Anyone for Launch?

I went to my second Book Launch, last week – and it was mine! I’d only been to one other and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but there seemed to be something missing from it. More on that in a bit.

When Sarwat Chadda (gentleman and all-round good egg) suggested – well, insisted – that I was going to have a Book Launch for Geekhood, I suddenly found myself doing a lot of head-scratching: the idea sounded like a good one, but what are these things actually for? As far as I was concerned, I’d had my cake and eaten it, in the form of getting a book published – so what was the real point to this? But I wasn’t given an awful lot of time to think about it, as Sarwat bundled me into Waterstones in the Plaza on Oxford Street to meet Ann, who’d held his Ash Mistry Launch. Within minutes, it was decided. I was having a Book Launch.

Cue more head-scratching. I started to think about what this was all about: I didn’t want it to be just an ego-polish for me; I’m fairly well-endowed in that department, anyway. So what was it for? And then it hit me: in getting this book together, I’m just the tip of a very large iceberg that extends beyond the publishers. Of course, without Stripes, it wouldn’t have achieved its coherency, style and the stonkingly super cover it’s got. On top of that, without Stripes, it wouldn’t have travelled across the country and made friends with Young Adults, like it did. But, on top of that, without my agent, it wouldn’t have been plonked on Stripes’ desk. And then there were the legions of bloggers and reviewers who’ve given up their time, for nothing, to trumpet its existence. Plus, as chance might have it, it was my Mum’s birthday.

Once I’d realised that this was a chance to thank everyone for their part in making Geekhood a reality, something else became clear: that missing element from the other Launch I’d been to: fun. I wanted this to be a fun event. I didn’t want to do a reading, as that would feel a bit indulgent and I didn’t want people standing around chewing on mushroom vol au vents – I wanted to have a giggle.

Luckily, Stripes are a bunch of children in grown-up clothes and they bounced with the idea as soon as it was mooted. They sorted out some FANTASTIC cakes and posters and general silliness. Chief Sillies were the Waterstones bunch; they really thought about the book and  roped in some guys from Games Workshop to come and run miniature-painting sessions and a LoTR RPG. Plus they issued a fancy-dress challenge to all-comers.

The stakes were pretty high and I had to at least match them. As a Geek, I was well aware of the work of the UK Garrison: a bunch of Star Wars Geeks who have movie-accurate costumes and are endorsed by Lucas Films to attend events on a charity basis. Basically, any money you give them goes to the charity of their choice. How cool is that? The Dark Lord of the Sith and his entourage were hired.

So, many emails and phone calls later, the Big Day arrived. I pitched up a couple of hours early to lend a hand but, within an hour of my ham-fisted attempts to display books, was told it might be better to have a cup of tea in the broom cupboard. Luckily, I was joined by Joe of the UK Garrison – a giant of a man who was to be Darth Vader for the night. Man, I thought I knew my Star Wars trivia; this guy had it going on in spades! (I didn’t know the model for Tantive 4 was actually bigger than the one for the Star Destroyer…)

And then Stripes turned up – Paul with his Alien Chestburster, Jane as Uhura, Chloe as Link from Zelda, Ruth as an Elf Archer… It all started getting a bit weird! When the two Stormtroopers turned up, I left them to change and went to put on my Hobbit outfit. By the time I came out, there were Geeks aplenty: Wolverine, Rorschach, ‘Kick Me’ Geekettes… more than I can remember. Faces I hadn’t seen for yonks suddenly appeared – a little greyer and with more lines – and faces I’d never seen before. And from that point on, it was like being on a merry-go-round: I signed stuff, chatted with folk, posed in photos, got strangled by Darth Vader, drew pictures, rolled dice – and all through this, there was a very humbling and genuine atmosphere of warmth and support; the kind you normally get at the end of a theatre show.

And then. The bit I’d been Dreading. The speeches. Now, as I’ve said before, I’ve done a bit of Showbiz in me time, stood on stage and churned out a bit of acting. But I’d rehearsed nothing. In a weird way, I didn’t want to – I wanted it all to be what I was thinking at the time. OK, I made a list of people to  thank – but that was it.

Anyone who’s done Showbiz with me knows just how nervous I can get. A few days earlier, I’d spoken to my son about it who, with all the wisdom of an eight year-old, told me that all I needed to say was: “Wel-come, Laydeez and Gennelmen! Let the party begin!” So, I started by telling that story, referencing him. And, as I did, there was a ripple in the crowd in front of me and my little lad came and sat at my feet, facing everyone. Like it was me and him. I don’t think my voice faltered, but there was a serious bit of cheek-biting going on and the threat of tears was very real. Luckily, humiliating my Mum by getting everyone to sing her Happy Birthday kind of pulled me back from the brink.

