Interview with Sophie Hannah, Bethan Roberts and Kate Summerscale

This is a slightly abridged version of an interview conducted with the British authors Sophie Hannah, Bethan Roberts and Kate Summerscale in Berlin during the #BritLit seminar about “Brit Crime – A New Golden Age of Crime Writing?”. We talked about the involvement of authors in events and the promotion of their books, their strategies to cope with social media, and the visibility of authors as public figures. We also touched upon creative writing in the UK – and what Germany might learn from it.

Sandra van Lente (SvL): How involved are you as authors in the PR and marketing of your publishers? Is there a certain amount of readings you consent to in your contracts? How does it work for you?

Sophie Hannah (SH): As far as I’m aware it is not normal for a contract to specify that you’d have to do a certain number of readings.

Bethan Roberts (BR): No, it is normal for it to say you would do a “reasonable amount of publicity when asked”.

SH: So it will be loosely referred to that the author’s help in promoting the book will be expected, but as far as I know there is never a specific number.

BR: No, because then, if it were in the contract and your books did not sell that well, you as a writer could say: ‘well, but it is in my contract that I’m supposed to be doing 50 public events’. And of course they wouldn’t want to do that if not so many people are interested. I think it would bind them as well as you. They leave it open and wait and see how it does.

SH: And of course they’ll hope that you do stuff – unless you are one of those authors who cannot be trusted to do a bookshop event without offending the audience. But generally they like it if you do the odd thing.

SvL: Do you think some people might act crazy in order to avoid participation in public events?

SH: No! There are some authors who deter people from buying their books every time they appear in public.
[they all laugh] I won’t say any names, but I once did an event with another crime writer and every question that a member of the audience asked him – he reacted as if they had just asked the stupidest question in the world.
One woman said: ‘Oh, I’m so in love with your detective character. Can’t he get married again?’ And the author said: ‘You do realise that I just make these people up, don’t you?! They don’t exist.’ And his answer, the tone was so condescending… But I think that’s the exception. Most people are slightly better.

Kate Summerscale (KS): Well, it’s supposed to run on goodwill between the publisher and the author. And the author is meant to want their books to sell because they want to earn out their advance. So you’re meant to be on the same side. The contract doesn’t suggest otherwise. And it would be no good making an author do more engagements or do engagements they didn’t want to. It wouldn’t be effective. They wouldn’t be doing it in a way that is pleasing the audience. And it wouldn’t encourage anyone to buy books. So there is no enforcement at all.

SH: Also, in terms of authors helping publishers with PR, I think publishers have moved on from events to asking authors to write on twitter, blogs… There is a common thing now that if a book is out and the publisher can’t get an event for the author – and obviously publishers can’t get events for all their authors – they will get the authors to do what is called a blog tour. So they will find let’s say ten literary bloggers – there’s hundreds of these people – and they will ask ‘can my author appear on your blog and do a guest blog as part of a blog tour?’ That is quite common.

SvL: Can I ask you a personal thing? How comfortable do you feel doing readings, interviews and appearances on social media? I realised that some of you are for example on twitter, but not all of you.

BR: When I first started appearing on social media, I didn’t feel comfortable at all and I found it all very stressful. And of course many writers like spending a lot of time on their own, reading books, and not talking. I don’t think I am a natural talker. But I think I’ve gotten a bit better at it as it’s gone on. Now I don’t mind it. And there is an element of me, like with a lot of writers, that likes showing off. That’s kind of why you write in a way, to see what people pay attention to, so I see this as an extension. Having said that: social media – I do it because I feel that I should, but I only do twitter and, to be honest, I’d kind of rather not. I don’t mind doing it. Sometimes it’s quite nice.

KS: It is an obligation more than a pleasure.

SH: I rather grumpily thought ‘ok, I’ll go on twitter and see, it will probably be awful’. And I instantly got hooked! I just looked at twitter and thought: ‘who are all those lunatics who are expressing their ridiculous opinions? What’s wrong with all those people?’ and then I became fascinated and realised that as a writer of psychological thrillers, if you want to see what’s going on in people’s heads, twitter is the place to be. I’m really gripped by this.

SvL: How about you, Kate?

KS: I am not on twitter. And I feel I would have to fake it to be that kind of public person. It makes me feel self-conscious. I like to see who I’m talking to. I prefer talking to a person rather than … people. I’m not brought up in it and I feel that everything I wrote would be artificial. And so I don’t want to put myself in the position of being phoney – and that is what I would need to be.
And I’m glad to say that publishers haven’t pressured me. For a while I kept thinking I would have to do it, but now, no I’m not. I’m just not a twitter person. And there are people who just are.

KS: It’s a funny thing cause you would think that if you are a writer you would feel comfortable addressing an unseen audience, but there is something so different about the voice of a tweet. The voice of you speaking as opposed as the persona of the writer that you choose to adopt and that you work on over a long time. I write slowly. I’m not an off-the-cuff kind of writer. And I don’t have lots of opinions. Public opinions, I mean, I have lots of private opinions. I like telling stories. It doesn’t come easily to me to have a lot of opinions which is a lot of twitter is all about.

