How To Talk To Famous Authors, by Francis Plug

Francis Plug is the fictional hero of the critically-acclaimecv_francis_plug_how_to_be_a_public_authord book Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen. We are very privileged to have Francis write an original blog piece for us about his experience with famous authors.

“So funny you find yourself giggling helplessly long after you’ve passed the joke” … “Pure – and purely pleasurable – silliness”, said the Times Literary Supplement, of Francis Plug.

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In the literary circles I tend to swing in, the opportunity to converse with famous authors arises often. The fact I have met over thirty Booker Prize-winners is very well documented. Not that I’m particularly charismatic, or socially blessed. Many people actually find me rather difficult to engage with, or, in their own words, “freaky”, “unbalanced”, and “a complete nutjob”. But this hasn’t prevented me holding conversations with the most respected authors of the present day and age. Because most famous authors are very freaky too.

This is to be expected. After all, much of their lives are spent in self-imposed confinement, engaging only with fantastical beings of their own imagination. Make-believe characters, fictitious creations. That’s why the whole notion of talking to these people is problematic. They’re simply not wired for everyday chit-chat with normal folk. If you hope to engage with them in conversation, it’s probably best if you come across like fragments of their inner imaginations.

Normally when you talk to famous authors, they are seated behind a signing table, as if on a throne, while you stand before them, a mere minion. Despite your height advantage, you are a real person and therefore mean nothing. Most famous authors will simply lower their eyes to your/their book, hoping that all the information they need for the brief transaction is spelt out on a pre-written slip of paper inserted alongside the title page. Telling them how much you enjoyed their book is a polite and well-meaning ice-breaker, but in truth, your presence and speech are creating that ice, and the only way to break it is by removing yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Or by getting on the other side of the table, out of the author’s immediate vantage point, and whispering in their ear. If they can’t see you, your presence is better imagined, and your whispered voice can be attributed to any number of characters that already exist inside their head.

However, even by merely whispering to a famous author, you are prolonging their public spectacle and using up more of their valuable writing time. That’s why you’ll often see a famous author immediately reach for a glass of wine when a member of the public approaches. If they’re forced to listen to a real person, they may as well take their mind elsewhere.

If you still feel compelled to converse with famous authors, perhaps attempt to be constructive with what you’re saying. For instance:
“I have a bottle of Scotch in my bag. Would you care for some?”
Or:
“I know a very wealthy benefactor who supports authors who write books like yours.”
(Yes, even the famous authors are financially up against it in this day and age.)

But perhaps the best way to talk to famous authors is through the written word, by writing them a letter. It’s a medium they understand and respect, and you’ll spare yourself the disappointment of finding out that the author you much admire is actually, in real life, a bit of a shit.

Here’s an example of a recent letter I wrote to Richard Flanagan:

Dear Richard,
Hi, it’s me again. Sorry for the barrage of mail, but I still haven’t heard from you. You’re a busy chap, I understand perfectly, so I’ll try and keep this letter succinct – you already know all about my gastro/indigestion problems!
To recap, I’ve just written a book about Booker Prize-winners, but you missed the boat. I need to meet you at haste, to get my book signed. I was kicked out of my flat, so maybe we could meet at a pub? Could you bring a credit/debit card?
I’m rubbing my hands fervently in anticipation.
Your fellow,
Francis Plug.

Richard’s response is undoubtedly imminent. In the meantime I take heart in the knowledge that I wasn’t freaking him out in person, thus causing him to lunge for his wine glass, while simultaneously blasting him with my own pissy breath.

by Francis Plug

Thank you to Text Publishing for arranging this blog piece to be written by Paul Ewen, author of Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author. 

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015, Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew

Available in bookstores from 17 November 2014cv_tell_you_what_2015

There is no law stating that you must compare fiction writing with non-fiction writing when discussing a volume of the latter, but there could be, for all that it occurs. Two fantastic exponents of either and both forms, Emily Perkins and Steve Braunias, have recently weighed in (Braunias has stated his belief that ‘our most accomplished literature is history and biography’) and it is inevitable to compare the qualities, content and effects of the two forms. To resist is futile, but it’s worth trying, if only for a paragraph or two.

This collection is unique. The editors, Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, give as their inspiration that “…it had never been done before…surely we have enough great non-fiction to fill a book on a regular basis.” Concerned that much contemporary non-fiction material is ephemeral and often digitally published (think reportage, memoirs, essays, musings, blog posts), they have sought to “summon these fugitive pieces back into the light, to reveal the strength and variety of non-fiction in New Zealand right now…together on the page, these writers illuminate a moment in time.”

