“ARE YOU GOING TO THE LONDON BOOK FAIR?”

If you write books, work in publishing, or find yourself anywhere near people who do, chances are you’re hearing a lot about the London Book Fair right now. This year LBF is at Olympia from April 5 to 7. It’s the first one since 2019 and, as you can imagine, it’ll be a bit different to book fairs held before the pandemic.

For one thing, there are allocated time slots for arrival, so no meeting your mates outside the station and entering en masse, unless they have the same time slot.

LBF has put together their Covid-19 guidelines on this link. I won’t repeat them except to point out that you may need to provide evidence of Covid vaccination. And that’s in the form of the NHS app, not the NHS Covid app or the tatty little card you’ve kept in your wallet for over a year. The NHS app can take a day or so to verify your identity. Best not leave it till the last minute, then.

This year, the market focus is Sharjah and the tagline for the fair is YOU ARE THE STORY. But is it your story if you’re not a publisher?

Dipping into my experience of LBFs past, I can tell you that it’s not a place for readers, though it can be useful for authors as long as they’re realistic. Here are seven mistakes to avoid. I should know. I’ve made them myself.

1 Thrust your manuscript into a publisher’s hands. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still industry-led, and, unless you have an appointment, you can’t see a publisher.

In the last few years, LBF has become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small enclave called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers. When I say ‘small’, I mean sitting cheek by jowl (yes, this year I’ll be wearing a mask). But LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to cater wholly for authors or would-be authors.

2 Try to find an agent. You’re more likely to win the lottery, even if you didn’t buy a ticket. You’ll even be pushed to chat with your own agent, if you have one. Literary agents are usually hard at work in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be magical to shop in a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

4 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are intended to show visitors a view of a publisher’s range. Stop stuffing your tote bag with glossy new titles.

5 Ask lots of stupid questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, but naivety has limits, and not every speaker is as patient or as courteous as romantic novelist Katie Fforde who, at one of her talks, was asked “How does one start to write a book?”

6 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels will soon become unbearable, and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters. I know. A gap in the market. Not sure they’ll sell masks either.

7 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much.  A lot of people end up sitting on the floor or perch precariously on an exhibit to eat their over-priced sandwich.

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author? Mainly for the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attend a few interesting talks, and get new marketing ideas.

For me, there’s also inspiration in hearing celebrated authors like Maggie O’Farrell and Afra Atiq at Author of the Day events. This is how I met Egyptian novelist Alaa’ al-Aswany a few years ago. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of his book The Yacoubian Building. That short conversation with him at LBF encouraged me to write my novel The Girls from Alexandria.

So, are YOU going to the London Book Fair?

SPEAKING OF BOOKS

“What’s your favourite book?” can be a divisive question. Well, we all have different tastes. Yet, despite this, people often ask complete strangers what to read next. Admittedly, they don’t randomly accost someone in the street with their enquiry. But posting the question on a Facebook group can be much the same thing, and the ensuing discussion can light the blue touchpaper.

If you’ve been to real live book clubs, you know that conversation can get overheated there too, and the arrival of wine bottles and a cheeseboard only goes so far in calming the proceedings. That’s why one book club I know has more or less abandoned literary talk in favour of spending the evening enjoying refreshments.

The book world is rife with snobbishness. Last November, the Sunday Times published a roundup of the Best Books of 2021. It claimed to cover every genre, but romance books were conspicuously absent – this despite the fact the romantic fiction regularly features in the Sunday Times top 10 bestsellers chart. The piece was incendiary to the many people who love romantic novels, and those who write it too. The Romantic Novelists’ Association, among others, rose to defend the genre.

There are some who speak of their “guilty pleasures” in enjoying particular books, usually titles not considered highbrow. But shouldn’t we all read what we like, and not bother with what isn’t to our tastes? When your time is, like mine, more than halfway up on the great big parking meter of life, you realise there’s little point in sticking with a book just so you can brag that you’ve read it.

For the record, I haven’t finished A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust can seem rather a lot of temps perdu to me.

