I’ve just returned from a terrific 10-day promotional tour in England and Scotland, where I was once again impressed by how book tours really can make a difference, especially in a country that’s as geographically compact as the UK.Â In the US, touring novelists are challenged by long distances, frequent airline flights, disinterested media, and lackluster attendance at store events.Â Â In the UK, distances are manageable and I’ve been delighted by theÂ numbers of people who turn up at my signings.Â In the U.S., I’ve sometimes traveled hundreds of milesÂ to find only two people waiting toÂ hear me speak.Â (One of themÂ being the bookstore manager.)
But no matter whereÂ we go in the world,Â novelists face a similar challenge when it comes to getting media attention.Â Our books are fiction.Â Our characters don’t exist.Â Why should a newspaper or radio station want to interview us about a story we simply pulled out of thin air?Â “Fiction is hard,” publicists will tell you.Â Â And they’re absolutely right.Â Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or you’re already a celebrity of some kind, no one really wants to hear how you made up your story.Â Â
My solution has been to focus instead on the real-life backgroundÂ behind my stories.Â At store events, I never read from my books.Â Instead, I try to teach them things they didn’t know, things that they’ll findÂ fascinating and even useful.Â ForÂ THE BONE GARDEN, I spoke forÂ 45 minutes aboutÂ the historyÂ and horrors of childbed fever, and aboutÂ the 19th-century medical heroes who eventually ended the scourge.Â I told of the tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis and the genius of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the primitive conditions of hospitals in 1830.Â I read a passage from an early surgical textbook on how to amputate a thigh, which invariably made people squirm in their chairs.Â (But theyÂ did stay andÂ listen.)Â Â I probably spent only two minutes total describing the plot of THE BONE GARDEN.Â Â AlmostÂ all of my talk wasÂ focused on anÂ era in medical history that would give anyone nightmares.Â I wasn’t playing the part of novelist, but of history teacher.
No doubt there areÂ many readers who’d prefer to hear an author read from his work,Â butÂ I’ve aways loved hearingÂ a goodÂ lecture,Â so it’s the way I’ve always done it.Â For MEPHISTO CLUB, I gave a talk on ancient religious texts.Â For VANISH, IÂ discussed theÂ phenomenon of people being mistaken for dead.Â (Believe me, a few hair-raising examples was enough to getÂ the audience squirming.)Â Â I like to think that by the time they leave, they’ve learned something they didn’t know before.Â Something interesting.
One of the benefits of doing it this way is that it can snag the media’s interest.Â I’mÂ more than just another novelist who’s made up a story; I’m someone who can offerÂ educated commentary on a real-life topic.
Last Tuesday,Â IÂ was lucky enough to beÂ a guestÂ on one of the most popular shows on BBC Radio, “Woman’s Hour,” hosted by Jenni Murray.Â Â I wasÂ invited on the show not because I was a novelist, but because IÂ could talkÂ about childbed fever.Â Â Along with medical historian Dr. Hilary Morland, we covered a topic that was both scary and useful to Jenni’s listeners.Â
Plus,Â Jenni promoted my book.Â Which is about the best advertisement I could hope for.
Would I have been invited on the show if I’d written just another psycho-killer tale?Â Â I highly doubt it. What could I possibly have said about my psycho-killer novelÂ that would be relevant to her audience?Â “There are creeps out there, soÂ watch out”?Â Â That’s hardly special, and something any other crime writer could have spouted.Â Â
If you’re a novelist headed out on tour,Â try to talk about more than justÂ your plot and your characters.Â Think about the cool stuff you learned during your research, orÂ something about the setting or the science thatÂ the public would love to know.Â Give them nuggets of information that they can’t wait to share with their friends.
Maybe if we all did this, publicists would stop telling us “fiction is hard.”
And now:Â photos from my UK tour!Â I had such a terrific time and wanted to give you a glimpse of some of the places I visited:
With my reader Fabrice in Milton Keynes:Â
In Oxford with my UK team of superwomen!Â My publicist Alison Barrow and my editor Selina Walker:
Â There were huge promotional posters in the London Underground for THE BONE GARDEN.Â Here are my friends Wouter and Marie-Jose standing beside one of them:
And in the Borders Bookstore in Glasgow, here I am giving my talk on childbed fever to a very nice gathering that spilled up into the stairwell:
Â And here I am at the Gosforth Library, with my publicist and my two wonderful library hosts: