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On meeting the author

17 May 2013

I RECENTLY encountered some people who were off to meet a famous author. They were excited at the prospect, but my first thought was: why?

They would not actually be meeting the author, of course. He would be on a stage, behind a microphone - but they would be in the same room, and he would be taking questions, which can give the impression of a real encounter.

Some of the thrill seemed to be that they would be in the same room as a figure declared "famous". But there was a hunger beyond that; for some of them had read his books, and now wanted to meet the man. In my experience, however, meeting the author is always a mistake. You may really like the book - indeed, it may have changed your life - but the story is best left there.

Remember, there is nothing spontaneous about a book. Authors spend hours creating something a great deal better than themselves - more clever, more humorous, more wise, more rounded. They have been able to edit their lines in a way that they cannot edit their lives, where there are numerous disappointing typos.

Their lives are in the same tangle as yours - worse, probably, and a great deal more insecure, or else why would they feel the need to play God on the page? It is where the prosecution might begin: writers only write to pretend control over a life they cannot control. They are small gods on the page as they plot, but, away from the page, they may lose the plot regularly.

One of my favourite spiritual books, from the early 20th century, led me into a hunt for the author. I wanted to know more about that author, and even enjoy the life that gave rise to the writing. I travelled to Cambridge, and submitted myself to various security checks in order to get a glimpse of personal diaries, recently made available. The experience was salutary.

I discovered a carping and critical life, full of falling-outs and overreaction. The author had written from the best of themselves, with their ordinary selves on the other side of the chasm.

Without a football at their feet, footballers can struggle. And without a pen in their hands, or a keyboard to bash, a writer may disappoint. It might be more rewarding to get tickets to meet your plumber for an evening or your newsagent. They may be less needy, pretending less.

I write this as I organise a book launch myself. But I don't imagine that anyone is coming to meet the author; I see it more as a gathering of friends, wishing me well in my small and insecure endeavours, because, although some people read a book and wish to meet the author, I am not one of them. In their work, I have already met them at their best. From here, it is all downhill.


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