Book talk tends to happen most among bookworms, authors, librarians, and publishing folk. However, there was a time when it was a mainstream conversation topic. According to my mother, ‘nice girls’ were encouraged to use books as an ice-breaker at parties.

Sparkling conversation usually begins with “Have you read any good books lately?”

Just then, a US Marine with a baby face and tight trousers came over and said, “Dance?” and instead of running away, I said, “Why yeees … I’d love to.”

I needn’t have worried about not knowing the right steps. There weren’t any. We could have been dancing on a three-cent stamp. The only thing that moved were his jaws and his hips. I wondered what Father would say if he saw me now. I really must try to make conversation.

“Have you read any good books lately?” I asked. “Really good books, I mean?”

This was the magic phrase. With an Englishman, it would have worked like a charm and we would have stood in the middle of the floor, not dancing but discussing books, and then we would have been exchanging books for years. But the Marine answered something which sounded suspiciously like, “Naw, I can’t read.”

This passage comes from the first book my mother wrote. Called Cocktails and Camels, it was published in 1960 and it’s a fictionalised memoir. It’s often regarded as the first of a genre referred to as “literature of nostalgia” that became particularly Alexandrian. I adore Cocktails and Camels and still find it funny, no matter how many times I reread it. But it’s out of print, just like another book I love, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr.

Very soon, I’ll be talking about some of my favourite books, fiction and non-fiction, choosing only those still in print. On Monday January 31, Tim Lewis (of Stoneham Press) and I will be talking on Book Chat Live. Even if you disagree with some of my choices, I hope you’ll be inspired to dip into some books outside your usual reading genres. You can catch the show on Amazon Live at 11am Eastern time, or 4pm UK time on this link: Amazon Book Chat Live.

In addition to chatting about favourite books, I’ll be revealing what I’d buy if money were no object. Think you know me? You might guess some of the books on my list, but my choice of luxury may be more surprising.

I’d love to hear about you and your favourite books, so do let me know.

THE BEST LAID PLANS

Did you start the New Year full of plans and resolutions? I know many did. Yet, nearly halfway through January, they find themselves unable to progress with new activities. It’s not necessarily lack of drive. Author Ann Richardson shares her thoughts on lack of energy.

All my life, I have felt out of sync with many assumptions of popular culture. One of these concerns leisure, such as finishing work for the day and going to a wine bar. The high point of the year is the summer holiday when you can finally lie down at the beach and avoid anything like ‘work’.

But a lot of people – like me – are more driven by the desire to do something, preferably something of value. To someone with this mind-set, the main use of doing nothing is to rest the brain and body, so as to fire on all cylinders for purposeful activities. Lazing around is not an end in itself.

There are many ways to be ‘useful’ – caring for others, building things from scratch, getting things done around the house, or doing something more creative.

We may not do these things well or be happy with the result. The key point is that the activity is important to us and helps us feel that time was well spent.

What makes us so clearly one way or the other?  It could be nature, nurture, or a combination of the two. My mother had a professional job while she raised three children, and I also attended a school whose motto was In truth and toil.

Whatever the cause, one sad discovery about growing older is that we get tired more easily. We lose our youthful resilience and our batteries run down faster. This starts at different ages for different people. It seems to creep up when we’re not looking and, as far as I can see, it worsens each year and saps our energy for getting things done.

For those eager to be active, lack of energy is incredibly annoying. It means we can’t work for long periods without becoming tired. And the definition of that long period slowly shortens from a day to half a day to even an hour. 

The body becomes a battleground – our head wants to get something done, but our body rebels. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, as the saying goes. At the end of a day, we find ourselves disappointed with the paltry amount accomplished.  And we had such great plans.

It’s not so different from the Covid-related lockdowns people have suffered in the UK and elsewhere. They are a kind of imprisonment that stops us doing what we want. One of my grandsons called it ‘being under house arrest’.

Lack of energy is close to house arrest too.

Ann Richardson

There are many causes of energy loss so I won’t offer any advice on what to do about it. But, if you enjoyed this post, I can recommend Ann Richardson’s latest book The Granny who Stands on Her Head.

WHOSE STORY IS IT ANYWAY?

