Standing on the threshold of the bar at the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival can be intimidating: everyone but you seems to know everyone but you; there’s laughter at jokes you didn’t hear; kissings and backslappings; and the sense of an in-crowd from which you’ll always be excluded.
Except that it’s not like that at all. Once you plunge in, you’ll swim with the rest.
When I first went to a literary event as a shy historical novelist under my real name of Daphne Wright, I hid behind my waist-length hair and felt thrown back to my first year at big school, my first dance, my first day in my first job, convinced I’d never get it and no one would ever talk to me. Crime writing saved me, partly because I could hide behind my pseudonym of Natasha (and later N J) Cooper but mainly because I discovered that the other crime writers were the friendliest people I had ever encountered. After a year or two I could even bring myself to cut off that Rapunzel-esque hair.
The crimewriting instinct for friendliness explains why at Harrogate the authors are not hidden away in special rooms or tents. We retreat to the green room for half an hour before our panel or interview for obvious practical reasons, and sometimes our publishers whisk us off for a meeting, but that’s it. For the rest of the time we’re all in it together – there to have a good time and enjoy the party. And the most ebullient of the partygoers can be the shyest of the lot behind their mask of hilarity.
If a very famous writer with whom you shared a great time in Maryland, or Mumbai, or Melbourne, or Margate fails to recognise you, don’t be hurt. The human brain is simply not fitted to retain and retrieve the number of facial images the huge international bestsellers receive in a year, let alone in a whole career. Remind them who you are and where you met and all should be well. A scientific study carried out a few years ago concluded that the human brain can deal with about a hundred friends and acquaintances – which should set all of this into context.
Back in my terrified early teenage years I was sent to Mrs Hampshire’s Christmas holiday dancing classes, at which we were given lots of helpful tips. Mrs Hampshire suggested we should ask our (equally terrified) dancing partners ‘do you have a brother? Does he like shrimps?’ or ‘Which end of the bath do you sit?’ None of those are likely to help at Harrogate, but if you find space on a sofa, or standing room, just occupy it. You’ll soon be surrounded.
And if you see a favourite writer standing empty handed, you can always offer him/her a drink. Most writers are as thirsty as they’re friendly.
So come to have fun, join the party, and – under any of my many names – I’ll see you in the bar.