SvL: I’m also interested in how this changed reading. Because if authors are not only the ‘producers’ of the stories, but are also public figures, present on twitter, public readings and so on – I sometimes get the feeling that it takes attention away from the text. I understand that it is to some extent necessary because so many books are published every year and you want people to be aware of your latest publication. So I’m wondering whether you see it as part of the game and you play along as long as you can be authentic and comfortable doing it or is it something you find annoying and superfluous.

BR: For me, I’m just kind of grateful for anyone who is interested in my books. So I’m happy to talk to them about it. I’ve never been exposed to the kind of attention where it becomes you know, a problem or sort of pressure. I really enjoy it because I think that person is really interested in my book. Thank god.

SH: I do them because I like doing events. I don’t like being exhausted. That’s the only downside: I am exhausted all the time. And that’s probably a problem, but I’ve seem to be getting away with it – and I do like getting away with things. I like to see how far I can push it. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do.

SvL: Do authors in the UK get paid for readings?

SH: There is a big hoo-ha about it at the moment.

KS: I think the short answer is: never in a bookshop.

SH: for a new book in a bookshop you would never get paid.

KS: It’s partly because you’re supporting the cause of your book; publicity. And partly because there is a “good for books” kind of feeling, good for bookshops, especially independent bookshops. At festivals: sometimes, there is a big debate about it.

SH: But you get expenses. Your publisher would pay all expenses if they wanted you to do bookshop reading events around publication.

SvL: They usually get paid in Germany, but the whole funding situation is different. In addition, we don’t have a creative writing culture in Germany, so there is little to no additional income from e.g. teaching creative writing at universities.

KS: I know it has become a much bigger thing in England, but I would still say that the vast majority of authors does not supplement their incomes by teaching creative writing. Is that fair?

BR: I know quite a lot who do.

SH: I think it’s one of those things that’s getting more over time. When I did my degree, there were no creative writing degrees you could do. Now there is a lot.
[the others agree]

KS: There are even creative non-fiction courses.

SvL: Do you think that this is a positive development? Do you think Germany should be more like the UK in this sense or is there also a more problematic side to it?

SH: I have to say I think it’s good because university courses are predominantly there for the people who are gonna take them. And as an undergraduate I would have loved nothing more that to do a creative writing course. I think there is lots of people who would love to do a creative writing degree and I think it’s good that they can.
I think there is obviously some danger. When I briefly taught creative writing at a not very good university, it was quite scary the number of student doing creative writing who really thought that at the end of the course they are going to be a bestselling writer. That I’d give them some kind of key to the kingdom and in they walked… and when you say to them ‘look, this course doesn’t guarantee publication and it doesn’t guarantee anything really – it’s just a way of learning how to be a better writer’ they often reacted badly to that. I do slightly worry that people’s expectations are being raised.

KS: I agree with that. It’s a good thing, as long as people know that it’s like any other university course: you read history, you don’t expect to become a historian at the end of it. It’s a discipline. You learn, you think deeply about certain things that you may never do, but if you learn about writing, you also learn about reading – in the same way reading an English literature course teaches you something about writing. It’s all good, but creative writing sometimes seems more like a vocational course, like a training, as opposed to a regular university course where you chew things over for a few years. That is misleading.

BR: I did a creative writing MA and I’ve taught creative writing courses as well. For me, there is more validity to MAs than to BAs. I’ve taught on a BA and I think you’d better be off just reading at that stage. Maybe doing the odd course in writing instead of doing a whole undergraduate course in creative writing. It is a lot of space to fill and it’s very difficult.
I think people misunderstand creative writing courses. They think you just gonna go in and learn how to write. I think you need to learn how to read like a writer, that’s a least how I taught it.
But for me, creative writing courses have been brilliant. They gave me the confidence to try and get published – and they give me employment.

SvL: What I think could change in Germany if we embraced creative writing a bit more is that it could make people understand that (good) writing is a craft that some can learn and develop. It might help us to get rid of this notion of the author as genius. This could be a chance for Germany.

SH: Oh definitely, there should be creative writing courses; because you can teach an awful lot of things in creative writing that will make anybody’s writing better, whether they’re a genius or not. I’ll give you an example from my literary agent. It was when I handed in a particularly dire first draft. She said: ‘You know you don’t have to take three pages to get him from the door to the window in order to have the conversation by the window. Start the chapter with him by the window.’ And I was like ‘oh, wow, this is a huge revelation’.

KS: And I think that when I was at university, there was no system for teaching people about writing, about style and editing. When you’re doing English literature, you read it. That’s the way in which you’re learning something. I went on to do an MA in journalism in the States – and you get taught a lot from newspapers about editing and about superfluous words. And so it’s good that there are those courses because everybody needs to write: emails, company reports, scientific reports, doctor’s reports and so on. It would be good if we had a higher standard of style, efficiency, accuracy, and imagination in writing. Whether or not you go on to be a novelist.

SvL: Thank you so much for your time and the interview!