As you all know, The Bone Season was finally released on 20 August 2013. That same night it was #5 on Amazon. It also received a wonderful review from the Wall Street Journal (beware spoilers), was chosen as TODAY's inaugural Book Club pick, and was covered by news outlets all over the world. Four days later, I'm still in shock. I never expected the novel to be picked up on by so many people and publications. It's just been incredible. Thank you.
The night before publication, I was staying in a B&B in Gower Street, as I had an early start the next day. There was a charming little mouse in the room, which I encountered after getting out of the shower, so I had to move to a different room in the middle of the night. The manager even asked me to stand on a chair like this while he looked for it, which was faintly hilarious. In the morning I did a short interview with BBC Woman's Hour, in which I discussed – as usual, because it's a Subject I Discuss now – Benedict Cumberbatch, among other things. (The presenter actually said 'Cumberbitches' live on air. Score.) I then spent the day rushing around getting ready for the book launch Bloomsbury held for me at their London office.
But the absolute best present, without doubt, which got this reaction,
followed by copious hysterical laughter and tears
My Holy Grail. Yes, it's Warden's gramophone! I still can't believe it. It plays everything: records, CDs, iPod music, radio. And even though it's modern – Alexandra said that, like The Bone Season, it "brings past and present together" – it still has that gritty 1920s crackle. Bloomsbury couldn't possibly have given me a better publication present. So I got a bit weepy and made a slightly less eloquent speech than Alexandra's and then we all had cake and I signed books for my friends, which was a very surreal experience. Afterwards we all went out for a meal, then Vickie, Ilana and I went back to the B&B, as we all had early starts the next day. We were all too wired to sleep for hours, so I only hit the pillow at about 3AM. Which wasn't a great idea, as I had to get up three hours later.
I was woken in the morning by the lovely Amanda Shipp from Bloomsbury, who sent me a text that was really far too cheerful for 6AM. It actually included exclamation marks. At six. I clawed myself out of bed and was in the car to King's Cross St. Pancras by 7AM, and then we were on our way to our first stop in what we decided to christen The North Tour. First stop was Derby, cradle of the Industrial Revolution. We were driven around the Midlands by Max Bridgewater, Bloomsbury's sales rep for the area. I did stock signings in Derby, Doncaster, Nottingham and Chesterfield, then finished off in Sheffield, where I did an event at the Orchard Square branch of Waterstones. I had a bigger audience than I'd expected – one man came all the way from Stratford-upon-Avon just to see me! I spoke about my publishing experience and got some great questions from the audience. It was my first time speaking in public as a published author and Sheffield was a very welcoming city to speak in. Thank you!
After the event, Amanda and I were straight on the train to Manchester. The train went through the Pennines at sunset. We arrived in the city in the evening and I fell in love with it straight away – I can picture it very clearly as a Scion citadel, and indeed, in the world of The Bone Season it is one: SciMan. It hasn't been mentioned in the series yet, but keep an eye out. Here's my vlog from Manchester.
The next day I was up early again to go on BBC Breakfast, which is filmed in MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester, where BBC North is based. It's a huge building. Amanda and I were led upstairs by a helpful guide, and I had my makeup and hair done at top speed before I was taken to the studio. Both the hosts had read The Bone Season, and they asked some really interesting questions – cameras aside, it ended up feeling like a chat, so I wasn't too nervous. You can watch the whole interview here. Afterwards we met Terry Lee, who kindly drove Amanda and I to Waterstones Deansgate so I could sign another stack of books. Then it was train time again – this time to the misty land of Scotland, where the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013 was waiting.
