Sunday, November 20, 2005

Returning this morning from three days of tasting wines in Gaillac, I found an e-mail awaiting me from my incomparable translator, Ariane. She and Gilbert (who designed the French book cover), were in one of the biggest bookstores in Paris yesterday - chez Gibert in the Boulevard Saint-Michel. On the table, on the first floor, prominently displayed amongst the bestselling books, they discovered a pile of copies of "Meurtres à Pékin" snuggling up to some anonymous book called "The Da Vinci Code" by someone called Dan Brown. Who he?

Chez Gibert, Paris

Sunday, November 06, 2005

All over. A hundred books sold - or thereabouts. Endless hours of standing smiling at people, engaging them in (French) conversation, hand-selling my books. This is the sharp end of writing that most authors never get to experience. This is hard-selling direct to the public.

This is seeing their noses wrinkle when they read the blurb on the back of the book, or even when they catch a glimpse of the title. There are, clearly, some people for whom "Meurtres à Pékin" is inestimably distasteful.

With graphic descriptions of carbonised corpses on the back cover, I wonder what on earth could have put them off? Ah, well, chaque à son gout.

One simply has to expect that what one writes is not everyone's cup of tea.

To balance that, my publisher, Danielle Dastugue, was delighted with our sales. For an "inconnue" - unknown - in France, it would have been perfectly possible to sell two books or less, she said. We had done well.

The day started off with a change of stands. We were moved to another stand in the foire, judged to be in a better position. The two young girls, and rugby playing student, who had taken the money and popped the books in bags for us all day Saturday, were almost tearful to see us go. Not unhappy, however, to see the back of us, were the man-hater and Mr. Cèpes, who had deigned to turn up for the Sunday session. Our departure meant they got a bigger and better display.

We, however, found ourselves crammed into a breathless space between a purveyor of philosophy and a writer of such titles as "Le Pinkie-Pinkie", whose cover was adorned with the screaming face of a tortured man. Opposite was an emergency exit which, while providing an outlet for people in trouble, also provided an inlet for frequent blasts of icy autumn air. I was glad I had brought my jacket.

What was nice was that both the young girls at our new stand bought and asked me to sign copies of the book, and that the girls from the previous day's stand paid us several visits to check that we were okay. One of them said she had started to read the book the night before and couldn't wait to get back to it. She reads "polars" (crime books) all the time, she said, but somehow this one was different, and she was really intrigued.

We made a point of going and saying goodbye to them all when we left.

Ariane and Gilbert appeared late morning, and we tried to make an arrangement for lunch, but the restaurant where we were scheduled to lunch, courtesy of the municipality was only scheduled to take six from Editions du Rouergues. Our poor friends wandered off disconsolately to try to find somewhere to eat, and we went in search of Michèle to see if we could find a solution to the problem. No problem, she said, call Ariane and tell her there are places for them at the restaurant - Chez Francis, in Avenue de Paris, reckoned to be the best in town.

By coincidence, the hapless pair had just tried to get into that very restaurant, which had been recommended by a friend, and had been turned away. Complet! At which point my call came through on Ariane's mobile.

So we all met up for lunch, only to discover that Danielle and Michèle had been unable to get two extra places, and so had sacrificed theirs to partake of salads in an inferior joint across the street. No amount of argument would dissuade them from this.

Publishers are different in this country!

Another nice moment came that afternoon when a gentleman we had spoken to earlier in the day about cultural and linguistic exchanges, returned to reveal that he worked for Les Trois Epis, the bookseller, and that his boss had told him that he could chose any book at the foire, have it signed, and he would pay for it. He chose "Meurtres à Pékin", which I took as a real compliment - considering the hundreds of thousands of books available at the fair.

At the end of the day, we said fond farewells to Danielle and Michèle, and Daniel and Roger and Adeline Yzac (another Rouergue writer whom we had met that morning), and disappeared off into the cold, dark night, to make our way back to a cold, dark house and try to get it warm before collapsing into our own bed for the first time in what seemed like weeks.

And it was only three days.
An eleven hour day! There should be a union to protect writers from this. Trouble is, if we don't do it no-one else will.

This was Saturday at the Foire du Livre in Brive la Gaillarde, all day at a stand hosted by Les Trois Epis bookstore. I had a display of books and a chair and was required to be on duty all day to greet potential customers and sign the books that they bought.

We weren't in a good spot, though. Near the entrance. Everyone arriving hurried by to see the fair, not wanting to stop and look at the first display. On the way out, they'd done their buying and weren't interested in looking at anything else.

Besides which, I was sandwiched between "The Book of Cèpes", whose author never dared once to show his face (after all, how could you write a whole book about cèpes?), and "My Life with a Brute" (or words to that effect) - a comical description by a divorced women of her life of hell with men, and what changes she would like to make to them.

