The Other Novel
It ain't what you do...

Doughnuts, Dickens and utter silence

One of the many moments which made me lose my heart to my Mexican hosts happened just after I'd finished my second lecture, in Cuernavaca. It was packed: a 150 seat lecture theatre had another fifty people sitting on the floor and in the aisles. I'd talked, pointed, edited as I read to suit the audience, even got a few laughs, ended with a suitably uplifting idea, smiled sweetly at the applause, answered long and interesting questions, signed posters, shaken hands, been stood next to, smiled again at mobile phone cameras, answered more questions, shaken more hands, retrieved my notes and my memory stick, and departed in company with my host, Leonor.

And there, coming the other way, was her assistant, with a large, flat box. 'When you've been lecturing,'  Leonor said, 'You need sugar.' And in the box were doughnuts.

How right she was: I don't think a doughnut has ever tasted so good. But why? All I'd been doing was standing up and talking for an hour or so. The talking bit, as you can imagine, comes very naturally, as does the standing up since the demons in my lumbar vertebrae have been reduced to manageability. And I'd given the same lecture to the best part of 400 people a few days before, so I knew how it went, and I only realised how tired I was when I realised how much I'd needed the sugar hit.

No, giving your fifty-minute pre-written lecture isn't up there with giving your Hamlet eight times a week, but performing is tiring, whether it's seminar of fifteen undergraduates, or a hundred plus people including five Fellows of the Royal Society, as I later learnt was true of the talk I gave in Birmingham back in February. It's not just big lectures or academic subjects, either. A nice little bookshop reading, a pre-publication dinner, a signing, asking a question in someone else's reading: they're all times when you have to be someone for people who, however fleetingly, become your audience. You present yourself in a particular form, a persona which isn't so much not you, as one part of your personality enlarged to fill the whole of you. And to do that, to fill a whole person with only part of a person, you need energy: adrenalin.

I used to wonder why I felt so hyper when I'd finished even small events, but it is adrenalin, isn't it? One biological effect of adrenalin is to release a flood of sugar into the blood, because you'll need all that energy for escaping the sabre-tooth tiger: the cunning runner in you needs to enlarge to take over the rest of you. And in the wake of the sugar-rush and the end of the performance comes hypoglycaemia, and the need for doughnuts (hm, chocolate or jam?).

The other effects of adrenalin (raised blood-pressure, tunnel vision, shaking hands, dry mouth, need to pee) are many and complex, and the total effect is a high at once disconcerting, and, for actors for example, irresistible. It's hard on writers though, who by definition spend a lot of their lives alone and not performing for anyone, who choose to communicate at two removes (thoughts to page, page to shop, page to reader), when they suddenly have to stand up and be... watched and listened to.

The poets, of course, know it's their fate from the beginning: their audience is as often on the far side of the mic as it is on the far side of a mag subscription and far more often than on the far side of a real, actual book. Most would agree that poetry has changed because of it. Even short fiction writers have their slams and mags.

But we novelists work away, for years, in the silence and darkness of our studies. The only time our words are aired is when we say them aloud to hear them for ourselves, and we write on the assumption that reading silently (a skill which only developed in the 17th century, after all) is how our words will be experienced. And then, suddenly, we're expected to stand up in the limelight, be seen and heard, be entertaining or heart-breaking, to hold real, wriggly, even ticket-paying people enthralled: to be, in short, Dickens.

Well, I'm not Dickens (I don't think the beard would suit me, for a start), and I completely understand that for some writers it's agony from start to finish, from being heard to feeling judged. And I'm nervous, of course, though not in the paralysing way I used to be when I was playing other people's characters. But fundamentally I enjoy it. Yes, sometimes I read better than others, and there are dozens of other variables which can make or mar an event. Yes, I have a complicated relationship with the reason I was asked to speak in Mexico, and elsewhere. And yes, I'm a writer, and what happens on the page in my study is the core and reason for my existing.

But removing the removes, as it were, and telling the story I have to tell direct to the audience, is a high like no other: the quiet in a hall when it's going well, a laugh, a murmur of understanding or, best of all, the total, utter silence at the end.

Comments