These qualifiers are worth commenting on. A moment in time. Yes, this is a collection drawn from a specific time period (2010-14) and centred on some aspect of life as experienced in Aotearoa: a person or an event, environment or culture, or a particular way of viewing the world. It is a time capsule, its contents informing current and future readers of what and who gathered our attention: earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Kim Dotcom, facebook and land rights, iPhones and climate change. Together on the page. Yes, and the result is coherence and context, critical for readers who can become disoriented and weary with a constant diet of decontextualised word bytes, even high quality ones. And for those who like reading off paper, this collection contains writing that otherwise may never have found its way to our eyes and minds. Bravo!

Speaking of high quality. There are writers known and unknown (to me) represented herein. There is Braunias, the godfather of the short non-fiction piece, investigating petty vandalism in the suburb of unease. There is Eleanor Catton, describing mountains: say no more. There is Elizabeth Knox, paying subtle and glorious homage to Margaret Mahy. There is also Paul Ewen, backgrounding his best friend’s one way flight home in a casket in cargo. Ashleigh Young describing the revolutionary life of a metropolitan cyclist. Gregory Kan doing compulsory National Service in Singapore. And Simon Wilson telling and retelling a piece of his family history. The quality of the writing in the collection is uniformly high, exceptional even. This suggests sound editorial judgment and a broad, deep talent base. For it takes talent to shape a history, be it personal or public, and make it compelling.

It is clear that good non-fiction writing operates on several levels and tends to resonate in multiple ways. There is the content, which may be entirely new to the reader (the realities of life for a sherpa in Nepal, the sad fate of the Society Islands snails, the anatomy of a heart murmur), or presented in a light so revealing that familiarity with the subject does not breed contempt. Then there is the delight caused by the sheer creativity that comes with the relaxation of the writer’s mind, freed as it may be from the strain of trying to invent everything and of trying to be authentic. It is authentic. When Steve Braunias casts a speculative eye over his neighbours, inventing personalities and motivations as he wonders which of them egged his house, the imagination is at its wild work. It all happened… some of it in my mind.In most, if not all of these pieces of work, the facts are interspersed with musings, the what ifs with verbatim. Holding it all together is structure.

The writers have each found rhythms and modes and tones of voice to best transmit their individual signals. Signals from the heart and mind, signals from a time and place, Aotearoa New Zealand, right about now. Vive le resistance.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408244

Book Review: Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

It’s been awhile since I have read such a cleverly realised satire. Author Paul Ewen is an ex-pat cv_francis_plug_how_to_be_a_public_authorkiwi, and this is his first full novel, though it says in the biographical details that he has written a fictional guide to London pubs, which in a way is excellent “research” for this book, as Francis Plug does spend a lot of time in pubs, literary and otherwise.

Francis Plug, the central character of this book, is a would-be author and his story takes the reader on a tour of Booker prize-winners literary events, seen through alcohol glazed eyes, in an alleged attempt to master − how to be a public author. All things considered, the bottles of wine consumed before each event lead to fewer embarrassing moments than one might think. Francis Plug is keen to get up close and personal with the authors themselves, but he is also self-conscious about putting his hand up and asking questions. The events he attends range in scale from bookshop gatherings (or in one case, an Oxfam-store gathering) to Draper’s Hall, the Hay Literary Festival tents, and beyond.

Plug is an ingenious character, capable of observations of astonishing clarity eg. on books in supermarkets he remarks, ‘It’s difficult to tell one author from the next, or even what the titles are, because the covers are plastered with large discount stickers.’ But Plug is equally capable of apparent insanity e.g. feeding a squid in a field just outside the Hay Literary Festival. If anything, it is the saner observations that let the character down a little. I am certain that even raging alcoholics have their lucid side , but there is a distinct gearshift in the narrative voice at times, which makes me wonder if Ewen thinks he had better get Plug to do something crazy nutso insane just to make sure he doesn’t seem too normal – too author-like – too author-of-the-book-like.

Francis Plug is a strange blend of fact and fiction. That’s a key part of the book’s appeal.

Ewen’s turns of phrase are also original, as well as apt for the character of a first-time writer: ‘I stop next to Camden Lock and release [the supermarket trolley] over the bridge, as if it’s a dolphin that’s been forced to perform hoop tricks for sardines.’

Plug’s life unravels as the book carries on. His career as a gardener is drying up, due mainly to his drinking; and his career as a writer hasn’t quite begun. Plug is aware of the fact that he isn’t as well-heeled as the others at the literary events he attends, and is slightly apologetic about this. Once he has been evicted from his flat, he spends a night in a churchyard (perhaps churches are no longer being as charitable as they once were?), before hitting upon a medium-turn solution for his homelessness. Francis Plug is a character living on the fringes of society, while simultaneously aspiring to be at the centre of the upper middle-class literary world.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anybody who has been to an author event, or for any writer who hopes to win the Booker Prize one day. (That’s got to be most writers, right?) I look forward to seeing Paul Ewen at a literary festival near me in 2015 – especially if he brings his alter-ego.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author
by Paul Ewen
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182623