William Sutton, author of Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, talks of the fun of presenting his novel in readings and festivals.
Writing is a lonesome game. Authors are often retiring by nature: brood now, take revenge later.
Whereas reading in public, writing in public, festivals, panels, groups, and simply talking about books – these can be the fuel that keeps the fires burning through cold winter nights at the desk.
Douglas Adams loved the collaboration of radio drama so much that he never quite recovered from the shock of finding himself locked in hotel rooms to finish novels. (“I love deadlines. I love the sound they make as they whizz past.”) I grew up writing plays, loving the maelstrom of passions that go into theatre, and the arc of creation through development through disastrous rehearsal to glorious realisation, and immediate audience response. By contrast, everything about writing books is delayed. The book I’m promoting now I finished years ago; I’m busy writing the third in the series; my researches now are outwith the first book’s subterranean world and in amongst the dark heart of the venal Victorian soul.
But I’ve stumbled upon a way to rediscover my excitement about the first book. Performance.
I just sang a song at the Portsmouth Book Festival launch. At my own book launch in Waterstones Gower Street, I dueted a series of London songs and underground songs, performing a parade of characters from my novel. The previous night, I read and sang in Portsmouth Blackwells, while the lovely staff served Devils on Horseback, devilled eggs, and Victorian cocktails to the friendliest of crowds. Brilliant. A week before, I sat on a haybale in a tea tent in a Canterbury field, typing instant stories from audience prompts. Fantastic fun, and a million miles from the silence of the writers’ desk; and the voices keep murmuring when you return.
How did this come about?
A year ago, I needed to meet other writers. I hunted for workshops, festivals, groups. I joined New Writing South, I joined Portsmouth Writers’ Hub.
I went to an amazing workshop with the ReAuthoring Project. They invite you to be silly, they invite you to be bad, they invite you to think of your book physically, pictorially, post-it-notally, musically; but most of all to find your enjoyment in it, and find ways to convey that enjoyment. Writers being retiring, we’re not always that sparkling in debate; which means book events can feel trapped in earnest conventional tropes of Q&A, panels and murmured readings into dysfunctional microphones.
Through ReAuthoring, I began to recognise how much music and joy and silliness is in my book, alongside the intricate insights, incisive politics and riproaring pace. Determined to infuse my performances with that music hall spirit, last summer, I
– read on the poop deck of Light Ship LV21 (Thanks, Päivi and Gary)
– did a one-man cabaret in Deco 5, a Whitstable restaurant (Thanks, Tizi)
– wrote coffee cup sleeve stories and communal songs at Lounge on the Farm
These were challenging, but hugely rewarding. And I met more people, readers, writers.
When ReAuthoring did a workshop in Portsmouth, none of us imagined that it would turn a loose association of writers into a real community. Fifteen writers, tentative, asked to perform improvised drama a small box, to seek out a story in the labyrinthine bowels of the Guildhall, to dissect our tales into a few choice words on sticky notes. Fifteen writers, emerging from suspicion into a remarkably confident group. From that workshop, we have performed at Victorious Vintage Festival, at Blackwell’s Bookshop, at the Square Tower, where we present Day of the Dead on October 30 in Portsmouth BookFest. Best of all was the enchanted night of storytelling at Alver Arts Festival: Gosport Ever After. We rewrote fairytales, mangled and dark, and the audience listened in delight to ten new stories, told with twisted relish.
When I was invited on to a panel at Bristol CrimeFest, I wasn’t overwhelmed, I enjoyed recounting inspirational moments that led to the book, and we put on a good show. (Thanks, Ruth.) Chatting on Express FM, I sang a silly song. Reading the AudioGo audiobook, I loved recreating the characters, deploying full voices and Victorian verve.
A fortnight ago, I was invited to Leesland ParkFest, a small local community gathering. Over the hum of a generator, I read to a dissipated crowd of smirking teenagers, deck chairs, and a few dogs; I wrote some stories for children on my typewriter; I’m not sure how useful it was to me or the audience. But I was reminded of Polly Morland’s book How to Be Brave: if you can risk ridicule among friends, you have nothing more to fear from public performance. Once you’re able to show your true self, audience feel that shining through your reading, and they may well become readers too.
This weekend I’m invited by the Big Green Bookshop to the first Wood Green Literary Festival, 2-3pm Saturday, Karamel Club, Wood Green N22, alongside @ExhibitABooks author John Matthews. Come along. And on 31 October I’ll be in the Firestation Bookswap in Portsmouth.
Watch a video of Will performing ‘Victorian Sensation’ here.