On Monday evening, not so fresh off the plane from Belfast, I made my way to the City of Bath for a literary event that I just couldn’t miss, despite being exhausted from my long weekend away. The wonderful Toppings Bookshop were hosting Matt Haig, author of The Humans, A Boy Called Christmas, and the book he had come to talk about that evening, Reasons to Stay Alive. This had been on my wish list for some time so I was eager to buy myself a copy and to meet an author whose twitter feed I follow avidly.
Toppings host many author events, often in local churches or other larger venues, but this one was to be held in the bookshop itself, just one of the reasons I had been so keen to attend. The constraints of space would ensure a more intimate experience. Arriving early I picked up a very welcome glass of wine and settled down in a front row seat. As the shop started to fill up and extra seating was put in place I realised how lucky we were that the event had not been moved elsewhere to accommodate the crowd.
I had not read the book but knew that it was non fiction and dealt with the author’s personal experiences with depression. He started his talk by outlining how this illness had come out of nowhere, suddenly, viciously. He mentioned the support he had been given by his family, and the failure of medication to deal with his particular symptoms. He read to us an early chapter of the book which brought to life how close he had been to death.
Obviously he did not die. The second half of the talk focused on the positives to have come out of his experiences. He believes that having a thin skin means that he can feel more and that this is a good thing. He has heightened appreciation, can recognise and empathise with other’s struggles. He knows now that the worst episodes of mental illness will eventually pass, even if they may also return. From what I have heard of his book he says this all much more cogently than me so do go read it!
After sharing another chapter from near the end of the book Matt asked for questions from his audience. This part of the event was not what I had expected. Instead of asking about his writing, or about other’s reactions to the book, the questions focused on how to help people the audience members knew who were suffering mental illness. Perhaps Matt is used to this, he certainly dealt with it gently. I wondered why these people did not seek out experts in the field rather than asking for solutions from an author, albeit one who has experience of these issues.
I had purchased a signed copy so did not feel the need to join the lengthy queue which snaked around the shop at the end. I should, perhaps, point out that the wine glasses in the picture above were not Matt’s. He had talked of his decision to cut back on many of the lifestyle drugs it is common to imbibe and throughout the evening sipped only on water.
I made my way to the train station and was updating my twitter feed with a picture of the event when I noticed that Matt had entered the lounge and was also tapping away on his phone. I had just tagged him and was entertained by the thought that we were communicating via social media whilst within feet of each other. I decided to talk to him.
What is the protocol for this? An author travels to a city, performs at a bookshop, and then leaves to catch the train home. Sitting in the station is someone who was at the event. How do they feel about a stranger sitting down opposite and talking as they both wait for the train?
I have no idea what Matt thought. He was gracious, answering my questions and indulging in idle chat as we waited for the five or so minutes until our train was announced. As we moved to the platform he made it clear that he would not be sitting with me. I had never intended to impose myself on him in this way. Perhaps it was my social anxiety kicking in and I read too much into his words. He had mentioned that he was still adjusting his body clock after a long haul flight so was probably exhausted.
I noticed as I moved away from him that a young girl approached to let him know how much she enjoyed his books. I hope that he felt flattered by the kindly meant attention. I have since posed the question of protocol on a Facebook Group I belong to, Book Connectors, which exists to bring bloggers and authors together. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, that authors wish to talk to their fans.
As I made my way home I pondered social etiquette and expectations. I had wondered at the audience members looking to Matt for answers to problems in their lives. I had looked to him for some small measure of friendship when he knew nothing about me. I wonder how he saw us.
Reasons to Stay Alive is published by Canongate Books and is available to buy now.