In conversation with a charming Dutch publisher at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate last week, I was reminded of a rather ego-flattening event that occurred the first time I visited Amsterdam, back in about 2001. (NB. that’s flattening, not flattering….)
I had just had my first novel, To Be Someone published in translation, and my then Dutch publishers had invited me over to give a few radio and press interviews. It was very exciting. I was put up in the special hotel that all authors like to stay at in Amsterdam, the Ambassade in Herengracht, where the etiquette is to leave a signed copy of your novel, and write in their guestbook.
It all went brilliantly – I was interviewed for a feature in a national newspaper, which was conducted in the Ambassade’s beautiful little antique-stuffed library. Accompanying photographs were taken, and my words transcribed. I was wined and dined by the lovely Dutch editorial team, and driven around to several radio stations to discuss the writing of To Be Someone, and its USP – the fact that it was the first novel to come with its own CD soundtrack, cuts from which the stations played to punctuate the interviews.
I felt like a ‘proper’ author. So I was further delighted when the sales rep offered to take me into a few bookshops to sign stock. I knew it wasn’t a real signing, but I was chuffed at the thought of meeting the staff and seeing my book on the shelves.
The first bookshop we went into didn’t have any in stock. The rep looked a little sheepish, but my spirits were undampened. We soldiered on, to two, three, four more stores. None had any To Be Someone’s – or, De Muziek in Mij, as the translation was called.
I began to experience a slight sensation of demoralization. What was the point of all this amazing promo if the book wasn’t in any shops?
‘I’m sure it will be in the next one,’ said my rep in her perfect English, sounding unconvinced.
We tried a couple more, to no avail. By now my ears were feeling decidedly droopy and my feet were hurting.
‘One more!’ said the rep, by now outright embarrassed. We trailed into the last bookshop, a large branch of a national chain. She introduced me to the manager and they had a brief conversation in Dutch, during which the manager looked perturbed and shook his head a lot. My heart sank. Then the manager’s face brightened. He turned to me and held up a hand. ‘Yes!’ he said, in English, ‘We DO have your book! It is out the back. One moment please.‘
He instructed a minion, who vanished into the stockroom and returned a few minutes later struggling under the weight of a huge cardboard box. Ah, I thought, that’s more like it. They have a whole boxful!
The minion put down the box, smiled pityingly at me, and went back to his till. The manager opened the box, delved into it and rummaged around with the sort of vague concentrated expression a vet adopts when his arm is up a cow’s bottom. I saw then that it wasn’t a box full of To Be Someone’s or De Muziek in Mij, but rather an assortment of battered, torn, dog-eared paperbacks. ‘Here we are!’ he said triumphantly, pulling out one single solitary sad and tatty copy of the English version.
I signed it regardless, although I suspect it immediately went straight back into the box again. Oh well. It certainly didn’t put my off going to Amsterdam, or negate any of the other experiences I had over there, even though my book never troubled the best-selling charts…. The experience later inspired a scene in Killing Cupid . I believe it’s what people refer to as ‘character-building’….