The festival is held in a series of tents in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. I had time to freshen up quickly in the hotel before I was off to the Author's Yurt, which is really a big tent with a fancy name. (Ugh, yurt. Terrible word.) My first event was a panel called 'Where Have All the Brave Girls Gone? Heroines in Literature'. It was chaired by Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth, a novel I absolutely loved. I was joined on the panel by Julia Donaldson, former Children's Laureate and author of a plethora of children's books (including The Gruffalo), and Australian author James Marsden. We had an hour-long conversation about the role of female protagonists in both adult and children's fiction. The panel was prompted by Kate's concern that in adult novels, the female 'hero' disappears – her quest become orientated around marriage or settlement of some kind. Brave, adventurous heroines become invisible once we move past. Kate says a 'hero' is an active protagonist, no matter what their sex – they must act, rather than be acted upon – and she strives to write about women who fit that role. I loved one of the two heroines of Labyrinth, Alaïs Pelletier, who is bold and independent, despite being a married woman in the year 1209. You can see some of my early thoughts on Labyrinth here. James said he rarely thinks about what sex a character is when he begins writing; they tend to just come to him. Julia, on the other hand, says there is a new sense of political correctness she faces when writing both male and female characters, especially in educational books – she can't, for example, write about a little girl helping Mother in the kitchen anymore. I talked about my thoughts on female characters being labelled 'strong' and 'kickass', to the point where books are shelved as 'books with strong female characters'. After the panel I had dinner with Alexandra, Amanda, Alexandra's husband Rick, Lucy Ellmann (author of Mimi, a wonderful feminist novel) and her husband Todd, then went back to the hotel and slept for a long, long time.
The next day I did an interview before going to the Edinburgh Bookshop to do some stock signing. One of the booksellers, Cat Anderson, is a big supporter of The Bone Season – it was lovely to finally meet her in person. After that we rushed back to the festival for my second panel. This one was called 'Dystopian Dramas for a New Age', part of a series events for the First Book Award, which celebrates new writing at EIBF. I was speaking with James Smythe, author of a fantastic, claustrophobic dystopia called The Machine, among others (he's written four novels, technically, but he doesn't count the 'terrible first one'). The panel was chaired by Scottish crime writer Russel Mclean. We both read from our books before having a great discussion about dystopian fiction, memory, our mums, and much more. (Russel was so impressed with our readings he physically fell backwards off his chair. Honestly.) Karen Howlett at Cornflower Books has done a great recap of the panel here. James and I did a signing straight after the panel.
And then came the best part of the day. Dinner.
So just before the festival, I'd double-checked my itinerary and noticed the following scheduled event: 'Informal drinks with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman'. I'd assumed this was a mistake, and they'd meant to put this on someone else's schedule, but next thing I knew I was in a bar, at a table, with Neil Gaiman on my left and Margaret Atwood on my right. Apparently it really had been scheduled. And I was actually in a room with my hero.
Note: This is where my blog post will deteriorate into gushing about two of my favourite authors. Apologies in advance.
I've met Neil Gaiman before, at a Bloomsbury event, but that didn't make it any less amazing to hang out with him again. Dressed in his characteristic black, with his characteristic mad hair, he was just as cool as ever. At this stage I was far too terrified to talk to Margaret Atwood, though I did shake her hand and mumble something about being a huge fan – understatement of the century. I don't know why, but I expected her to be much taller than she is, possibly because she's a literary legend, and I imagined her towering above me in a haze of intelligence and greatness. In reality, she's very petite and dignified, with unruly curls and a slightly coy smile. I could feel my insides curling up as I thought of how utterly incoherent and stupid-sounding I was about to become, so I just didn't say anything. Great. Nice work, Samantha. Fortunately, Neil remembered who I was and was kind enough to introduce me to everyone properly, which helped untwist my frazzled nerves. Incredibly, he'd been on tour since the last time we'd met, and he estimated that he'd signed his name on various objects about 50K times. That's . . . quite a lot of signatures. I was thrilled to tell him how much my nine year-old brother had enjoyed his new children's book – Fortunately, the Milk – and how much I'd loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He seemed relieved that my brother had enjoyed it – he said it was the first feedback he'd heard about his target audience's response to the book. He was also happy that Alfie had completely understood the time travel and loopholes in the book; apparently there had been some concern that it might be too complicated for kids. But Alfie totally got that if the milk touched the milk the world would end.
