On the train to Amsterdam I feel as lukewarm and flat as a can of cola that’s been opened and left out all day. Outside the window the sky is a thin, watery blue. Criss-crossing vapour trails trace the trajectories of different aeroplanes. I have a terrible hangover and cramps but no sympathy for my self-induced predicament. Body, heart and brain are all in disagreement. Hair and soul in disarray. Earlier on, the moment I’d packed all my things away I missed my hotel room at once. It was wonderful getting babied for a few days, coming back to clean sheets and a tidy space. Sleep was deep and dreamless, interrupted only by the sound of a vacuum cleaner down the hallway.
This year my novel Ponti has taken me on its paper wings to roughly twelve literary festivals and five different countries. I have spoken at around forty events over the past seven months and sometimes I feel like an old hand at it, bordering on glibness. Other days I feel totally tongue-tied, boring and inchoate. It is challenging not to repeat yourself or trot out the same sound bites. I like to see people laugh. I try not to think they’re thinking anything critical of me when their eyes glaze over.
The best piece of life advice I ever received is from my secondary school chemistry teacher, Miss Goh. She confiscated the love letter of a girl called Melissa. Miss Goh was a very kind woman at heart, even though everyone feared her. She spared Melissa the indignity of reading the letter out. Instead, she waved it in her hand as she cautioned us. My teacher said: don’t waste time on boys. Don’t think anyone is paying extra attention to you, because everyone is too busy worrying about themselves, preoccupied with something in their life, or some bill that needs to be paid, some errand to run.
I forget how this piece of advice related to the love letter. But the gist of it I find reassuring: no one is out to get you. We’re all too busy wrapped up in or fending for ourselves. So I don’t mind public speaking. I don’t live for it either, but it’s something I quite enjoyable tolerate.
This mode of performance is the only form of control I have over the life of my book, post publication. When I was a kid my mother sent me to Speech and Drama classes. Only now, as an adult, do I relish the absurdity of a one-hour lesson encouraging hyperactive children to enunciate dramatically. Much has been said about the disjunction between the intensely private and isolated nature of the writing process, versus the public-facing aspect of a novel’s promotion. Constantly being asked to summarise and explain yourself and describe the story, its themes and characters etc. I feel for writers who are deeply anxious about reading in public and being the centre of attention. I think public speaking is one of the least scary aspects of the publishing process that I’ve encountered so far. The scariest thing is feeling vulnerable, exposed and like a talentless fraud. The second scariest thing is losing a sense of whether your own work is any good.
On the first day of the festival a woman showed us around the national theatre. She said that the walls full of holes that were painted black indicated the back of the stage, and the white perforated walls signalled the front. It was a rather confusing building full of long hallways and heavy doors. Industrial refrigerators that housed brown bottles of beer. The tables upstairs looked like school canteen tables, long and wooden. That’s where I sat eating a chocolate sandwich and feeling abstractly stressed, just the other night which feels like a long time ago.