Yesterday was not my best day ever. I had a really important interview first thing in the morning and woke up with a sky high temperature, blocked nose, cactus throat and cotton wool where I usually have a brain. During the interview I sat shivering in my outdoor coat unable to make sense of the questions, (and they weren’t that difficult questions), struggled to recall the name of any institution in Belfast, aside from the Tourist Board, and left earlier than I’ve ever left an interview, feeling like I’d been run over by a truck. (I have been in bed ever since and am only now, thirty six hours later, beginning to feel vaguely human again).
Just forty five minutes after my own mortifying interview experience. I was due to interview Eimear McBride, (author of the wonderful, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, winner of every literary prize in the Western world and personal hero of mine), for our Literary Lunchtime series. I’d been looking forward to this interview for about six months. In my head it was to be the first step in my career as a serious interviewer and would lead swiftly and decisively to a moment in the not-too-distant future, where I’d oust Jeremy Paxman from his chair, take over Newsnight and usher in a new era of friendly chats to replace his firing squad-style interrogations. I’m currently reading the poet, Simon Armitage’s book, Gig. It’s a piecemeal memoir of his experience as a live poet, “gigging” his way round the literary scene. I particularly enjoyed what he had to say about literary programming.
Armitage is totally spot on. Most readings I’ve programmed are more church social than live rock experience. Readings by their very nature are low key, minimalist affairs; there’s only so much showmanship you can bring to an event which is in essence a person reading some words they have written. Also literary audiences tend to be rather nice. They don’t, (usually), heckle. They rarely throw empty pint glasses onstage. They are occasionally accompanied by sandwiches and almost always include at least one well-wisher who lingers after the “gig” to tell the reader just how nice they are. Even when I’ve read with Hannah playing music on her enormous keyboard and Lizzy playing music on her cello and we’ve joked about “gigging” we’ve all known it’s not really a gig when the entire audience is seated on comfortable chairs, sit reverently through the performance and are home in time for the nine o’clock news.Yet there are a few readings I’ve programmed over the years which have felt just a little more rock n’ roll than others: Jo Nesbo, (possibly because he is also a rock star and was, at the time wearing a fetching leather jacket), the Heaney commemorative reading with Don Patterson and Carol-Ann Duffy, (which was in the Grand Hall and pulled in a bigger crowd than U2 the first time they played the Ulster Hall), and our Bob Dylan Literary Lunchtime, (simply because it was all about Bob and at least one person was wearing sunglasses indoors).
I was sincerely hoping Eimear McBride would be another one of those readings which totter on the edge of becoming gigs. She’s a bit of a rock star in my eyes. She’s such a brave and ballsy writer, not only because of the unique style and the content explored in Girl, but also because she’s shown remarkable tenacity in persevering with a novel which took almost a decade to get published. In every interview I’ve read Eimear McBride has come across as opinionated and yet measured in that wonderful fashion peculiar to those who actually have something worth saying. There were a lot of tickets sold to this event; a lot of people excited about hearing Eimear and, yet at approximately twelve o’clock on Wednesday afternoon I was pretty sure it was going to be a wash out. I could barely read the questions I’d prepared let alone instigate any off the cuff, literary banter. My “gig” was beginning to look like a disappointing end to a very disappointing day.
Thankfully however, a combination of strong coffee and Lemsip Max, seemed to finally kick in about twelve thirty and Eimear McBride, (who turned out to be one of the warmest and easiest to work with writers I’ve come across in the last four years), was such a consummate professional that the afternoon redeemed itself and was, by two o’clock, one of my all time favourite Literary Lunchtimes. Despite one ill-timed microphone cough, (deafening the ladies in the front row), my lurgy remained in check for the duration of the interview. Eimear read the opening section of Girl for us and, hearing the prose as she must have heard it when writing the novel, was a wonderfully fresh angle on the book. She talked about the current state of the publishing world, the importance of perseverance when beginning on your journey as a writer and something of her own writing process. Questions from the audience were well thought through and very insightful and there was a massive line of Literary Lunchtimers waiting to get their books signed after the reading. It wasn’t exactly a gig but I definitely came away a little more buzzed and exuberant than I usually am after a reading. Am heading back to my programming board, freshly enthused about booking some great readers for the new year.