Written by Simon Brett

Having been a full-time writer for forty years, I’ve done my fair share of library talks, and it’s striking how much the experience has changed in that time. Of course, libraries themselves have also changed, beyond recognition. When I started, the old Punch cartoon image of a high cramped space shadowed by towering bookshelves, with anaemic spinster librarians saying ‘Ssh’ all the time, was not a million miles from the truth.

Certainly, for many of the library staff back then, there seemed to be a total disconnect between books and authors. Books they could manage, organise and issue. Authors were a strange species, slightly suspect and likely to disrupt the smooth running of the library system. It didn’t do to make them too welcome. By way of refreshment, the guest might be offered a glass of water. On more than one occasion I heard complaints from librarians about ‘having to stay late because we’ve got an author coming in.’

Of course, even then there were mould-breaking enthusiasts, individual librarians who worked their socks off to set up as many author visits as they could. Some of them went to great lengths to make their guests welcome. I remember one who organised a library visit from Dick Francis and met him at the door dressed in full jockey silks!

Attitudes changed as libraries changed, and it’s very rare now for an author to get anything less than a hearty welcome. Quite often sandwiches and a glass of wine too. Libraries don’t exactly have lock-ins, but many a convivial glass has been raised by author and staff after the audience has gone home.

Audiences too have changed. As author visits become a more regular part of the library calendar, so more people are attracted to the idea of seeing one in the flesh. In the old days, on more than one occasion I talked to a group among whom members of the public were outnumbered by library staff, all avidly asking questions at the end.

The Q and A session after the talk has changed, as well. In the old days, the plea from the senior librarian who’d introduced you – ‘now does anyone have any questions?’ – was greeted by a very British shuffling of feet and a sudden fascination with the audience’s shoes. The reason that almost never happens now is, to my mind, because of the development of book groups. Almost all libraries organise them, so many of the audience will be very experienced in articulating their views on literary matters and more than ready to engage a live author in discussion.

As a frequent visitor to libraries, a writer does of course get a very detailed insight into the private life of librarians. This is because, almost invariably, the only place an author can be conveniently shuffled away out of sight, is the staff room. And such spaces are full of little hints about the characters of the people who inhabit them by day. I still remember, in the staff room of a library in Telford, the poignant sight of a cardboard box on which was written: ‘JAMJARS FOR VERONICA’. I’ve always thought it was the perfect title for the kind of book I would never write.

It’s because of my experience in – and love of – libraries that I used one for the setting of my Fethering Mystery – entitled appropriately The Liar in the Library, whose paperback is one of the first in Canongate’s new Black Thorn imprint. I didn’t have to do any research – I’d already spent many years doing that – and I took great pleasure in organising the murder of a particularly self-regarding author on a library visit. The book may have some fun at their expense, but it also expresses the great respect and affection I feel for the many librarians I have met in the course of my career.

BlackThorn Publishers, June 6th 2019
Pbk £8.99

Read Amy Myers's review HERE


Simon Brett

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