Guest Author: Damian McNicholl

Damian McNicholl spent the summer on the road promoting his first novel, A Son Called Gabriel; heck, he’s still got a reading left to do at the Barnes & Noble in North Wales, Pennsylvania next month. His fictional tale of a coming of age in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s “vividly captures the confusion, trials, and small triumphs of a boy making his way through a culture constricted by its religious doctrines and economic hardships,” according to the Chicago Pink Pages, and Seamus Deane tells us, “Comic, courageous and often painful, this is a beautifully paced and balanced novel that will have an assured place in contemporary Irish writing.” McNicholl sent me this account of his touring life, and I’m happy to introduce him, and his debut novel, to you.

In an era of declining budgets and declining readership, publishers always look to cut costs and inevitably return to an ongoing debate about whether it is financially sound to send first-time authors out on tour. As a debut novelist, contact between myself and my publisher revolved around the editorial and publicity staff, so I cannot answer this question definitively. But one thing is certain, I’m very glad they decided to send me out on tour because I’ve learned such a lot.

While on the road with A Son Called Gabriel, I’ve experienced both stinging lows and delicious highs and am now convinced the root of a new author’s humiliation is to be found at the entrances of bookstores. Always, as I approached them, voice warmed up and passages rehearsed to perfection, my stomach churned in anticipation of whether any people would show that evening. And this anticipation sometimes became the writer’s dreaded reality when I’d squint into the cavernous events room teeming with empty chairs and a mound of novels, a smiling employee poised at the front ready to soothe my ego with one of a triumvirate of reasons, too rainy weather, too hot weather, or too windy weather.

Of course, such embarrassments were instantly forgotten on those evenings when I’d walk into an event hoping for five attendees only to discover a cornucopia of book lovers, all of whom hung on my every word and followed up with brilliant questions. It’s events like that which make authors want to keep writing, and most of us never want the thing to end, even forget the reason why the bookstore has us at the store in the first place.

Not that well-attended events guarantee a bookstore will benefit, it should be understood. This lesson I learned at a New York City reading where my cornucopia amounted to twenty-eight persons, and it was only midway into a Q&A that the disquieting fact—the vast majority of them were writers—reared. All they required was my agent’s name and contact details, sound bites on how to get published, and one of the few people who didn’t ask a publishing question and braved the flailing limbs around my table asked me to sign a copy of my book.

Without going on tour, I’d have missed out on an encounter with a roguish Books Inc employee who told me to savor the artistic mountain which copies of my novel made in his store’s front window display because, after my reading, I was history. And sure enough, as I strolled past the store later that evening, my books were gone—replaced by an Augusten Burroughs poster and his artistic mountain. At the Borders store in Rancho Mirage, the in-store PA system was malfunctioning and two ladies raced into the event room; they came up to the podium where I was standing, remarked how much they’d loved Angela’s Ashes and didn’t know I wrote novels, and decided I was younger than they’d thought.

I’d also not have met a middle-aged lady who came to an event and breathlessly announced her maiden name had been McNicholl, though spelled with only one ‘l’ at the end. Her ancestry hailed from the same Northern Irish locality where I grew up, she was positive she saw a family resemblance, and then she insisted I attend a McNicholl family reunion of ninety later that month. Nor shall I ever forget the slowly opening mouth of an event coordinator when a delivery boy approached with an enormous vase of expensive flowers addressed to me during a reading. Admittedly, I was equally flabbergasted. They turned out to be from a Swedish friend from my distant past who’d been trawling the Internet, discovered I’d written a novel, and saw the tour schedule Â…and yes, I did give the flowers to the coordinator.

Of course, I’ve experienced the thornier side of human nature, too. Within earshot, one aging wife, attracted initially by the book’s Irish setting, refused to permit her husband to purchase the novel because its protagonist was growing up sexually confused and they didn’t read material like that. On another occasion, a gentleman who resurrected my schoolboy image of King Lear raised his hand and asked how a Catholic from Northern Ireland could write about that land and priests in any kind of negative way. After suggesting I find new subject matter for my next novel, he stormed out before I could marshal a reply.

What I’ve found especially touching are those occasions when readers are moved to open their lives to me. I’ve had mothers sob as they talked about their children being bullied at school. I’ve had couples approach and tell me they hadn’t known their grown offspring were gay until recently, or they’ve just wanted to chew the fat about not understanding the pain their child went through struggling to conform. At the beginning of the tour, these occurrences left me horribly uncertain as to what to say, until I realized no wisdom was expected.

So I’m in the camp of writers who enjoy touring–well, everything except for the humiliation bit. In a time when we’re constantly hearing that the book market is shrinking, that books are losing out to a myriad of entertainment alternatives, touring is important because eager readers like to meet their authors, and debut writers like to build an audience.

23 October 2004 | guest authors |