As someone who has experience of book signings from both sides of the desk, children’s author Mark Griffiths reflects on this peculiar literary ritual.
The monstrous queue zigzags its way across the floor of the function room, a chain of human beings coiled tighter than a bellyful of intestines. Necks crane. Every so often, a ripple like a peristaltic wave passes through the queue and it shuffles forward a few excited paces. Aware that their guest needs to leave soon, the venue’s staff close a concertina room divider, neatly bisecting the queue into Those Who Will Meet Stephen Fry Tonight and Those Who Will Not. There are groans from those on the wrong side. Complaints, tears. Fortunately, I’m Fryside.
It’s an odd ritual, this book signing business, but one I love. We like meeting our favourite authors because for a few brief moments our lives – our stories – intersect with theirs. There’s something of Joseph Campbell’s hero journey to it – you undergo the gruelling trial of the queue, have an epiphanic encounter with a powerful being and are ultimately rewarded with a magical object. Which you can then put on eBay if you’re a bit strapped.
It’s also an opportunity to thank authors for the enjoyment they’ve given us over the years – and in my case, the advice and inspiration, too. A few years ago I met Neil Gaiman at a signing and was able to tell him that it was his book Don’t Panic (a potted life and work of Douglas Adams) that first inspired the 17 year old me to submit a page of jokes to Radio 4’s Week Ending in 1988. To my shock and delight, one of those jokes made it into the show and people have been paying me to write things ever since. The next day Gaiman Tweeted that he had been proud to learn this and I went around for the rest of the week feeling ever so slightly ten feet tall.
Tonight I and a few hundred other people are waiting to meet Stephen Fry, who has been plugging his latest volume of autobiography More Fool Me at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. The atmosphere is thick with expectation and queasy giggles. Will I clam up? Make a fool of myself in front of a hero?
As an author of four children’s novels, I’ve sometimes had the privilege to be the one doing the signing. Once a kid presented me with a copy of Gangsta Granny to inscribe. “You do know I’m not David Walliams, right?” I asked him. He nodded stoically and asked me to sign it anyway. I wrote: “To Liam, Sorry I’m not David Walliams”, which, in terms of sales at least, is perfectly true.
My moment with Fry has arrived. “I read your book The Ode Less Travelled,” I tell him, “and used it to write a poem which I’ve now sold as the text of a children’s picture book.” He scrutinises me for a second, taking this in and then thunders, “Oh, that’s fantastic!” I blush. He signs his name and then looks up at me and winks conspiratorially. “You can make an awful lot of money writing children’s books, you know,” he chuckles. Maybe, I think. But probably not as much as David Walliams.
Mark Griffiths’s picture book The Burp That Saved The World, illustrated by Maxine Lee-Mackie, is published by Simon & Schuster on August 13th.