Most of the time, this blog has a jovial slant. This week, I asked my friend and thriller writer JJ Marsh for a more reflective piece on aspects of control. Here’s what she has to say.

Arguments often explode on Twitter (#notnews) and some issues surface again and again. In the book world, the question of cultural appropriation sets author against author, publisher against reviewer, and generates hours of heated discussion. As I write, a debate rages about a writer’s use of clichéd terminology to refer to people of colour.

The problem comes down to an old adage: Write what you know.

The writer did indeed write what she knew, about real children, but applied her own cultural lens. This upset many people devoted to shining a light on intrinsic racism.

Write what you know.

That advice carries a whole host of issues. Do we police our imaginations and stick to our own lived experience? Or are we able to step into other worlds with ethics and empathy?

It’s a topic I brood over often.

Not ‘just’ the race or gender discussion, but the topic of mental health. I’ve written characters of various nationalities, ethnicities and sexuality, but the area I feared to broach was the characters’ inner world.

When choosing to create a protagonist with bipolar disorder, I knew I was on shaky ground. I researched, learnt about how the condition can vary and/or develop, checked chapters with psychologists and those with experience to ensure my representation was authentic. The greatest feedback was from readers who recognised and appreciated a sympathetic approach to a condition that touched their lives.

Then I embarked on Wolf Tones, a novel about coercive control from the perspective of a vulnerable male. Abusive relationships take many forms, as I know from my sister’s role as a support worker. Most victims are women, but some are men. So how to tackle such an issue without diminishing the female experience, acknowledging how it affects men and shining a light on how coercion works?

After two years of research, I came to a conclusion.

It’s all about the narrative.

Every relationship is a story, told by the players themselves. To outsiders, the reality of fraying tempers or bad behaviour might be polished, even exaggerated, for comic effect. Within the relationship, people make up their own journey as they go along – negotiating problems, harmonising habits, confronting obstacles and adjusting their own happy ending.

What about coercion? That’s when one party wrests control and becomes the director, casting a partner or family member in a role they may not want to play.

The first element of redefining roles is by eroding their confidence. Psychologists and therapists point to several techniques by which the director destabilises the victim and convinces them to give up independence. These include criticism, gas-lighting (making one believe something has/hasn’t happened) and micro-managing everything that person does.

Doubt and dependence are harder to introduce when a person has a network of friends, fulfilling job ,and supportive family. That’s why a coercive abuser begins to isolate the victim from any means of emotional outlet. Friends pushed away, families distanced or even rejected outright – the abuser paints them all as the bad guys.

This last is a common occurrence – the abuser claims the status of victim, reversing the roles in order to destabilise and gain sympathy from the person or persons they attempt to control.

Once the manipulator has command of the console, the victim is reduced to no more than an avatar; allowed no choice over money, clothes, activity, or behaviour.

This pattern of behaviour is at the heart of my psychological thriller Wolf Tones. It’s not a puppet show portraying the above because each character has a history (good and bad), ambitions, connections, a sense of loyalty and the issue of class to navigate in a professional environment.

The setting is a classical European orchestra, but the story could happen to any of us. It all depends on the narrator.

If any of the themes in this piece affects you, here are two places where you can find out more: Women’s Aid and ManKind.

Wolf Tones is a work of fiction. This story belongs to Rolf.

Fifteen years ago, Rolf was destined for the gutter.

His luck changed. Now a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra, he has his dream job and dizzying prospects. All because of her.

Smart, sexy, well-connected, and crazy about him, Leonor is his fantasy woman. She made him and he’ll never forget it.

Neither will she. 

Read the first chapter here.

A big thank you to JJ Marsh for her thought-provoking post. If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them.

Wolf Tones is out on August 19. You can pre-order it here.

THE TRUTH ABOUT BOOK CLUBS

Without serious preparation, a book club meeting is nothing. Which explains why, for the previous half hour, I had been fashioning little flags out of sticky labels and toothpicks to poke into various cheeses. Of course, an elaborate cheeseboard was not the only fare that evening. There was plenty of wine as well. This particular club, like so many other suburban book gatherings, could be described as a drinking club with a reading problem.