I saw her eyeing up my kilt a few times and felt a touch uneasy, and then got ticked off when a gaggle of teenage girls (most of whom appeared to be her children), and their spotty boyfriends, stood in front of my book display and chatted to her for hours on end.

The greatest indignity, though, was that more people seemed intersted in the cèpes than "Meurtres à Pékin". They were drawn to it like flies to the dung, although I think there were only two copies sold all day. The man hater didn't sell much either. So I suppose I had the last laugh (although laughing was the last thing I felt like doing), when I managed to sell twenty-five books. It doesn't seem like much over a long day. Five hundred euros worth of business, all the same. And when added to the sales of launch night, probably totalled around 75 books, or fifteen hundred euros.

Which doesn't make much of a dent in the six thousand copies that Editions du Rouergue have printed - about four times as many as Hodder and Stoughton produced in hardback. They clearly have faith in the book. I hope they're right.

The only bright spot in the day was lunch at the chic new restaurant Les Arums, again paid for by the municipality. This was a bright, airy, modern restaurant, with a huge salle through the back, and tall windows opening on to a luxuriantly green garden, and a young patronne who had poured herself into leather trousers that seemed somehow to have moulded themselves to her every curve. It was quite hynpnotic when she walked by our table.

We were joined - Danielle, Michèle, Daniel, La Patronne and I - by a famous French writer and broadcaster called Philippe Meyer. He was a big man with a shock of salt and pepper hair, a lovely manner and a nice sense of humour. Lunch passed in a haze of good food and wine, laughter and tight leather trousers.

All of our food and wine, it seems, over the whole weekend, is to be provided by the town. I'm not complaining.

Sales were slow in the afternoon. The place was jam packed, and La Patronne, who had sat faithfully by my side through most of the morning, was overcome by a post prandial torpor, and slipped off to take forty winks in the car, in the dark anonymity of the underground carpark beneath us. A flurry of sales in her absence, rescued me from a slow start. I heard that the queue to get in stretched all the way up the Rue de Paris, and that people were having to stand in line for more than an hour and a half.

What amazes me is that they did! What an appetite people here seem to have for books and writers.

At the end of the day - it was almost 8pm - we all traipsed off to the Boulevard Restaurant again for more good food and wine, before driving back to our hotel through dipping temperatures and thick fog.

Winter, it seems, has finally stamped on the tail end of summer.

And tomorrow we do it all over again.

Between a Cèpe and a Hard Place

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Guy Fawkes night. Bonfire night. The day when everything goes up in flames and fireworks light up the sky.

Well, it wasn't quite like that last night in Brive, but it was "pas mal" all the same. There was a fabulous turnout for the booklaunch at Les Trois Epis. Sixty or more people turned up, including some old friends I hadn't seen for years.

The neighbours from my village turned out in force to support me, for which I am eternally grateful. They are good people. Even those who couldn't come asked neighbours to get them copies of the book. We sold fifty or sixty books, and the owners of the bookstore were more than delighted - a thousand euros-worth of business in an hour and a half. The publisher, too, was pleased, because it established a good relationship between themselves and a store with which they had never had a relationship. Ground was broken - in a good way.

I suppose I could have got away with not making a speech at all, or even a very truncated version of it. But having put in all the work on it this week I was damned well going to make it anyway. And boy was I nervous!

I am so used now to making book presentations in English that I am accompanied only by the odd butterfly. Last night they just about suffocated me. It is a long time since I felt that scared. My mouth got so dry towards the end that I could hardly get the words out. I dried halfway through, when my mind just went blank, and I had to call on my souffleur - Ariane - for a prompt. What seemed like an eternity to me thankfully only lasted a few seconds. Ariane gave me a line to get back into the speech, and off I went again like a demented automaton, stumbling to the end and managing, hopefully, to tell my story in the process.

All in all, it could have been worse.

The great surprise of the night was the appearance of my former neighbour from Carennac, Georges Monteiro, and his "bidey in", Brigitte, along with their young son, Antoinin, who was no more than a baby when last we saw him. It was a joy to seem them again. Georges really is the salt of the earth. We had never before done anything other than shake hands. But last night we embraced, and he made us promise to come and eat at their new home near Puybrun. I look forward to it.

Afterwards we poured out into the cool of a damp Brive evening, Danielle Dastugue, my publisher, her commercial organiser, Michèle, another Rouergue author, Daniel Crozes, and Ariane and Gilbert. We all headed off to a restaurant called "Le Boulevard", just off the Place Winston Churchill. Lights shone out through large windows on to a leaf-strewn garden which we had to cross to reach it.

