Picture this: a long lounge filled with writers – at all stages of their careers – and readers, crowded together on sofas and chairs, full glasses to hand, to hear a writer read from her/his work and to have a wonderful, literary conversation. Does that sound like your perfect night? Me, too. This is why I invite writers to come to my house, to my long lounge, because I want to be a part of these conversations. And if I don’t host them – who will?
It’s all Inua Ellams fault. This sparky poet visited my house as part of his whistle-stop tour of Britain (7 living rooms, 7 cities, 7 nights) to celebrate his latest collection. After hosting Inua, I had the bug and it continued to bite, with recent visits by Betty Herbert and, this past weekend, a reading to celebrate the paperback launch of Vanessa Gebbie’s The Coward’s Tale, as well as a sold-out workshop for 10 lucky local-ish writers.
Obviously, this system of producing events relies on the generosity of writers – writers who will expect to have their books available at your event. Any writer you approach can give you the name of their publisher’s publicity department; they, in turn, will put you in touch with accounts, so that you can arrange for ordering the books – often at a discount so that you can, in turn, pass the discount on to your audiences or use the “profit margin” to cover the writer’s travel costs. Local writers and writers with smaller publishing houses may opt to bring the books to you, so that you can sell for them. Really, all you have to do is ask with enthusiasm and a sense of how many books you might hope to sell as a result, so that the writer can gauge if it feels right for them. Writers are always looking for ways to meet new readers and no one is offended at being considered and approached. If it doesn’t feel like an opportunity they will say no, as is their right.
Once you have a writer in place and you’re done doing your happy dance, what next? How does it work? The main thing to stress here is – I have no funding. I used to have funding to produce live literature events, but I no longer do. However, you shouldn’t let a little thing like the lack of funding get in your way! All you need is a space. I use my living room because I don’t have to hire it and I don’t have to fit around other people’s schedules or rules or regulars. I have run plenty of events in pubs, libraries, arts centres, etc., and none of them is as cozy or inviting as your own house, whatever its size. Audiences are remarkably forgiving and resilient if they see that you are doing your best and have taken charge of the bum-to-cushion ratio. You might like to offer tea or put out a donations cup to cover the cost of offering wine. Jumbo glasses are available here for a pound, as well as pitchers of juice and (entirely gratis) tap water. You also need a way of getting the word out, so that you aren’t leaning on your friends to fill every event, and a way of vetting who’s coming – you are your own security if your house is your venue. Certainly, be cautious about posting your address anywhere via social networking – I communicate by email with everyone before they get my details.
Introduce the writer and take charge of when the event starts and ends. The writer just wants to do what she does best and doesn’t want to worry about logistics. Take charge of when and how books get sold, keeping track of how many are sold and remembering to have a float for change – everyone will turn up having just come from the cash point. Consider having some diversity in your programming – invite a fellow local writer to “open” for the writer, or have some kind of “ice breaker” activity – we have shown short films on topic as well as run non-threatening writing exercises, so that non-writers can take part, anxiety-free. Inua suggested magicians and belly dancers were nice openers for poets – who am I to disagree?
The real reason why I bring writers to my house is to be a part of their journey and to help it along as best I can, whether I know the writer well or not. As publishers struggle to market the full output of their list, especially during the transition from hardback to paper, we writers and readers can work to fill the gap. In fact, it is reclaiming an old tradition of literary salons, which featured hosted gatherings of cultural and intellectual folk for debate and edification. They used to take part in drawing rooms and coffee houses – now, they take place in grand hotels and venues across Britain – as well as in humble living rooms, like mine. If you’re looking to make a difference in your community – or in a writer’s professional life – why not consider hosting your own salon? And if you haven’t the where-with-all to use your home, partner with your library or a local bookstore, who will be grateful for the support and the help in attracting an audience, or a function room in your local pub, which will welcome a crowd of drinkers on a slow night. My thanks to Vanessa and to Bloomsbury, her publisher, who made this weekend easy – and to friends, old and new, who came into my living room and left with new books and new ideas for their own writing and reading. What more do we want than that?
As for me, my own book is due at the end of next week. No more from me here until I press send!