seeks out the other Person-Lurking-in-a-Corner-Who-also-Knows-No-one.
I asked a friend in my writing group, who is also an actress, how I should go about playing an author. “Play yourself,” she advised.
Things never work out as you expect. What I expected was some booze, some standing around, and a quick speech for the launch. What I got was an organised floorshow. Fifty folding chairs squeezed into the sweaty basement of a Bloomsbury pub, facing a postage-stamp sized stage. So there was neither need, nor possibility, of talking to anyone. The bar wasn’t serving. I squeezed, late, into the only vacant chair.
Well, I say it was an organised show. The contracted musicians hadn’t made it. At the last moment, two others agreed to step in with voice and keyboard. The singer had a cold, the music kept blowing off the stand when the door opened, and the amp had a dull throb. Apparently, someone dropped it earlier in the evening. So, in the end, they unplugged the amp. Then Katie Lumsden read a story from the anthology. Next came a one-act play for two characters. More cancellations – the contracted male actor had backed out at the last minute, because he’d been offered a paying job. Which seemed fair enough to me. But it did mean that the stand-in didn’t know his lines. The playwright also hadn’t turned up, which was perhaps a mercy for him. Last up before the interval was Aliya Whitely, talking about her career as a novelist.
At the interval, I saw my moment. I approached the editor. I extended my hand. “Hello,” I said, “I’m Neil.”
There was no flash of recognition. “Neil MacDonald,” I added.
“Ah,” he replied.
I caught the next train home.