“To be a poet, you had to be a man, and you probably had to be dead as well.”
That was the impression Moyra Donaldson got at school – and today, as a published poet herself, it’s one of the reasons she finds school visits so rewarding.
“I believe quite passionately that everyone should feel they have a voice, so if I go into schools, young pupils can meet me and see that I’m just like everybody else.
“Then they think: maybe I could be a poet, too?”
Indeed, the modern writer is expected to be very much alive, and to embrace interaction with their audiences – whether through school visits, festival appearances or social media.
The questions to which this gives rise – about a writer’s role as a public figure and the extent to which contemporary writers are expected to embrace this new dual identity – are among the many topics under discussion as part of the Words Ireland series of nationwide public meetings on the realities of life as a writer.
Award-winning young adult writer, Sheena Wilkinson, took unpaid leave from her teaching job at Methodist College, Belfast, so that she could attend literary events and visit schools.
Even though she admits that it meant she “probably operated at a loss for a few years”, she saw it as an investment because she felt it was important to promote her books.
“It’s lovely because you’re going out there and meeting readers and potential readers, and I am quite an outgoing person so it is nice.”
Novelist and short story writer John Boyne agrees. “Ultimately every time I publish a book, I want as many people as possible to read it, and I’m not going to do that by hiding away.
“I think you have to get out and get people interested in your work. We want as many readers as we can get, and whatever it takes to get those readers is fine.
“But it’s not an obligation on the part of a writer to do that – and, to be honest, it can get exhausting.”
For many writers – and particularly those who write for children and young adults – school and library visits can also be a useful way to supplement their income.
“What I’ve tended to do from time to time is go out and tour schools with my children’s books,” says Colin Bateman. “That can be lucrative, particularly if I know I can string together 15, 20 schools in a short period of time. I’ve actually reprinted some of my children’s books that have gone out of print myself and brought them along to sell on the day.”
Like many aspects of a writer’s life, the key is to find a balance in terms of time spent and money earned – and other, less tangible, benefits.
“I was in Venice for the film festival which was brilliant, to go somewhere like that,” says Bateman. “And – no offence – but if I’m invited to a literary festival in Strabane and it clashes with Venice, I’m probably going to go to Venice.”
While one can only speculate at the fee for Venice, in Ireland the going rate for a festival appearance is anywhere between €150-€300 depending the nature of the event and the extent of the writer’s contribution – though most writers will admit to having accepted less.
“I’m doing a festival that has paid me well and looked after me well in the past, but which doesn’t have as much funding this year,” explains Wilkinson. “So I’m doing it for a lesser amount.
“It’s all very well to say we need to be paid properly and, of course, we do – but it’s a bit of a vicious circle when you’re dealing with festivals which are dependent on public funding and have had their funding cut. It’s not as if they’ve got the money and aren’t giving it to you. They simply haven’t got it.”
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who writes fiction as Sam Blake, says that her key test is whether a festival is making money out of her appearance.
“Of course I do things for free, we all do, but generally speaking writers should be paid. If someone’s charging to see me speak, I won’t do that for free.
“It’s a question of your time. If you go and speak for an hour on a panel at a festival, it might take you an hour either way to get there, and then there’s all time you spend preparing for it. So absolutely, people should be paid.”
While there are still a few writers out there – like Ian Sansom – who readily admit “I rarely attend festivals and am rarely if ever paid”, for most the reality is that public events and performances have become simply another feature of a writing life.
Interaction with one’s readership is now an accepted part of being a writer – and nowhere is this more evident than on social media.
“I know people who have had books turned down because their social media profile wasn’t big enough,” warns Fox O’Loughlin.
And she should know. She helps aspiring writers get published through her consultancy the Inkwell Group and runs the writing.ie online magazine as well as tweeting as @samblakebooks.
“Social media is vitally important these days, because otherwise you can disappear. Nobody needs another book, they’re being published every single day, so in order to make yours stand out, you do need to be thinking in terms of building a social media profile.
“Every connection you have on social media is a potential sale for your book, and that’s a way for you to earn a living. The publisher’s looking at it that way, too – it’s money in their pockets. There are lots of ways of doing it. Choose something that fits you and fits in with your lifestyle,” advises Fox O’Loughlin.
It’s something Lesley Allen is just getting used to. Her first novel, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir, will be published next month by Twenty7, an imprint of London-based published Bonnier Zaffre.
“I do find social media tricky. I’m on Twitter as much as I can, but I find it really time-consuming, and you never know if you’re communicating with the right people.
“I feel obliged to do it, but sometimes I resent it because I think it’s taking me away from the actual core of things, which is writing.”
At the other extreme is Colin Bateman – who has an impressive 5,000 or so friends on Facebook.
“I think it’s expected these days. I think publishers really struggle to get coverage for their books in the traditional media, so how else do you get the word out there than through social media?
“Does it work? I honestly couldn’t say. All you can do is write the best book that you can write and hope that it’s discovered, and if you can do something to help it along the way through social media it certainly isn’t going to do it any harm.
For Boyne, who has almost 10,000 Twitter followers, it’s all about being comfortable with not just social media, but with his position as the writer of a much-loved book in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and the identity this gives him as a public figure in Ireland today.
“I think it’s down to the writers themselves. Some writers, their life and work, are built around being part of a national conversation and some aren’t. Some are just very private people who want to do their work and let that go out into the world. Both of those are completely legitimate as far as I’m concerned.
“For me, the one time I did really get involved in something was with the marriage equality referendum last year.
“It was something I felt very strongly about and I involved myself in it and used whatever little bit of name recognition I had.
“There’s no reason why one person’s voice should be heard over anyone else’s just because they’re a little bit famous.
“It was just a feeling that, when something comes along, now I can finally use this voice that I appear to have in public for something I feel quite strongly about.”
In that respect at least, a contemporary writer certainly has more influence than a dead poet.
The Irish Times Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland. The Words Ireland Writers Series of nationwide meetings for creative writers and illustrators continues in Galway on November 5th and will visit Kilkenny, Belfast, Wicklow, Cork, Dublin and Limerick. Admission is free but booking is essential. For more information visit wordsireland.ie
Freya McClements is a writer and arts journalist