Initially, these speaking engagements came about because I found a Register of Student SF Societies on the web, checked which ones had web sites to inspire confidence, then got out my road atlas and contacted those either within a day trip of home or which were close to some old pal I knew I could cadge a bed from overnight. I asked the chairpersons involved if they were interested in having me along. After their initial shock and establishing I wasn’t out to sting them for some fee but only wanted expenses covered, most said, ‘yes please’ and often ‘why us?’ Well, as I’ve said elsewhere, as a reader, I value seeing authors I haven’t read, to get some idea of whether or not I’ll like their stuff. As an author, I was interested in the feedback I’d get from students, as being a different audience from other branches of fandom.
Unaccustomed as I was to public speaking, it was very reassuring to begin with a talk to Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, at a meeting held in my old college of St Hilda’s. I told them about my experiences of writing, rejection and being published, from a fairly humorous angle since that’s the best way I’ve found of handling the whole experience. I also included some straight talking on the realities of publishing by way of a reality check for those with literary ambitions. Enough of the twenty-something strong audience had read The Thief’s Gamble to ask intelligent and interesting questions and those that hadn’t certainly looked interested enough to go and seek it out afterwards, as far as I could tell anyway. I then had to rapidly relearn the essential JCR bar skill of being able to tune into three simultaneous conversations at once, while some determined type is watching telly on the other side of the room. All in all, it was a fun evening, though perhaps a little daunting to realise that when I had gone to college, these students had been pretty much the age of my own kids at that point!
I gave essentially the same talk to the SF societies at Keele, Warwick, Imperial College, London and York University over the course of the autumn and since then have given an updated spiel to Cambridge students on ‘how did you do it and what’s it like?’. These days, my talk tends to be on the theme of ‘that was then and this is now’. I’ve spoken to groups ranging from 8 to 65-plus interested bodies, which meant some evenings turn out to be more of a chat with new pals and some are me giving a more formal talk. Everyone so far has managed to come up with new and interesting questions to go along with those old standards, ‘where do you get your names from?’ and ‘who’s your favourite author?’. Perhaps it’s my northern roots showing here but I’d say the further North I travel, the more enthusiastic the welcome is. I think this is largely down to the way so much literary activity is centred on London and the South East, so people are really grateful to find any author willing to go north of the Watford Gap. I also make sure that these trips are combined with other useful activities; signing stock in bookshops, meeting booksellers, visiting a gallery or museum for some research or just visiting a friend without the kids in tow. I know from my own experience of organising speaker meetings that the worst five minutes are just before the start, when you are wondering how many people are going to show. I want to be able to reassure any Chairperson finding a bare handful turning up, that I’ve got plenty out of the trip, regardless of the size of my audience.
Some things have changed remarkably since I was a student; on the plus side, it’s now possible to see right across JCR and Union bars, rather than having to take it on trust that there’s beer somewhere on the far side, in the impenetrable haze of fag smoke. More worryingly, every student has financial pressure featuring heavily in their life with some kind of part-time job in term or every vacation spent earning whatever they can, not for holidays or luxuries, but for food, books, tuition and so on. For all that, everyone seemed very philosophical about such hardships and realistic about their futures in the job market, which impresses me enormously.
As a writer, I am intrigued to notice one or more of the following archetypes can be spotted in every meeting or later in the bar. There’s usually the solid bloke with a beard and glasses who sits at the back, listens intently and then takes himself off without a word. You’ll probably have a tall, thin blonde chap in some sport society sweatshirt (the sport varies) who frequently stumbles over his words in his enthusiasm. Then there’ll be the darkly saturnine fellow, who’s often the only one with a readily identifiable girlfriend in tow for some reason, and is generally the one who’s read all those SF classics that you keep meaning to read but never find time for. The women are inevitably practical, down to earth types, well able to keep all of the above in check, unless they are inclined to the Scary-Goth look and sit gazing at the speaker with rather unnerving intensity. Now I just have to find the right place in a book to include all this, so please forgive me the stereotyping and accept this in the good humour it’s meant.