WHY do most writers find book tours unpleasant and draining? Am I generalising? Should I rather say “some"? The latter group includes me.
Having said that, no publisher has ever forced me to go anywhere to speak; I have always been asked if I wanted to go. So, I reluctantly drag my tired body to show off and talk because I do want the book to sell. However, it is a Pyrrhic victory because the psychological and emotional exhaustion, as well as the harsh criticism and ridicule one is subjected to, are draining and definitely not good for an already fragile self-esteem.
There are three types of appearances. Book festivals, bookstores and reading circles. Festivals are the most enjoyable because there's a hearty spirit and you get sucked into the atmosphere, although I've also had my fair share of bad experiences at festivals.
Recently, at one in the wine regions, the man who interviewed me told me halfway through that I talk too much. Luckily, I was on tranquillisers, or I would have overturned the table and stormed out.
There is talk of the amygdala being hijacked when your brain responds to psychological stress as if there's physical danger. It's also apparently the processing centre that makes you curse.
The woman who was speaking alongside me also piped up every time I said something. When I mentioned that I was amazed when my novel Hoerkind was adapted into a play, she told the audience I was blowing my own trumpet.
That's not the end of it. I talked about how intimidated I was (I'm not any more) to have Damon Galgut as a neighbour. Then she told me I was name-dropping.
The point was: when I'm sozzled after an evening of watching TV, I see his little light burning like a firefly in his apartment while I comfortably go to bed. Then I think, you lazy good-for-nothing, if you want to be a real writer it should be your light glowing in the dark. That was the context in which I referred to him, now I'm accused of being boastful.
After Damon won the Booker Prize for The Promise, he was prepared for what awaited him — two years of interviews and talks. However, six months later, he announced from Sydney that he was depleted, but it wasn't just any prize, so he had to push through.
I haven't seen Damon, who had to tour the world, for about a year. Before the prize, I used to see him regularly walking in our street or working in his garden.
Reading circles, even as far as Koekenaap (metaphorically), invite you with the promise of a bowl of soup and a bed for the night. Then you have to drive for hours, perform, reach out and show off. Reading circles mean well, but usually they share one book, so you only sell one.
Now there's this habit of sharing PDFs of books on WhatsApp. It's really irritating to speak in front of people like that. Writers are not trained actors. Besides, you have to perform for a bunch of rich book thieves.
When I get tense, I start talking nonsense and babbling. At one reading circle I attended, a woman asked me, notebook in hand, if I'm allowed to drink alcohol if I'm bipolar. Of course I have a glass of wine at a book talk; one needs Dutch courage.
On another occasion, I talked about the poet Ina Rousseau and what she told me about her relationship with the poet Peter Bloom. His big, hairy breasts, among other things, soon turned her off. Two women in the audience screamed, stood up, covered their mouths and rushed out. I wondered what was going on. Ina had told me the story, after all.
Should I censor myself? Should one sit piously and whisper softly about intertextuality, Jacques Derrida, and the flower motif in the works of Elisabeth Eybers? Hamba! One woman told me afterward that I'm not at all like my writing — I'm really unpleasant.
In a town where I went to speak, I arrived and saw a few people standing outside. I was invited inside and had to sit on a stage. When I looked up, I saw the hall was packed with people, candles, wine and food.
So, I was part of the adventure. There was no interviewer, so I had to improvise and perform off the top of my head. When I read an essay that was full of pathos and had a dark undertone, a man in the audience raised his hand and said I should read lighter stuff; they were there for a laugh. I had to pay for my own petrol and was handed a bottle of red wine. No fool like an old fool.
In the Free State, where it was so cold that I longed for my two days in Antarctica, only a handful of people showed up. The pale neon lights shone on empty wooden chairs, and the sparse audience stared at me as if I were a monkey in a cage, an anthropological experiment. They had probably never seen a gay person out of the closet. It was the Free State, after all. The interviewer regularly yawned.
In a Cape suburb, I attended a fancy reading circle where I told the story of how one of my essays came about. In the early morning when it was still dark, I sat at a 24-hour coffee shop at a garage in the Waterfront, drinking coffee and reading newspapers.
The people who arrived at that time of the morning were fascinating. Characters from a deserted scene in an Edward Hopper painting. There was a couple, definitely not married to each other, as I could tell from their conversations. They usually sat next to me and talked in such lazy, dark, early-morning voices. Both were metro cops in uniform. One morning, while it was still dark, the woman said to the man, “You know what? These times before the sun rises, with you, are the best part of my day." It struck me, and I wrote something about it. A woman in the audience seemed disgusted and shouted at me, “and how would you feel if people eavesdropped on you?"
One of the best book launches was one in Johannesburg for which I was deeply grateful. Before the event, I had to undergo hypnosis with Brigette Fine in Sea Point because my nerves were so frazzled. When I arrived, there was excellent food and wine, celebrities, and the host was generous and charming. Everything went according to plan, but the effects of hypnosis began to wear off as the talk went on. I could feel it: you're on your own, baby. I was like a horse smelling the stables, but I pressed on until the end, when people in the audience could ask questions. I remember a lawyer stood up and spoke as if he were addressing a court. To this day, I don't know what he was talking about. Was he wearing a gown?
Then, a pastor stood up and asked me from the bottom of his heart what the Dutch Reformed Church could do to compensate for the harm it had caused certain people. I think that's what he asked, but when I heard “Dutch Reformed Church" my amygdala was hijacked again, and Brigette Fine's R700 for hypnosis vanished into thin air. I was out of the blocks like Max Verstappen, words rolling out of my mouth like racing car wheels. The more I rambled, the quieter the audience became.
I am not ungrateful, but as Homer Simpson once said, “Welcome to the humiliating world of the ‘professional' writer".
♦ VWB ♦
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