Word for Word: when writers meet readers

Time for the reader: Maeve Binchy signs books in 1991. Photograph: Frank Miller

Time for the reader: Maeve Binchy signs books in 1991. Photograph: Frank Miller


With the literary festival season in full swing, writers are being forced out of their lairs to give us the pleasure of their company. We readers love meeting the authors whose work we admire. We attend book launches, festivals, public interviews – anything to bring us closer to them.

It’s as if the alchemy of the words on the page is no longer enough. We expect to see human beings, hear their motives being questioned, demand even deeper analysis of their characters than they have chosen to reveal in their work. We care about how they look, what they sound like, what their personal lives are like, what their thoughts are about everything and nothing. Too much information, some might say.

I recently attended a public interview given by a friend who is a bestselling author. It was a full house. The queue to get books signed afterwards was very long – more than 40 people – but I watched him shake hands with and chat to each one before signing the book.

It was late in the evening, and he had just given an entertaining and enlightening interview, having started his day a good 13 hours earlier with an early-morning TV appearance, but he remained gracious and polite.

What a chore, I thought and, later, said. “No,” he replied, “it’s an essential sign of respect on my part towards the people for whom I write.”

He pointed out that writers do not exist without readers. He loved meeting them, he said, because, “like me, they read to understand that we are not alone”.

But what about those writers who are uncomfortable in front of a crowd? For the shy ones, the ones who feel they’ve said all they had to say in their books, it can be painful. But we seem to demand it.

Our curiosity is encouraged by the publicists, who, if they are to do their jobs well, must encourage the authors to make as many public appearances as possible. If they don’t, they will sell fewer books.

Some writers get away with just showing up, reading out a few pages and sitting down again. I always feel a bit shortchanged when that happens – though they are writers, not entertainers, and the work is what matters.

My writer friend is correct, I think. The live experience is about the human connection and maybe also about realising that writers are just particularly gifted versions of ourselves.

Doireann Ní Bhriain is a broadcaster, producer and voice-presentation trainer.