On November 3 2018 I interviewed CJ Sansom at Norwich Cathedral. Chris is an old friend. We’ve known each other since before either of us had fiction published, so it was lovely to do this event together – surrounded by the city in which his seventh Shardlake novel Tombland is set.
CrimeFest is booking. People are already thinking about Theakston’s Crime. I’m putting my name down for Bloody Scotland in 2019. I’m definitely going back to Morecambe and Vice. Here is my list of things I’d say to any writer doing a panel for the first time:
- Be interesting. Writers imagine that they are fascinating; very occasionally they are mistaken. You’re interesting if you have something interesting to say. Facts, anecdotes and jokes are good. Above all be yourself, but the interesting bit of yourself. Like books themselves, making this seem effortless can take a bit of preparation.
- You’re not the only person on the panel. A small number of writers see panels as a competitive sport in which the object is to do the most speaking. Even if you are extremely interesting, chances are the audience, who’ve probably come to hear the woman you’re talking over, just think you’re being a dick.
- With that in mind: Maybe know who your fellow panellists are. If you’ve time, read a book of theirs; at the very least take the time to find out what they’ve done. You might find you’ve got something you want to ask them yourself.
- In fact, Don’t just say stuff, ask stuff. Turn to your fellow panellists and ask them questions. Ask the audience something. It’s nice.
- Though nice is good, You don’t have to agree with everything. Three or four people nodding to everything each other says can be a bit dull. If you don’t agree with something that another writer – or the chair – says, speak up. A genuine discussion might actually start. You can almost feel the audience sit up a little straighter when that happens.
- Be nice to the chair too. More often than not, they are good people who have given up their hours to read a large pile of books in order to make you look as shiny as possible. If they’re a writer themselves, why not ask them a question. If you do it right, it won’t even sound that creepy.
- Don’t be dispirited if no one comes. Every writer has a pocket full of stories about that. Book events are not as exciting as rock concerts or circuses. It’s really hard to persuade people to turn out.
- Don’t be dispirited, either, when nobody comes up to ask you to sign their book afterwards. However brilliant you are, building a readership is hard. Console yourself with the fantasy that someone shy at the back of the room has ordered the book on Amazon while you were talking. They’re going to read it and tell fifty friends it was amazing.
- Check your flies. As I walked on stage recently to do a panel with Elly Griffiths and Isabelle Grey I noticed my flies were undone. There was no table either.
- Enjoy it. The people you meet and are respectful to on panels will be your pals for life.
On 17 April I’m launching my new book, Salt Lane. It’s a joint launch with books by two other amazing writers and friends, Elly Griffiths and Lesley Thomson.
It’ll be at Waterstones Brighton, 71-74 North St, Brighton BN1 1ZA, starting at 7.30 prompt. There will be wine and soft drinks.
Please come if you can. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
The fourth in the Breen and Tozer series, Sympathy for the Devil, will be published in the UK on February 22. Details of how to pre-order it:
… though if you really want to make me happy order it from my local bookshop City Books in Hove. If you want it signed, let them know and I can always nip out on the bike and sign it before they post it.
If anyone is looking to catch up on the series, you can buy the Breen and Tozer Omnibus, featuring the first three books, as an ebook:
Ten years ago I used to write a column for The Observer magazine called The Small Ads. As the name suggested, I trawled the classifieds looking for stories. The principle was very simple. At the heart of all narrative is change. When someone is placing a classified ad, they are changing in some small way. My task was to seek out the narrative. It was a lot of fun and the best columns ended up complied as book called Superhero For Hire. It confirmed my belief that, if you scratch the surface, everybody has a story to tell. And many of those stories are very strange indeed.
Occasionally, when I’m looking for a character, I look back at them in the Guardian’s archive. I was doing that this morning and came across this one below.
I have no memory at all of writing it. Reading it though, I’m quite pleased. Some of it is poignant, some of it very funny: You’d think the biggest problem would be jealousy. Actually, it’s time management.
(Disappointingly, online they don’t print the original adverts with the articles, as they did in the newspaper at the time… so you have to guess the context).
His girlfriend Amy’s been so busy this week Max hasn’t had much chance to tie her up. Last Thursday he spent the night at his other girlfriend Deborah’s, and they did a nice bondage scene there. Usually he gets to tie people up, oh … a couple of times a week.
Amy – or Mistress Matisse, to give her her professional name – is a dominatrix. She has been Max’s ‘primary’ partner. Deborah is his ‘secondary’; they’ve been seeing each other for three-and-a-half years, it’s a regular Thursday-night date. Aside from BDSM he’s into the ‘poly’ scene – polyamory, having more than one lover. Mistress Matisse is poly, too.
Bondage a couple of times a week is nice. That might include a little bit of bondage-lite, when you meet someone at a party or a bondage workshop and they go, ‘Can you show me how this feels?’ Sometimes he’s found himself tying people up four or five times a week, but that gets too much. It takes the edge off.
His fascination with ropes started in the Boy Scouts back in 1967. A wonderful training ground, says Max. For 30 years he sailed, too, which gave him a respect for rope. When it comes to bondage itself, he was a late bloomer. For 14 years he was happily married. Bondage was not part of the relationship.
Single again at 35, he was casting around. Bondage had always privately fascinated him. He’d seen the adverts at the back of magazines, but somehow didn’t believe anybody really did that. Then around 1990 he saw an advert about BDSM on a bulletin board. ‘Are you interested in getting together for bondage and kinky sex?’ He tore off the number; he kept it in his wallet a year before he had the courage to call it, but by then the line had been disconnected.
But that was a turning point, it was like he’d made up his mind. Some people in a fetish shop put him in touch with the Seattle BDSM community and he’s been tying people up ever since. He loves it. It’s more than sex. In fact, often it’s just play without sex at all. He’s a ‘top’; his partner Mistress Matisse is ‘switchy’; sometimes she likes to be ‘top’, sometimes ‘bottom’. He specialises in ‘suspension bondage’, elaborately trussing people so that they hang by ropes from hooks in a ceiling.
It’s about power and intimacy, he says. So much of our lives is about implicit power, it’s liberating to become explicit about it. And you have to build so much trust between people to be able to tie somebody up. You have to be honest.
Being poly is the same, he says. You have to replace control with trust. She wants to sleep with someone else? If I love her, how can I deny her that? You’d think the biggest problem would be jealousy. Actually, it’s time management.
It was Amy who encouraged him to start teaching bondage. Now he does exhibitions at the big erotica festivals – and once a month in Seattle leads workshops with curiously prosaic names: ‘Rope Bondage 101’, ‘Suspension You Can Use’, ‘When Someone You Know Is Switchy’.
He has to be cautious though – he’s a self-employed consultant; he’s not sure how clients would react. Funnily enough, the friends and relations who do know are more disturbed by the polyamory than the kinky part. People find that threatening. Like his ex-wife. They’re still friendly, and they meet every couple of months for dinner. He feels she doesn’t really understand that. Strangely, when they were married, it was her who had the secret affairs – he didn’t. In retrospect, he’s not sure if that was morality, or lack of imagination.