What do 13-year-old Liffy Levy (heroine of 'Rites of Spring'), a rare stuffed bird, a missing baby, a Liverpool detective and a small boy in Glasgow in the 1940s have in common? They were the stars of the five books featured in the Readers' Day in Sheffield last Saturday.
Hodder & Stoughton sponsored the day, so the five of us were all Hodder authors. I spent the train journey up on Friday afternoon feeling distinctly jittery at the prospect of sharing a platform with writers I respect as much as Sophie Hannah (whose psychological thriller 'Little Face' is absolutely brilliant, as is her poetry) and Martin Davies (his first novel 'The Conjuror's Bird' was a Richard and Judy choice and is very beautiful, an expert interweaving of past and present). The others, whom I hadn't read before but am now enjoying very much, were the superb crime writer Margaret Murphy and Robert Douglas, whose memoirs of growing up in Glasgow are completely riveting.
All was well, though, after a curry and a few beers on Friday evening, and we kicked off bright and early on Saturday with a panel discussion, hosted by the fabulous James Nash - a performance poet and ex-boxer - about what books had been important to us as kids. A huge groundswell declared Enid Blyton a top favourite among writers and readers alike, but I was happy to get in a plug for my favourite book of all time, Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle', which I must have read at least 250 times in the last 25 years. It turned out it was Martin Davies's favourite as well, so we had a good laugh about that. The hardest question, though, was 'Which book would you send to Room 101?' and my mind went a bit blank, mainly through deep upset when everyone else said 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', which I adored... How on earth could I have forgotten about Jeffrey Archer?
Next, we were each put in a room on our own with ten to fifteen audience members who had read our book to discuss it for an hour. My group was lovely, with an age range from late twenties to mid eighties and some interesting opinions to offer. I asked them questions like 'How long do you give Adam and Sasha's marriage after the end of the book?' and they asked me questions like 'How did you think up the Earth Prince?' - and the hour flew by!
A splendid buffet lunch, then a talk between James and an expert editor from Hodder, Alex, who spoke very entertainingly about the whole business. Last but not least, we each talked a bit about our working processes and gave short readings from the books. Performing without having to play a piano - phew! I did the bit where the football goes through the window...it seemed to be enjoyed...
It's wonderful to know that in the 21st century people still love books. The enthusiasm of the audience, the brilliant organisation, the care and attention and love of good writing and fascination about how it's done, all of this was incredibly encouraging. Even in this age of laptops, blogs, Blackberries, instant messaging and iPods, nobody has invented a better entertainment system than the paperback book: cheap, portable, practical, light, no battery, no troubleshooting helpline, no monthly charges and it doesn't disturb anyone else on the train unless you laugh or cry too loudly over the contents.