I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of working in public libraries for the last twenty years and, during that time, I have seen many author visits. This has given me the chance to look at the impact that they give and why we, as public libraries, provide them.
The first, and most obvious, thing is the chance to have a second direct personal contact with the author. Reading a book is of course the first contact and, my, what a link that is. You’re unlikely to know as much about anyone but your close personal family than someone whose book you have just read. I would also argue that the same is true of fiction as well. You are, after sharing, the same person’s fantasy, and you can tell a lot from someone that way.I know more about a large part of the thinking of my favourite authors, Terry Pratchett and Iain M Banks (both sadly now deceased) than I do about all but a handful of others, simply from the beauty and thoughtfulness of their writing.
So having a chance to actually meet the person you have voluntarily given up several hours of your time, at least, to read is quite a thing. It can approach idol worship in some ways. Although you think you already know so much about them from their books, being there in the same room, breathing the same air can give you those vital non-verbal cues about them that books – entirely verbal of course – cannot give. You can see their smiles and also hear their asides. There’s so much of us that does not come across on the page, or even on video, that meeting the author can fill in.
And that’s not all. You can hear the behind-the-scenes stories behind the stories, what the writer was thinking at the time, where their inspiration was for their characters. Sometimes it is quite enlightening – I remember one author making clear that the events put forward as fiction in her books were very much real. And that one of the characters was still around and would sue if the truth came out, bless our laws. So she could tell us face to face but could never put it in print.
Sometimes meeting your idols can be disappointing of course. I remember having lunch with a very well-known author, whose work is erudite, intellectual and downright poetic, and he could barely stop using the f-word the whole time. He may have been having an off-day but it reminded me afterwards that sometimes the genius of writing can come out of individuals who are otherwise as blemished as you or me. It almost made his work all the more miraculous in my eyes.
But, my, I almost forgot. You can also ask questions of the author afterwards. This chance to have a two-way exchange of ideas with a writer can be quite something. You know for certain that, for a brief moment, they know you exist and that, fleetingly you are connected. Now, if that sounds like being a stalker. Well, yes. There’s much about being a fan of a certain writer that is similar to that, the interest in where they get their ideas from, why they write in a certain way, to need to read more. And, of course, you can see if your pet theory on their books is correct by checking with them and, when your favourite author, smiles at your question, well, that’s worth a lot. And, unlike stalking, you’re unlikely to be arrested by the police for it.
I guess what I am saying here is that the author visit is a very different thing to anything online, electric or even on paper. It’s an interactive experience where you can actually see the whole of the person and connect with them in a real sense impossible by the otherwise immersive but passive nature of reading. And, as such, this is something that a bookshop or a library can provide that an electronic forum, no matter how pervasive and no matter how cheap or fast their delivery times, simply cannot give. So, long may the author visit provide, and the bookshops and libraries that house them.
Ian Anstice has been a librarian since 1994 and is currently a Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council.
In his spare time he runs the Public Libraries News website and was recently made an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals for services to the library profession.