Sunday, 16 January 2011

California dreaming

San Diego sunshine
When I was 18, I went for my first ever job interview, to be a messenger girl on a newspaper, a job that could lead to an apprenticeship as a junior reporter. As far as I was concerned there could be no more exciting workplace than a newspaper office, but I realised that I must not say so. I didn’t want them to think that I had unrealistic expectations.
 So when the paper’s Deputy Editor asked: ‘Why do you want to be a journalist?’ I told him that I knew journalism wasn’t glamorous or exciting, I knew it was very hard work, I knew much of it might be boring or routine. After listening to my earnest assurances, he grinned.
‘Actually,’ he said, ‘it’s not that bad.’
And likewise, becoming an author, I knew would mean hard work and rejection, disappointment and more hard work. And I was right. But, you know what, just like journalism, it’s not that bad. And sometimes it’s downright fabulous.
 For example, last weekend I flew all the way to San Diego for the weekend. That’s California! For the weekend! If such a thing ever happens again then I’d have to say that being an author is turning out quite glam after all.
I think everyone does a double-take..
The Frances Lincoln 'booth'
The courtyard at the Horton Grand
Anyway, I was in San Diego for the American Library Association’s mid-winter conference, along with thousands of librarians, hundreds of publishing peeps and millions of books.  There were hundreds of stalls (or booths as the Americans seemed to call them) all displaying mouth-watering (or indeed eye-watering, when you saw what a vast amount of competition there is for any one book to make its way)  displays of books. 
And there was loads of swag for the librarians to collect. Free books. Badges. Big shopping bags. Sweets. Pens. The conference hall filled up with librarians staggering under the weight of all the free stuff they could collect. One stall cleverly offered neck massages. Another sold insteps to massage your feet.
Some of the time there were important meetings going on where librarians decided which books to give awards to, or put on recommended lists. Sometimes there were presentations by publishers, or speeches from authors (OK, there was a Neil Gaiman event. And I couldn’t go to it. And that was disappointing. I’m over it though.)
I had to do a lot of selling over the weekend. I found out the things that worry librarians in Middle Schools – ‘Sex, violence and swearing,’ said one, counting them off on her fingers. ‘Mostly swearing. Are there any f-bombs in your book?’ Another wasn’t too worried about swearing or violence: ‘But our parent body is very concerned about sex.’
‘Why is your book outstanding?’ asked one stern librarian - didn’t she realise that English people are taught from birth that it is unseemly to blow their own trumpets? I stumbled out an answer, she pointed to the boy on the cover. ‘How old is he meant to be? He looks older than 14.’
Librarians laden with swag
Frances Lincoln, my publishers, hold an annual tea party at the midwinter conference, and the venue was the Horton Grand Hotel, a building with quite a few stories to tell. Assembled from the remains of two hotels, bought by the city for $1 each, the Horton is on the site of a former brothel - when it was raided by police in 1912, the Mayor of San Diego and three councilmen were found on the premises.
I collected badges for my son
Just some of the books I gathered
Anyway, the tea was a chance to tell around 50 lovely librarians a bit about me and my books, and how I came to write them, and try and appear relatively cool about the fact that…squee…here I was in California, and …double squeee….some of them had already read When I Was Joe and Almost True is going to be on sale in the US in April. I didn’t squee out loud, but I felt like it. They were the world’s nicest audience. They laughed at all my jokes. After a year of speaking to rooms full of teenagers, where joke-telling can be a bit hit and miss, this made me feel as witty as Victoria Wood.  
One lady had already read When I Was Joe and although she assured me that she’d loved it, she didn’t want to read Almost True -  in fact she was very cross about the sample chapter at the end of Joe. She didn’t want Ty to suffer any more, she said. I assured her that although Ty does suffer a bit more in Almost True, good things happen to him too. Then I tried to think whether that was true. Yes, it’s just about almost true.
Other great things about San Diego: meeting the wonderful people from Publishers Group West, distributors of Frances Lincoln books in the US and Canada, and as enthusiastic about the books as anyone in the UK. Spending time with Frances Lindoln’s Editorial Director Maurice Lyon and trying to persuade him that my mad new idea is actually a stroke of genius (Maurice is super-diplomatic, so I have no idea if he was truly persuaded or not. And I’m not sure if I can pull off my mad new idea. We shall have to wait and see).
Then there was walking in the sunshine. Sitting outside to eat in the sunshine. Sunshine.  What a bonus in the middle of a cold, grey, freezing miserable London winter.  
One of the interesting things about spending a slither of time in another culture is spotting the cultural differences. These were as small as the speed in which a waitress will clear your plate and bring the bill, to as huge as the response to the horrific shootings in Tucson, which took place while we were there.
While we Brits were amazed at the lack of debate over gun control, the way the gunman bought his ammunition from Walmart, Americans talked about the language of political discourse. ‘Words matter,’ said PBS correspondent Miles O’Brien. ‘If nothing else, if it removes the gun analogies from the discussion, the killing analogies, we’ve made some progress.’
It was simultaneously impressive to see a nation so concerned about the power of language and metaphor and shocking that people seemed infinitely less  interested in the availability of lethal hardware. Similarly the healthcare debate seemed to be more about political theory - the role of the state - and less about the welfare of sick people. I came away with the feeling that the US is more engaged with abstract notions than we Europeans - a great strength and perhaps a weakness as well.
Sculpture on the San Diego seafront
Halfway home, as our plane flew from one time zone to another, a disc of glass fell out of nowhere and landed on my hand. No one knew what it was – could it be part of the plane? The steward took it to show the pilot...but when I came to change the time on my watch I realised that the glass front was missing…yes, my watch had spontaneously self-destructed in mid-air. It seemed a perfect metaphor for the exhausted jet-lag involved in flying thousands of miles for one weekend.
This week back in wintery, wet London, San Diego's sometimes felt a little like a dream - but then I realise my watch is missing, and I know I really did have my weekend in California.
Oh, and I almost forgot the best bit. In one of those meeting rooms, some of those librarians were picking  a list of their favourite YA fiction of 2011. And When I Was Joe was on the list.


