Norwich Arts Centre but they had double-booked themselves... a shame, I would like to have "played" such an established arts venue, but never mind, The York is a nice pub and besides, I used to live just around the corner from there, so it felt comfortable.
That's more than could be said for me, of course. Public speaking is not high on my list of favourite activities and before the event I was, in 1980s schoolboy parlance, bricking it. Pulling out was never an option though - after all, my name was on the poster (left)... even so, my nerves were not helped by the fact that the inclement weather (snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures, slippery roads and mirror-polished pavements) meant that, just minutes before the advertised start time there was no-one else there other than the organisers from Unthank Books and three of the other reading authors. So not only was I nervous in the extreme, I was also worried that the event would be a total flop.
As luck would have it, I needn't have worried. All of a sudden there was a sudden influx of people, all rosy-cheeked and swathed in coats hats, scarves and gloves. My personal mini-cheer-squad of friends and family arrived too and, whilst this was reassuring in some respects, they added the possibility that I could screw up royally in front of family and friends. Consider "it" comprehensively "bricked"...
I was third to read, after C.D. Rose and the wonderful Lora Stimson (more of whom later). The compere introduced me by saying that one of the objectives of the book was to give new writers a voice, and so it gave him great pleasure to welcome a previously unpublished author to the stage. The irrepressible paranoid spark at the back of my mind burned a little brighter at that - it felt a little like "ladies and gentlemen, please lower your expectations!" but that's just negative old me being me. It wasn't like that at all.
The first two readers gave little pre-ambles before their readings, so I decided to do the same. My anecdote, if that's not stretching things, concerned seeing Paul Torday give a reading a Latitude a couple of years ago, and specifically how he had looked petrified. I wondered why he had looked so nervous - after all, he is a very successful writer and must do this all the time, I thought. I gave the crowd now filling The York's function room what I hoped was a wry smile and delivered my "now I understand" punchline. This got a laugh, despite not being in the least funny. It was at that point I had the same Damascene revelation that Best Men must have been having for years as they begin their wedding reception speeches - at times like these, the audience wants you to do well. They want you to succeed. It's a nice feeling, and one that made the nerves subside... a bit...
I stood before the crowd, with only a microphone and speakers to hide behind, and read the first thousand words or so of my story. It's only a very short story, so that was about half of it, but if left the narrative at a nice mini-cliffhanger, and brought me in just on the "please only read for five minutes" deadline. Cue warm applause... and then, blessed relief, I was followed by the interval. A friend bought me a pint of bitter, and I could relax.
What happened next was the biggest and, in some ways, nicest, surprise of the night. People bought the book, and then asked me to sign it! I found myself saying things like "who should I make it out to?" and then realising that I had given no thought to what I would write should this eventuality occur. So it was that I found myself writing things like "To Anna, thanks for coming" and then scrawling half a signature. This didn't diminsh the weird and slightly heady thrill of signing books though - it's not something I had ever imagined would happen, so I enjoyed every second whilst it lasted.
After the interval, there were three more readings, from Deborah Arnander (who was lovely and, like me, very nervous), Melinda Moore and Ashley Stokes. And then the evening concluded with live music from Lora Stimson. Yes, the same Lora who'd read earlier! An accomplished writer and, it transpired, equally accomplished singer-songwriter. She played acoustic guitar and sang with the most amazing, soaring voice. It was a nice way to end the evening.... although there was just time to sign a couple more books before I left.
Eastern Daily Press (Britain's best-selling regional daily, no less) reviewed the Unthology; though it didn't give explicit mention to all the stories in the book (there are 17, after all), my little story, written in 24 hours just because I needed something, did get a mention. This is what it said:
...Waiting Room is an intriguing and mysterious Brave New World-type tale set in the near future which keeps the reader guessing right to the end...That'll do for me.
Eastern Daily Press, 4th December 2010
Oh, and an epilogue for you: I went into Waterstone's last weekend, and there it was, Unthology No. 1, on their shelf. As I said before, this might never happen for me again... so I felt no embarrassment in taking a picture (right).