I got through the speech, bolstered by the feel of my son sitting on my foot. Perfect. Couldn’t have asked for anything more.

The feedback’s been brilliant. Apparently, we’ve raised the bar for Launch Parties and the word that keeps getting bandied around was the one I was hoping for: ‘fun.’

If you were there, you’ll know just how nuts it was – and you have my heartfelt thanks for coming. If you weren’t – I’m sorry you couldn’t get there – but let’s see what happens when we kick Geekhood 2 into the ether…


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To Tour or not To Tour..?

No-one can prepare you for your first book tour. Not even three years training at drama school can prepare you for your first book tour. I’m just about to enter the final leg, with a visit to my old school in Devon and a radio interview on Radio Devon – all in the name of Geekhood.

So what’s the difference? I mean, I’ve done tours. They were part of our training at LAMDA and I’ve done them as an actor – so why should this one be any different? Those were pretty much my thoughts when Stripes said it might be a good idea.

The main difference is that I didn’t have a script, a director or other cast members to hide behind. “Not a problem,” I thought,”I’ll write something.” But that flagged up something else: no character to hide behind, either. This was about my book and, to some extent, me. I threw a few ideas around my head – and some of them I’m cringing about now. One of my visions involved me arriving dressed up as something out of Lord of the Rings. Another involved me getting one of those t-shirts that plays music and coming on to the Star Wars Suite – pumped out by my top. There were lightsabres, pointed ears and all sorts. And then I realised I was doing what actors do when they don’t know what they’re doing: they play with props. No good.

So back to the content I came – a little folornly. What was I going to say to a roomful of people at least 25 years younger than me? Was I going to connect with them? Was I ‘groovy’ enough?

And then I woke up. The point, for me, wasn’t to impress or try and distract people into thinking I’m something I’m not. The point was to be honest. Which goes against the grain for most actors – you’re a professional liar. But, what I did have on my side was the book: it’s honest. I wrote it with all the horror of my own teenage years firmly in mind – and if you’re going to connect with anyone, honesty is the best way to do it. So, I started by telling everyone that I was nervous, which made me feel a bit better and, hopefully, started building a bridge between me and the people in front of me. I then backed this up with the horribly true story of me asking a girl out for the first time. And failing.

By the time I was yakking on about the themes in the book, we’d established enough of a bond that people were happy to start asking questions and, as a result, each event was different, shaped by those present. Some were funnier than others, some were quite serious – but they were all honest.

I’ve told you what I didn’t have. Here’s what I did have: I had Paul Black. Usually on a tour, the actors will come to know each other fairly slowly: as you rehearse, you’re also sounding each other out. By the time you get to the first night, you’ve established the hierarchy, worked out who’s up for a laigh and who isn’t and started to build friendships. When me and Paul started out in Edinburgh, we didn’t really know each other; we’d met a couple of times, but that was it. So, it was all very professional and polite for the first couple of days – which weren’t particularly hectic. I think we did one school on one day and two the next and then we had a weekend off. I went home and Paul went to a party. When we got together two days later, it was suddenly like we’d done the rehearsals and first night and the gloves came off – it was like we’d been on tour for a month.

Any actor who’s done a tour knows the dangers of Cabin Fever. It comes in about the third week of touring and usually ends up in boozy nights. I thinki t’s because you are existing in the bubble of the play – the only people you talk to, both on and off stage, are the other actors and it sends you a bit potty. Luckily, I don’t drink and Paul doesn’t much. Our Cabin Fever came by about Day 3 and we ended up remoreselessly teasing each other and anyone who came into contact with us: booksellers, teachers. But it was kind of infectious and we ended up roping everyone into our madness. As a footnote, Paul can do a brilliant rendition of my opening speech: get him to do it if you meet him.

We charged through Edinburgh, Newcastle, Blackpool and East London, laughing pretty much all the way. I think it’s that that sets a book tour apart from a showbiz one; it’s much more intense and the audience interatcion is so much more immediate and heartfelt: if they don’t like you, you’ll know about it. But, if you are all talking the same language, you’ll be rewarded. You don’t want to go in thinking you’re going to tell teenagers all about your book; in my limited experience, you need to understand that you’re going to discuss it with them – that it’s a two-way thing. Not you and them, but ‘us’.

By the time it was over, I was shattered: the nerves, the hilarity and the madness really took their toll. But I’m glad I did it and I look forward to the next one. I’ve come away with some great memories of students and their brilliant comments and at least one good friend. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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