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.