  1. Great post. Delighted that your post brings out that, contrary to the stereotypes about Americans being ignoramuses, American's actually take very seriously philosophical debate and the values that underpin their constitution. It is a great shame that here we have lost our ability to believe in anything. BTW Americans are interested in the availability of "lethal hardware" it is just that they believe that they have a constitutional right to bear arms.

  2. Wonderful. I loved reading that - thank you, and welcome back.

  3. @David Yes was almost as though the philosophical debate obliterated any practical questions, such as is it really wise to have ammunition so easily available. Fascinating.

  4. A fascinating post, Keren. And congratulations, not only for being there, but for being on that favourite fiction list.

  5. Sounds amazing. I've been waiting all week to read about it.
    BTW - Having finished Almost True and wanting to share, I asked my nephew, Eli, if he had read his copy yet. "Yes of course, I read it in three days," was the reply. Followed by, "it's a shame she's not writing another one about him." :) I hope insider information isn't illegal as I gave some away.

  6. Rachel Selby has insider information. I want insider information! *does a little stomp*

    It sounds like a fab experience. I love librarians conferences. I always wonder what they must be like from authors' perspectives. Now I know!

  7. Thanks everyone..Becky, I hope to know what's what about a third Ty book very soon.

  8. Firstly, not all of America was in sunshine when you were in San Diego - a tidbit - that weekend 49 of the 50 states had snow. And Hawaii was not the odd one out!

    Secondly, Hi Rachel Selby - long time!

    And Thirdly, while guns are "readily available" here, it is only "readily available" for those looking for it... Not every Wal Mart (even in states that have legal gun sales) have guns for sale. And while I agree there should be better gun control laws - unfortunately, the second amendment means there will always be guns....

    I am very pleased however, that there is a conversation going on about the political discourse that was getting horrendous. It is just a shame it needed this to happen to make Washington "think" about communicating better... To be honest, my pre-K class speak better to each other than Congress.... And unfortunately, I don't think it will change!

  9. @Laura..I know..well done the ALA organisers for picking San Diego. Mind you, I wish they'd chosen Atlanta, then I could have been stranded at your house! Quite a few people ended up stranded in San Diego, not us though because we flew back via Dallas.
    In the UK the media coverage would have been all about how someone in his frame of mind could have so easily armed himself. In the US television coverage absolutely nothing about any issues of gun control whatsoever. Not only is gun control a non-issue, which I suppose is understandable, but also any question of - say - making ammunition less readily available. As you say states do differ about their gun laws, but you wouldn't have known that from the coverage. The tv coverage itself was an eye-opener - so much of it (literally two stories, shooting and snow for days) and so shallow and repetitive. The newspaper I saw on my last day was infinitely better.

  10. HI Laura - Yes it has been a long time but I regularly ask about you when I see Keren. (Is this blogging between followers allowed?)

  11. I'm just glad that you are still talking to us non-authors back here!

    It sounds fab!

    It's been a while since I've been on your blog (for a while I wasn't even on my own blog!) and I'm loving the look and helpful advice about writing a book etc.

    Rapunzel x
    *Tales from the Tower*

  12. I know this is my third comment but I've been thinking about this gun debate all night. Laura i s right. In 1995 when Itshak Rabin was assassinated in Israel there was no question about the availability of guns. Here every public building has an armed guard and every 18 year old is issued with a gun for his three-year army service. If the gun was the issue then we'd have civilian killings every day.
    So, the answer had to be found elsewhere and we also dug deep into our souls and discussed the language of politics, careless threats and hate-mongering, as well as brotherly love and responsibility and the freedom of speech. So I do understand the American response.

  13. It sounds like an amazing experience and in multiple ways! And it doesn't surprise me you engaged the librarians, having heard you speak, I can safely say you're an eloquent and witty speaker with a very easy manner!

  14. Sounds like a wonderful conference and an amazing opportunity to be there. weird about your watch!