So recently I went to my first literary festival – and very exciting it was too! The reason that I’ve never done this before is that when my first book was released I was very busy having a premature baby in a complicated birth, and then dealing with the death of both my parents in a short space of time. I suspect that during that period I would have been hard-pressed to report accurately on whether or not I had brushed my teeth, let alone engage in high-level book marketing shenigans.
Now I could write a minute by minute account of what I got up to but that would be terribly boring – plus I have given myself a limited time to write this blog, and only as a reward for working very hard before this.
I must tell you, I am not an unseasoned business traveller, and I have often been met at airports by drivers. But never before have I had embark on a marathon walk to get to the car . . . I wouldn’t have minded this at all, except that the driver had such a brisk pace that I could barely keep up. I thought of yelling to his fast-disappearing back that I was just a writer, and not a participant in the Amazing Race. But I was too out-or-breath to speak.
The Amazing Race continued as we sped through the traffic, nipping in and out of lanes, narrowly missing large petrol tankers. I reminded myself that this is how Cape Townians drive.
The I got to the (very nice) hotel, and gave them my name.
“Gail Schimmel,” I said.
“No,” they said. Not booked.
“Ah,” I said. “Maybe Gail van Onselen”. (This is my married name, and the name on my ID, so was used for the plane ticket and possibly the hotel.)
“No,” they say. I knew it was too good to be true, that I would spend two nights away from my children. “Could you be Adele van Onselen?” they asked me. As it turned out, I could.
My laptop did not like Cape Town, I’m afraid. It promptly refused to connect with the hotel Wifi, and I had to do all sorts of things while on the phone to my IT boff. As I hammered away at the keyboard, trying to make it work, I realised that my nails looked really, truly, awful. I have never been one to get my priorities confused, so I put aside all the urgent day-job work and went to find a manicure.
I started at reception – fully expecting them to tell me that there was an in-house lady that I could find, maybe on the 2nd floor (they are always on the 2nd floor, I don’t know why). But not at this (otherwise lovely) hotel. So they made a little mark on my map. The one receptionist gave the other a slightly off look as she did this, so I asked, “Are you sending me somewhere funny?”
“No,” they denied in unison.
I arrived at a place, deep in Cape Town CBD, that had not had a white customer in the last decade. The 6 Nigerian gentlemen all having their heads shaved, all looked up. The shavers paused in their shaving. A lady was eventually summoned to help me.
“Do you have space for an express mani?” I asked.
“Huh?” she said.
“My nails,” I said. “Really fast. Now.” I was losing courage.
“Maybe later,” she started, but I had sensed my escape.
“It’s now or never,” I yelled, patting her arm to show there were no hard feelings, because I didn’t want the bald Nigerians to come after me, and I ran.
I bought some nail polish at the dodgiest shopping centre in the world, and headed back to the hotel. The nest day, I found a lovely upmarket nail salon about two blocks from the hotel. But it was too late.
Adventures with an agent
I am going to be honest with you. Writing is not paying my bills. Not even my nail polish bills, which are very low. The next step for an SA writer is a foreign agent – so I hot footed off to a talk by famous Lauren Beukes and agent Oli Munson. Very interesting, it was, even if the answer to my questions made me slightly suicidal.
Now later that day, I spot the very same Oli Munson chatting to my publisher. And I had a legitimate reason to be talking to my publisher – in fact, he was actually waiting to speak to me. What does a girl do? Show loyalty to her lovely publisher, who is nothing but kind and agreeable and helpful and supportive? Or throw herself into the arms of the agent, yelling “take me, take me, I’ll do anything”? The latter, obviously.
So I sidled up and introductions were made, and I started with some small talk and then headed to my prize. It was within reach, people, I tell you: Mr Munson’s eyes had NOT glazed over and he was smiling. I honed in for the kill and . . . was called away for a sound check for my next event. Ah, the burdens of fame.
Adventures with a famous writer
This is the last adventure I am going to tell you about, and I admit to a certain reluctance because I come off looking a right fool.
On the first night I was at Open Book, I was on a panel with some lovely people (Boykey Sidley, James Hendry and Fiona Snyckers), and although we weren’t very well attended (we were up against NoViolet Bulawayo in another venue) we had a great time. So I met up with these lovely writers later, and with them was Polly Dunbar.
Now I knew that Polly was one of the names all over the programme, and that she was really quite well known, but I’d kind of gotten it into my head that she was a chick-lit writer that I might or might not have read. Anyhow, we had a lovely time – most of which was spent listening to a woman with an amazing elephant attack story that had us all drop-jawed. And I liked Polly very much, and when I got back to my hotel found that she had followed me on Twitter. So I looked at her profile . . .
A step back. My daughter’s favourite book is a book called Doodle Bites, part of the Tilly & Friends series. When Tilly and Friends comes on TV, there is a scream of joy in my house. And, you guessed it (or already knew) Polly Dunbar is the writer and creator of the very same. I was mortified that I’d failed to realise, friends, mortified.
But I did what you would all do in the circumstances . . . I fan-girl stalked her all the way to Johannesburg, where I set my wild children on her for book signings at the most fun author book reading I have ever attended. As one does.