Even a gloriously sunny London evening could not keep the letter-loving masses away from our August writers' event.
And charming as Amy and I are, we suspect that had more to do with the sensational debut authors taking to the stage. We like to keep our line up eclectic, but with a murder, a memoir and a magical YA fantasy on the bill, we exceeded our own expectations.
Drinks in hand, the audience settled down for our first author, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. In The Fact of a Body, the Boston native has produced something that defies definition: part murder case, part memoir, this is a true story that is interwoven with Alexandria's own extraordinary truth.
She chose to read an extract before introducing her book and if it seemed a little unconventional at first, the effect was seismic: the audience were still, silent and utterly gripped. When she finished, we needed a moment to recover. It was Alexandria who broke the tension: “I never intended to write this book – in fact, I think I was desperately trying to avoid writing this book.”
She went on to talk eloquently about her writing process – honed over a decade of pursuing the same, harrowing story – and how to write about your own life when the narrative involves your family.
“At the end of a writing session, I needed a hug, Bourbon and puppies,” she laughed.
The audience had multiple questions for Alexandria and eventually time constraints forced us to move on (we honestly could have talked to her all night) so we settled for her final piece of advice: “Be patient, and don’t try to predict what people will react to.”
It was going to take one hell of an author to follow Alexandria. Lucky for us, we had one.
Charlotte Bowyer had her first YA book, His Frozen Fingertips, published when she was just 16. It tells the tale of Asa, a 17-year old with a life-threatening condition who is totally alone, bar his friend Averett; together, they must confront powerful evil. So far, so traditional YA mysticism. Except that Charlotte has mixed it up with LGBTQ issues of which is a passionate advocate. Not so traditional after all.
“What if YA could be a bit…gayer?” asked Charlotte and we all fell in love with her on the spot.
By her own admission, Charlotte’s route to publication was... unusual. She deadpanned the opening salvo she gave to publishers: “Hi, I’m Charlotte, will you buy my book?” and said she had been "naïve". We happen to think she is supremely brave – oh, and hilarious. Talking about her editing process, Charlotte said she was thrilled to get her manuscript returned with barely any edits.
Then she found the Track Changes button.
In fact, laughing our little noggins off was emerging as a theme for the night. Our third author was Emily Morris who had travelled from Manchester to read to us from her memoir, My Shitty Twenties.
We loved the book on spec when it arrived at Riff Raff Towers: this is Emily’s story about getting pregnant as a student and single-handedly raising her son. Turns out, we loved Emily from the first moment she opened her mouth to inform us that, “If you get offended, get out now.”
Emily took us through her first appointment with midwife-from-heaven Margaret, stopping to mention that if you are a woman, especially a pregnant woman, you are destined to spend your life weeing on your hands. In Emily’s second extract, her baby had been born and we were with her at a mothers’ group where the other mums all knew where to leave their buggy but (without giving too much away) were stymied when it came to having a really good night out in mighty Manchester.
There was a small window where we weren’t hooting with laughter and we used it to pin Emily down on an important idea: that by omitting an anti-hero from your story, he is painted in a worse light. “This my story, and my son's,” said Emily. We are so grateful she decided to share it.
We like a drink here at The Riff Raff so it was off to the bar for a quick libation before we took our seats for the second half, led by the quite brilliant Olivia Sudjic.
Olivia’s debut novel, Sympathy, has received such an amazing response it's quicker to list the publications it hasn’t graced (Horse & Hound, maybe?) When the protagonist, Alice, arrives in New York, she is searching for answers and she soon finds them in the online life of writer Mizuko. From there… you just need to read the book.
Lord knows what everyone imbibed at half time, but three minutes into Olivia’s reading – and it is a relatively cerebral text – everyone was at it again. Laughter, joyous and loud. Maybe it was to do with the X-rated extract Olivia had chosen? Maybe it was her story about the coffee and a really loud fan? Or possibly this admission: “My now agent said, ‘Send me the first three chapters.’ I said, ‘Sure’. I hadn’t written anything.”
Witty, articulate, honest and warm: Miss Sudjic, you are welcome at The Riff Raff any time.
With such merriment in the room, Ali Land’s dark, psychological debut Good Me, Bad Me could have been a stark end to the night. Except it's Ali Land. Yes, it was intense and no, nobody dared move as Ali read slowly, and beautifully – “Nothing is going to happen to you, they said. I wanted to tell them it already has.” – but Ali is a force of nature and too bloody good at speaking about writing.
The energy in the room soared, and hands shot up to ask Ali about everything and anything from structure to inspiration and how she found her narrative voice. “I don't think a voice is something that can be taught," she said. "I think it’s something you find inside you.”
“My creative process is mad,” she went on, labelling it “a delicious mania.”
Even this lady's process is poetic. We know a superstar when we see one.
It just remains for us to thank all our authors who read and every one of our audience who made it such an unforgettable night. Special thanks goes to our photographer Alice Lubbock who captures our events with such genius and flair – check out more of her shots in our Gallery.
We hope you enjoyed the night as much as we did.
Can’t wait to see you all again in September ;)
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