The venue may be a local pub, a bookshop, someone’s front room, or, especially this year, a room on Zoom. While the surroundings may vary, I have discovered some universal truths about book clubs.

#1 Like books themselves, book clubs come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Some are highbrow, others less so. Before setting off with a tome tucked under your arm, it’s as well to know which sort you’re heading for. Get it wrong, and it’s like turning up at a funeral dressed for a tarts ‘n vicars party.

#2 There’s always a troublemaker, and the reason for the trouble is ostensibly to do with the book. The end is too rushed or too vague, there are too many foreign words or too little sex, and since when did dove get to be the past tense of dive?

“Since about 1855, that’s when,” a smart-arse will pipe up, citing the OED or an obscure poem by Longfellow.

#3 Someone will try to restore the peace. It’s either an amateur referee, a retired librarian with world-class shushing skills, or the home-owner who fears waking the kids.

#4 That’s why it’s a relief to move on to the choice for next meeting, though a consensus may be elusive. The chosen book is most often a novel, but could it be a biography for a change? The next book has to be well-thought of, or else controversial. Must triggers be avoided? Discuss. And they do.

Recent or topical is good, as long as the book is affordable. If not, some will only study the free sample on Amazon.

The book can’t be too long, because some of us work, you know. Here someone may bring up past choices. “Remember the time we chose English Passengers? I couldn’t be doing with nearly 500 pages.”

“Why not? English Passengers was hilarious.” Which may have been true, in parts. But then this came from the same person who thought of Titanic as a rom-com.

#5 Sometimes the club invites an author as guest speaker. Authors are only too glad to talk about their book and quaff wine, until such time as they are allowed to leave with the gift of a potted plant and the remains of the Roquefort. Just don’t say, “I’ve written a novel. Could you have a look at my manuscript?”

#6 Virtual meetings, being easier to attend and free of location restraints, often increase the number of participants, but Zoom and the like can decrease interaction. That doesn’t necessarily make the club run more harmoniously, though. See #2 above.

#7 It’s easy to dip into a book club and there’s no need to commit to every meeting, especially online. Just Google and you’re bound to find clubs for every possible genre, whether you enjoy sci-fi, feminist literature, translated books, historical fiction, or zombie apocalypse novels. Since the advent of Covid-19, escapism is the order of the day.

Do you go to a book club? I’d love to hear about yours, so please let me know its highs and its lows.

Next week, you can join award-winning author Jane Davis for a lockdown book club meeting via Zoom. On 12 Dec at 6.00pm, she’ll be answering questions about her latest release, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, a gripping novel set in the 1950s. The event is free but you need to register. Zoom meeting ID: 848 7601 7328 https://buff.ly/3miipHf

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You may also enjoy What Not to Say to an Author.

Janet and John Go to the London Book Fair

Do you like book fairs?

Janet and John do. John is an author. Janet wants to work in publishing.  This is their first time at the London Book Fair.

“Gosh,” Janet says. “It’s very big.”

“That’s what they all say,” John says.

IMG_2620.JPG

Olympia is huge. There are 25,000 people here. Exhibitors come from all over the world. This year, the market focus is Indonesia.

John knows all about Indonesia. “It is a country a long way from London,” he tells Janet.

The first stand is Harper Collins. Someone smiles at Janet. So Janet foists her CV onto the person from Harper Collins.

Naughty Janet!

dav

Helpfully, people have their names and their job titles on their conference badges. John examines several people’s chests closely to find one he wants.

John pounces on an unsuspecting woman whose badge says AGENT, and thrusts his lovingly prepared manuscript into her hands.

Ever hopeful, John!

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“I need a coffee and a doughnut,” Janet says.  Janet drags John to the nearest café. 

“But not at those prices,” Janet says.

“Well, I’m going to splash out,” John says.

“See you when you get back from the toilet then,” Janet says.

By the time John returns, Janet has met two friendly people, studied a floorplan, and found out more about the London Book Fair.

“John, come quickly,” Janet says. “You must go to Author HQ.”

Author HQ is on the next level up, a long way from the big shiny stands. It is almost as far as Indonesia.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says.

