I’m sitting in Heathrow waiting for my flight home, and am still thinking about the highlights of what turned out to be a wonderful conference. I haven’t yet blogged about the events in which I participated, so here’s what happened.
On Friday, I was part of a panel on religious symbolism. When I first heard they’d placed me on this panel, I was puzzled because I don’t think of my books as having a lot of religious themes, but there I was, sitting onstage with Ann Perry, Chris Kuzneski, and a French author named Michel Benoit. Our moderator, Natasha Cooper, was most curious about our reactions to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, wondering why we thought it was so popular.
Which happens to be a really interesting question. Ann Perry hadn’t read the book, so she didn’t comment. Michel Benoit thought the book’s success had to do with spectacularly good marketing. I’ve heard a number of writers speak of the book with disdain, criticizing its writing, its themes, its factual and geographic inaccuracies. But when I read the book, I was just looking to have a good time.
And I did have fun.
I was on a plane home from Paris when I cracked open the galley. About halfway through the book, I had to get up to use the restroom, and as I got out of my seat, I suddenly caught sight of the passenger sitting right behind me. He was wearing what looked like Opus Dei robes. I kid you not — he was dressed exactly like the villains in the novel, and I was spooked. That little event alone made reading the book a pretty memorable experience.
I think the reason for the book’s success was its connection with women. It is a feminist, subversive novel that tells women that, yes, they may indeed have had a role in the foundation of the church. It made devout Christians feel a bit naughty reading it, and that was a big part of its success.
On Sunday, I was scheduled to be the last author featured on the program. I was supposed to be interviewed onstage by a radio personality, so I had no need to prepare a speech. I love these sorts of presentations — no stress, just smile and answer questions.
The interviewer never showed up. We still don’t know what happened to him. Would I have a problem with that? they asked me. Could I just go onstage solo and talk for an hour to a packed room?
Luckily, I never seem to run out of things to say when it comes to the writing business. So I walked onstage and just started talking. About why I write crime novels. About where the ideas come from. About the cool things I’ve learned while doing my research.
Later I was asked how I could do that — just get up before an audience and fill an hour without notes. And my only answer to that is: longevity in the business. It’s the same advice I give to newly published authors who are discouraged by how few people line up to buy their books. Or to authors who freeze in front of a bookstore crowd because they’ve run out of things to say. You have to write enough books, collect enough war stories, and with time, you’ll collect both stories and readers. These things don’t happen overnight. You just have to survive long enough in the business.
So if you’re starting out as a published author, keep track of the things that happen to you. The weird anecdotes, the creepy fans, the fun facts you turn up in your research. When you talk to an audience, take note of what makes your audience laugh or lean forward in their chairs — and file those remarks away for future use, because you’ll know they’re proven crowd-pleasers. After five books or ten books, you’ll have amassed a large array of war stories. You’ll know about how long each story takes to tell. You’ll have a series of set pieces that you can trot out when you need to fill time.
You’ll never be at a loss for words.