We got into two separate taxis to go to a restaurant. I was with Neil and Madeline Feeny from Bloomsbury, who had been keeping Margaret company for her tour. So I actually got to spend twenty minutes in a taxi with Neil Gaiman. Which was surreal. We talked about reviews, The Comments ('never read them') and how he came to be friends with Margaret Atwood ('She's fantastic,' he assured me, seeing my slightly awestruck, petrified expression). When we got to the restaurant, I was seated between Frank Dikötter, Dutch-born author of the Samuel Johnson Prize-winning book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe (2010), and Ellie Wixon, who works for Blackwell's Edinburgh. Neil had to leave about halfway through the meal, as he was judging a Deathmatch at EIBF. Shortly after that, once the main course was over, we all moved places. And I ended up next to Margaret Atwood. And it was one of those dinner situations where everyone else around you is talking to someone else, so I had to talk to her, or risk a yawning, awkward silence.
Oh, God, the fear. My mind just went blank. What would I say to her? She gave me an encouraging smile, saying nothing. I could feel myself mouthing like a stunned goldfish. 'Um,' I said, 'it really is such an honour to meet you.' She gave a modest little wave of her hand and asked me about my book. I stammered something about it being a dystopia but really I just wanted to say how much The Handmaid's Tale had changed my WHOLE LIFE, and although it's the only book of yours I've read Margaret it's just wonderful and although I am halfway through Oryx and Crake well that first book will always be the best one because it was just so real and it really inspired my own writing and it's just like, God, it REALLY COULD HAPPEN and it introduced me to feminism and speculative fiction and stuff and it's JAST SHO WANDERFAL.
Yes, the brain-mouth filter. That went somewhere.
Anyway, Margaret took this all in her stride. (She must get it a lot.) She picked up on my point about The Handmaid's Tale feeling very real, and said that when she wrote it in the 1980s, it hadn't seemed quite as likely to happen - but in the 21st century, with technology gathering all our data, Offred's story is far closer to becoming reality. I told her that the most haunting scene, for me, was the one in which June tries to withdraw money from her bank account and finds she can't, as she has been legally made her husband's property and is barred from controlling her own finances. Now, Margaret said, that could definitely happen. That got us onto the subject of feminism. I told her all about the #twittersilence in the UK, which she hadn't heard about. Margaret said she just blocks or ignores trolls. I noticed she has this wonderful way of speaking. When you pose Margaret Atwood a question, she really thinks about it – she'd often fall into long, contemplative silences. When she replied, it was always with something meaningful and wise. Unlike most people, who are naturally inclined to talk about whatever comes into their head between sentences, she has this incredible gravitas, and isn't compelled to fill the silence with babble. There's no um-ing and ah-ing. Crime author James Runcie joined in the conversation when the dessert came, and we all shared some of our embarrassing or weird author stories. Margaret told us a hilarious anecdote about when she did a book signing in a men's underwear store in Canada, and another when she was signing in a bookshop and only one person arrived. At least one of the stories is detailed in the anthology Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (2005) which I'm definitely ordering.
At the end of the meal, Margaret signed my hardback of Oryx and Crake for me. I'll treasure it. I actually had a bit of a cry after she left. I always get nervous when I meet people I admire – I'm afraid they won't be what I expected, somehow, or that they'll be rude or snobbish or spiteful – but she just wasn't like that at all.
And now I'm back in London! What a week. Phew. Thank you to everyone who attended my talks; your support has given me so much confidence as a newly published author. I hope those of you who have bought The Bone Season are enjoying it.
Next up, I'll be posting about how to get your book signed, and why you shouldn't pay £500 for a copy of The Bone Season on eBay. (Spoiler: don't. Seriously, don't.)