Today Janet is wearing snazzy heels to make an impression. The only impression they make is on her corns and her hammer toes.

FreeImages.com/Stephan Fleet

Janet and John struggle up to the Writer’s Block on Level One.

“Look,” John says. “There’s a Society of Authors stand. I think I might join.”

Now John is being clever. 

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At Author HQ, there are no seats left. To listen to a talk, John sits on the floor beneath someone eating an egg and cress sandwich.

When the talk finishes, Janet and John meet up again.  

Janet still hasn’t bagged a job, but she is cradling two bulging holdalls. One of them is full of bookmarks, sweeties, and flyers. The other bag is full of shiny new books.

“Where did you buy those?” John asks.

“I helped myself,” Janet says.

“That’s stealing. You must put them back,” John says.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, there’s nowhere to sit down,” John says.

“What about that nice big display over there? It looks sturdy,” Janet says.

Bye, bye, beautiful display of children’s books.  

See Janet and John run as fast as they can.

John goes back to Author HQ. The next session is called Turning Yourself into a Brand.

Sam Missingham is a publishing guru,” John whispers to Janet as he scans the carpet for space.

“I know all about branding already,” Janet says. “That’s why I’m taking lots of selfies for Instagram.”

“How does Instagram work?” John asks.

“You take pictures of yourself in front of all the different publishers’ stands, upload them to Insta, and wait for the job offers to roll in,” Janet says.

“I did not know that,” John says. “Besides, the wi-fi is a bit shit here.”

“I have a personal hotspot,” Janet says.

“I know you do,” John says.

LBF day 2

“I want to go home now,” Janet says.

“Are your bunions throbbing?” John asks.

“Yes,” Janet says. “And I have a migraine.”

“Come on then,” John says. “I’ll treat you to something special on the way home.”

dav

Don’t be like Janet and John. Do your homework before you get to the London Book Fair. And take paracetamol with you.

What’s the Best Way for an Author to Promote Their Books?

The reality is that there isn’t one ideal way to do it. Different authors have found that different methods work best for them.

Now Richard G Lowe aka The Writing King has put together a roundup of various things authors have found most effective in promoting their books.

Here’s a link to his insightful blog post What is the best thing you’ve done to promote your books? You’ll find great tips from historical novelist Clare Flynn, Roma Nova thriller writer Alison Morton, and other authors. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be something you can use here.

While you’re there, check out some of the other useful posts on Richard’s website.

And good luck!

bookshop

PS You may also enjoy

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The Worst Books of All Time

 

Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

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PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The London Book Fair is now just days away. This year’s LBF takes place April 10-12. That’s three hectic days at Olympia, Kensington, with over 25,000 people attending.

This time around, the market focus is the Baltic Countries, but it’s an international fair bringing in exhibitors from over fifty countries, and some truisms apply every year. I’ve been going to the London Book Fair for a while now, so I’m confident in saying there are some things not to do (especially as some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself).

1 Thrust your manuscript into the hands of a publisher. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still very much industry-led, and, if you don’t have an appointment, you won’t be able to see a publisher.

The last seven or eight years have seen the fair become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small area called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers, but LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to revolve around authors or would-be authors.

LBF 2016

2 Try to find an agent. I reckon you’re more likely to win the lottery, even if you didn’t buy a ticket. You’ll even be pushed to chat with your own agent, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Literary agents are usually holed up for days at a time in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Try to sell books. It’s a non-starter unless you booked a stand, which, as you might guess, is an expensive option.

4 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be mind-blowingly wonderful to visit such a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

LBF 2016

However, you may be able to buy one or two newly released paperbacks at one of the book launches at the fair. I’m looking forward to the latest novel from author Jane Davis.

5 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like mints, keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are there for show, to give visitors a view of a publisher’s range. So put that glossy tome back!

6 Ask a lot of stupid questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, but naivety has limits, and not every speaker is as patient or as courteous as romantic novelist Katie Fforde who, at one of her talks, was asked “How does one start to write a book?”

7 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels may enable you to see over people’s heads, but they’ll soon become unbearable and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters (is that a gap in the market?). 

