My first novel, Pigeon English, came out in March of this year. Writing it was a labour of love, a response to something I felt strongly about: the issue of gang violence amongst Britain's underprivileged youth.
When you write your first book you hope it will connect with people, that they'll read and enjoy it and that maybe it will be illuminating for them in some way; what you don't plan for are some of the ancillary activities that go along with having a book to sell. Welcome to the world of the travelling showman. Welcome to the festival circuit.
I had no idea what to expect from my first literary festival experience. Turns out I'll be giving my first-ever public reading to a sell-out audience of 400, in a church in Cologne on a rainy March evening. The turnout was communicated to me literally seconds before I stepped onstage; no time to panic about fluffing my lines, the spotlight is trained on me and all eyes turn my way: this is the moment it all gets real. I'm an author, and apparently there's no getting out of it. Deep breath...
One hour and a standing ovation later, and I realise I quite like being the centre of attention. With each subsequent appearance, I grow to like it more and more until I actually miss it when I'm not up on stage, an audience of paying guests hanging on my every word. This is weird. I'm supposed to be the shy, retiring type. I'm supposed to be deeply unnerved by all this sudden exposure, it should all be about the words and not about the man who wrote them. I've strayed so far beyond my comfort zone I'd need a Sherpa and a flaregun to find my way back and yet, hell, by some happy accident it appears I'm actually quite good at talking to rooms full of strangers about my book, and, by extension, about myself.
You might deduce from my erratic tone, dear reader, that I'm conflicted about this. On the one hand, I get picked up from airports in chauffeur-driven Audis with massage seats, there are complimentary hotel rooms with complimentary fine blend coffee, I get to chat with fellow authors in hospitality suites about the perils of jetlag and the difficult second book. I sign autographs and have my picture taken and get flirted at by octogenarians bearing gifts of Terry's chocolate oranges.
In Hay-On-Wye I briefly share a room with the Duchess of Cornwall and her platoon of neckless bodyguards, in the Hague I narrowly escape being incinerated when a fire breaks out in the venue I'd just performed in. I experience the chilly delights of Toronto at Halloween, Edinburgh on a warm August afternoon, the Italian Alps in December. In short, I get to live the life of a minor celebrity. It's more respect and attention and praise than I know what to do with, and it's...fun.
But - and before you click away, expecting another woe-is-me account of the trials of the poor unfortunate writer, reduced to selling his wares from comfy chairs in air-conditioned auditoria, bear with me, because there's a twist coming - I'm not doing this on my own. I have company on these trips, a travelling companion who shares every hotel room, sits on my shoulder through every event, whispering in my ear about luck and obligation and the price to be paid for success. He is a 10 year old boy. A boy who died. A boy whose spirit I tried to capture in my book, and to whom I owe all my newfound good fortune.
His name is Damilola Taylor, and Pigeon English was inspired by him. He never got a chance to live his dream as I'm living mine, so when I talk about the book he helped to create it's always with a sense of guilt as well as pride; I'm here today because he is not.
I get to travel the world he only got the briefest glimpse of. And that knowledge has a profound effect on me. It keeps me from enjoying those trappings too much, stops me in my tracks whenever I find myself complaining about being asked the same question for the twentieth time, about airport queues or time spent away from home.
To write a book based on a real person is to walk a tightrope between your own creative vision and the demands of being truthful and respectful to your subject; I couldn't anticipate just how delicate a walk this would be, or how rewarding.
I'm still learning what it is to be an author, and I hope you'll excuse me for thinking out loud. I guess the point I'm trying to make is a simple one: I'm a lucky so-and-so. All writers are. We do a job that we love, that can bring opportunities and perks few people get to enjoy. Most of all, we get to spend time with people like Damilola, and we get to tell our stories of them in places we'd never otherwise have gone. It's a blessed life, and I remind myself of this every day.
Pigeon English is available now. Click here to visit Stephen's Amazon page.