I am sending off this blob a week early because I have been summoned to Vientiane by the International School who have agreed to pay my airfare and accommodation in return for a twenty-minute live oral blob. They expect me to stand up in front of a hall full of three hundred parents, diplomats and politicians and expound. They expect me to wow them with my witty repartee and leave them with a moral. Somehow, when I think of it like that, free airfare and a bar fridge doesn’t sound like that much of a prize.
To be honest, one of the reasons I started to write was the distant dream that I could be reclusive. I had hopes that I would be a moderately unsuccessful writer who had to spend all his free time churning out novels just to make a living. No tours. No public speaking. I had my sights set on the bottom rung of ‘the list’ just above all those self-published “Look How Fascinating My Life Was” authors whose total sales come from relatives and harangued ex-school friends. Sadly, I became a megastar and hopes that I’d never have to stand up in front of people and ‘entertain’ them faded away with my first seven-figure royalty cheque. (Decimal points count as figures, do they not?) I was a household name and the world wanted me.
My first ever performance as a published author was in front of eleven people (four of them staff) at the Mystery Bookstore in Huston, Texas. As I had never been to an author event I didn’t know how to behave. I took my glass of wine to the front of the room, sat on a stool and waited for something to happen. The audience, not knowing who I was, were also waiting for something to happen. Consequently, nothing happened for a good three minutes. I slurped wine. They watched me slurp. One of the staff, feeling uncomfortable, broke the ice with a profound question. “Could you tell our customers who you are and what you write?” And so began my first ever author tour. I have to say that the more famous I became, the fewer people turned up to listen to me. I am not a very engaging speaker. In order to distract the audiences’ attention from this fact, I put together a power-point display with cartoons and photographs and I found that it did my entertaining for me. Audiences barely noticed me. If I’d shot somebody during my talk I doubt anyone would have been able to give the police a description. My highlight was a full production power-point spectacular to two people at a huge bookshop in Chicago. Not even the staff could be bothered to turn up. It was the evening I enjoyed most on the tour.
The irony here is that I was a teacher for most of my professional life. I’ve spent more hours at the chalk face than Frank McCourt. My last professional engagement as a lecturer was a course called, “Oral Improvisation and Performance’ (tee hee). How could I bluff MA students into believing I was a powerful orator yet wilt like a dry daisy when I’m on the road on my own? I can put it down to only one thing. When I taught I was always using someone else’s material. I didn’t invent the English language and I had no investment in it. If it was wrong it wasn’t my fault. If I trained social workers I was using well accepted theories, none of which I made up. But when I’m doing author tours the material is me: Colin Cotterill. I have to talk about myself, answer questions about my feelings. Even my wife doesn’t know some of the things I told four hundred people in Harrogate last year. I have become the subject and I’m sure you’ve read somewhere, unlike other nationalities I won’t mention, Englishmen are reluctant to go into detail about their personal lives with four hundred complete strangers. Is it any wonder I give conflicting information at each event?
Oh, what a ways I’ve come since those early days. How many more times do I have to turn down Oprah? Can’t the BBC just leave me alone for a week or two? And here I am off to Laos for the top hat and tie social event of the Vientiane calendar. The problem is, everyone in Vientiane has seen my power-point already so I’ll have to make something up again. I’ve already started memorizing jokes and rehearsing that spontaneous self-consciousness that endears me to strangers. If only they knew how miserable I am deep inside.