8 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much. 

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author?

Because of the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attending a few interesting talks, getting new marketing ideas, and the inspiration of hearing celebrated authors speak at Author of the Day events.

Julian Fellowes at LBF

Will I see you there?

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You may also enjoy

My London Book Fair 2017

London Book Fair aka #LBF14

 

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

In her own words, this is how my mother came to write her first book.

Il a nationalisé le canal!” my father said again with disbelief. “Nasser read the decree right here in Alexandria, this evening. He told the USA to choke to death on its fury!”

We were staying with my parents in Alexandria, and, as it turned out, I was only allowed out of the house at certain hours of the day. It was a sort of house arrest (résidence forcée).

There was nothing much to do in autumn 1956. It was October, a lovely month in Egypt, when summer’s heat and humidity are over, and it is pleasant to be out of doors.

One morning, I sat down under the mimosa tree, with the sound of white doves cooing in the dovecote, and began to write my first book, Cocktails and Camels. I never thought of any other title.

Apart from school essays and letters, I had never written anything before. I wrote in pencil, painstakingly, while my young daughter Carol picked daisies on the lawn. As I searched for the right words, they popped up like magic. I was elated. 

Writing my first book had nothing to do with my wanting to be ‘a writer’. It just happened because the circumstances and my state of mind were attuned. Although the country was at war, Gamal Abdel Nasser was on a nationalization spree, and the future looked uncertain, I felt peaceful and content. Maybe that is what writing does for you.

The writing did not always come easily. Every line was written and rewritten a dozen times or more. I did not mind. Every time I corrected a sentence, I could see it getting better. Writing was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. I’d walk around the garden, mulling things over. Sometimes I’d laugh aloud at what I’d written.

“I’m going to write a book too!” Carol piped up.

Friends came to visit and have tea. I told them I was writing a book, and that it would be called Cocktails and Camels.

“You are writing a book?” Then, in French, “Mais pourquoi? Why don’t you learn to play bridge?”

Je déteste le bridge!” We always spoke like that in Alexandria, switching from one language to another all the time. Anyone who did not was not a true Alexandrian.

Annoyed that I always refused to play bridge, they were soon asking if I was planning to mention them in my book.

“Of course.” How could I not include them? They were such characters. But I would do it with humour, and make up names to disguise their identities.

“Will you say that I am the best dressed woman in Alexandria?” asked Yvette who wore a different outfit every day. We laughed.

“You’ll have to be patient and wait until the book is published.”

My father, who for more than thirty years had been the respected President of La Bourse de Contrats en Egypte, had published an excellent and much acclaimed book on the Bourse. I thought he would be pleased to hear that I too wanted to write a book.

One evening, with Carol asleep in her cot, I told my parents that I was working on a light-hearted autobiography called Cocktails and Camels. Their reaction was not what I had expected.

Quoi?” Father cried. “Un livre? Des cocktails?”

“Quelle idée! Nous finirons en prison!” Mother said. “Why can’t you be like everyone else, comme tout le monde?”

“I’ll take a pen name,” I cried, annoyed. “And all the names of the people will be changed. It won’t be published in Egypt, anyway.”

There had been censorship in Egypt for years, and one was careful what one wrote in letters and newspapers, let alone books. Sometimes, foreign magazines were sold with articles missing, cut out by the censors. To be on the safe side, I changed not only the names of friends and relatives, but, to be sure no one recognized the family, I wrote that I had two sisters instead of a sister and a brother. My brother Théo was never mentioned in Cocktails and Camels. As for a pen name, I would be Jacqueline Carol, using my own first name and my daughter’s first name as a surname.

“You can’t afford to publish a book,” Father then said.

“I am not planning to pay for its publication! The publisher will pay me.”

Mother’s blue eyes looked infinitely sad. “Please be careful, chérie. Nice girls don’t write books.”

“Who cares about nice girls?” I howled as I stormed out of the room.

Cocktails and Camels was published in New York in 1960. Now sadly out of print, it portrays Egypt in an earlier time – الزمن الجميل – and is still one of the funniest books I have ever read. Not that I’m at all biased.

Carol