The Mayor of Brive extends an invitation to publishers and writers to dine at the town's expense at one of twenty nominated restaurants. A full menu, coffee and wine included - for the Friday night, midi on Saturday, Saturday night and midi on Sunday. It's an extraordinary gesture by the municipality. No wonder the publishers and writers descend en masse from Paris.

(An interesting aside is that the underground parking beneath the market square is free for the duration of the Foire. If this were happening in the UK or the US, somehow I think the parking charges would have increased for the weekend!)

During the meal we discovered that Daniel is the longest serving writer on the books of Editions du Rouergue. He was the first writer to be published by them when they were a fledgling company run single-handedly by Danielle Dastugue, and he has written twenty-six books in the last twenty years. What a prolific output! I have to take my hat off to him. And what a nice man, too. He and I are sharing the signing sessions at the publisher's stand throughout the weekend - their oldest and their newest writers.

We also discovered that the second book in the China thrillers series, "The Fourth Sacrifice", has had its publication date brought forward so that it will be launched at the bookfair in Paris in March. This is a major honour. It was also news to Ariane, who has only just begun the translation of it.

Gawn yersel' wee yin!

The night ended with a hairy drive through the wet and the dark to our hotel in the tiny village of St. Viance, ten kilometres north of Brive. Everyone from Rouergue is staying here, but La Patronne and I were the only ones who knew the way - since we had checked in earlier in the afternoon. So everyone else followed us. Which would have been fine if La Patronne hadn't suddenly said to me as we sat at traffic lights in the town: "The lights have turned green!" I looked up and saw green. But it was the green of the next set of lights, and we promptly drove right through a set of red, leaving my publisher et al trailing in our distant wake.

However, they finally caught up, and we found our way safely to the Auberge sur Vézère, where La Patronne and I fell back in our room to work our way into a fine bottle of Glenmorangie that we had planked earlier.

Today it all begins again. I wonder if I'll still be able to speak English by the end of the weekend. Vraiment a case of death by French!

With Ariane

Friday, November 04, 2005

Well, today's the day. The French launch of "The Firemaker" under the title of "Meurtres à Pékin".

It is being held tonight at Les Trois Epis - the biggest bookstore in Brive - on the eve of the biggest bookfair in France outside of Paris, La Foire du Livre. Last year it was visited by 120,000 people over the course of the weekend, which really begins tonight when the "Book Train" arrives from Paris carrying the publishers and journalists, and more than 500 writers, from the Capital.

Many of them are attracted not only by the bookfair, but by the fact that at this time of year the traditional fare of southwest France is readily available in all the markets and shops at better prices than in Paris. I'm talking, of course, about foie fras and the confit de canard - those high fat foodstuffs which, miraculously, don't even seem to dent the French reputation for having the lowest rate of heart disease in Europe.

Hmmmmm. Eat on.

La Patronne, of course, has done her usual excellent job of preparing the publicity for the book and the launch. She has produced a press pack, in French, which is downloadable on PDF from the new French website which she has just launched. It is viewable at:

It also contains a link to a downloadable podcast which I have just recorded in French. Actually, it's pretty much the speech I will be giving at the launch tonight - the speech which has obsessed me for most of my waking hours for the last week.

There were two important criteria to follow. It had to be written in a French I could speak. And it had to be something I could deliver without notes. Oh, and it had to be intelligible and interesting. Now you're beginning to understand why it has obsessed me for the last seven days.

I adapted it from one of the stories I normally tell in English when doing a book tour. I created a structure that I would remember in English, and then wrote it from within my limited pool of French vocabulary. So far, so good. But the delivery is another matter altogether - especially in front of a large crowd of native French speakers.

Ariane, my translator, and her husband, Gilbert (who designed the book cover), cast an eye over it and declared it more or less intelligible. I suggested, hopefully, that maybe I should have the speech in my hand to refer to when I deliver it. But they didn't think that would look very good, so I embarked on a course of trying to commit it to memory. Arggggh. The butterflies in my stomach were whipping up a storm already.

I spent all afternoon on Tuesday with my neighbour, Laurène, going over the speech sentence by sentence. She made some minor corrections to facilitate my delivery, and I headed off home to practise some more.

That night Ariane and Gilbert and Laurène and Roger came to dinner and insisted I stand up and deliver the speech to them. It was amazing just how stressful it was to stand up in front of a group of friends to deliver a speech in French. Somehow I managed to stumble through it, and of course, they were very encouraging.

But the proof of the foie will be in the stuffing of the duck! In other words, it'll all be down to how I do on the night. I spent Wednesday and Thursday on more practice, and recorded the adaptation of it for the podcast.

Now, on Friday morning, those butterflies have multiplied and got even more frenzied. I am just about to head off and get into my kilt - US tour revisited (one of these days I must get the damned thing dry-cleaned!). Well, if nothing else, it gets me attention - and that's what I need to sell books.

And I thought all I had to do was write them!