Wednesday morning officially starts with my seven thirty wake-up call, though for me – as is usual in hotels, even swank ones like One Devonshire Gardens – the whole ‘am I awake or asleep?’ thing is a grey, fuzzy area. I’ve been awake more than I’ve been asleep, raiding the mini-bar again, this time for a £3.50 bottle of mineral water from Fiji (don’t ask). At about half three I discovered that not only is the tap water down here a suspicious yellow colour, it also tastes like the carpet under a heavily-used blackboard. Breakfast however, more than makes up for it – even if you have to go outside and down to the end of the block to get to the hotel restaurant. I’ll have the Full Scottish with poached eggs please.
By the time I’m three quarters of the way through a monumental fry-up, Fiona, my publicist appears. Someone seems to have stolen her eyes and replaced them with little pink-rimmed buttons, sewn onto a pale, grey face. It turns out Val wasn’t over keen on leaving the party last night and Fiona valiantly stayed with her to the last, while people plied them both with champagne. Now that’s dedication for you. As a stalwart vegetarian Fiona also has the Full Scottish, leaving out the black pudding: eggs, bacon and sausages don’t count as meat when you’re knackered and hungover. They’re medicinal. This is all accompanied by Earl Grey tea with milk – I know, I know, but she’s a tad on the eccentric side (a ‘tad’ meaning just this side of ‘dangerously unhinged’) but she gets away with it by being bizarrely bubbly, friendly and talkative – toast and Marmite. Sorry, can’t think of a reasonable excuse for the Marmite. We talk of the day to come as we eat, surrounded by silent, sullen-looking couples who don’t seem to have a single word to say to each other. Ah, angry public mastication done in a strained silence, you gotta love it.
Today we’re off to the huge HarperCollins warehouses to sign copies of Cold Granite for distribution to the bookshops. HC have the largest storage and distribution network for books in the country, dealing not only with their own volumes, but those of other publishers as well. It’s a BIG operation. We’re met at the door to a 1960’s style bunker tacked onto a massive warehouse by Marie, one of the head honchos and responsible for making sure I don’t do a runner when faced with the reality of signing one and a half THOUSAND books. She shows us into a little conference room and introduces me to my gaoler for the day – an affable, redheaded dynamo called Janis, with a pronounced Glaswegian accent and line in risqué humour. There’s an oval conference table in the middle of the room, artistically piled high with copies of Cold Granite. Like a little fort. There’s about eighteen times that number of books stacked against the wall. Ulp. Then Janis proudly tells me that all these volumes represent a whole pallet of books – seven hundred and fifty. And I’m going to have to sign two pallets’ worth. ‘Ulp’ becomes ‘Eek!’
Just to be on the safe side, I say I’d better visit the toilet before we start. Maybe there’s a window I can squeeze out of and make good my escape? No chance – I’m escorted there, and I’m pretty sure Marie’s got someone else watching the exits. Now when I was about eleven I spent a dull afternoon in science class, working out a fancy signature. Something that I could dash off with a flourish when I became rich and famous. Over the years it degraded slightly, until now it resembles a kind of swish, flick and a dot. My official, bona fide signature takes about a second and a half. And, looking at the great wall of Glasgow lined up around me in crime-novel-sized bricks I have to say thank God for that! I might actually get out of this alive.
If you’ve never signed 1,500 hard-backed books before, this is how it goes: the write-ist (that’s me) sits in a huge typist’s chair with LOADS of lumbar support and a gel-ink pen. Fiona, standing to your left, takes a book off the pile, opens it and slides it in front of you. You sign it – Swish and flick and dot – slide it to your right, then Janis (or someone slightly more sane), shuts the book and makes a little pile. When the pile is five books high, it gets neatly stacked against the wall behind you. And all the time Tom or Bob, depending on who’s doing what at the time, is taking a fresh book from the unsigned pile, opening it to the right page and marking the place with the front flap of the dust jacket. Then he adds it to the wall of books. And on and on and on it goes, like a perpetual motion machine, designed to torture write-ists. I have to admit that it’s a very slick operation. It may be a torture machine, but it’s a well oiled one (and no, I’m not talking about Janis here), they do this a LOT. I might think 1,500 is a daunting heap of books to sign, but the next guy – who’s due to turn up at half nine tomorrow morning – has SIX THOUSAND to get through before he can go home! His publicist must really, really hate him.
As my signature is such a sad little squiggle I decide to embellish things a bit. I’ve been told not to change my signature for the signing, as that’d be dishonest, and if I’m faking it, then what’s the point in having me here at all? Anyone could do it. But I still feel that I want to do a little more for the people buying the book. So every now and again I scribble in a ‘All the best!’ and then graduate from there to quick doodles. You know the kind of thing, cats, dogs saying random words, teddy bears with chainsaws… Just every now and then. One lucky person will get a quote from Scooby Doo. Another a little dinosaur saying “bottoms, bottoms, tee-hee”. But Janis’s favourite is the teddy bear with a flamethrower, which she makes me work on until it no longer looks like “he’s huddin’ a spade with a wee face on it…”
By the time ten o’clock rolls around Fiona announces I’m averaging about 500 books an hour. Which makes me Mr Studmeister (in some twisted parallel universe). But by the time eleven arrives I’m feeling decidedly nauseous. It’s motion bloody sickness again, I’ve been sitting at this table for two hours now, head sweeping left, grabbing a fresh book, scribbling my name and maybe a doodle, then passing it off to the left. My eyes going in and out of focus as stuff flashes through my hands. Urrrrrrrrgh… So in order to preserve the assembled stock from the risk of being vigorously splattered with two poached eggs, two rounds of toast, sausage, beans, bacon, black pudding and fried mushrooms, Janis takes me for a quick tour of the gardens while everyone else gets caught up with their day jobs. Which is an excellent excuse for her to have a cigarette. As she smokes and smiles and jokes I get the feeling that Janis is one of those ‘forces of nature’ insurance companies are always warning us about. She tells a lot of her telephone customers that she’s a leggy, size-ten blonde, occasionally getting caught out when someone, so enamoured by her telephone manner turns up at the warehouse complex to take her out to lunch. But those people still leave smitten. On the way back to the signing torture chamber she tells a scandalous story about Fiona my publicist and swears me to secrecy. Back in the room Fiona looks slightly worried at what all the grinning is about.
More signing and then a sandwich lunch arrives and then we’re back to the old swish, flick and dot again.
Of the 1,500 books I think about 15% get something a bit different. The really rare ones have a ‘Stuart’ you can actually read (there’s only about four of those), but rarest of all is a nearly full-page tyrannosaurus rex called Harold, looking bemused. I have to admit, that when I buy a book, I’m always much more tempted by signed copies. I don’t know why: possibly because there’s something 'personal' of the author about the thing, I’m hoping the illustrated copies of Cold Granite will make someone smile. And buy the book, of course.
When we’re almost done Janis takes me through to the staff store, where everyone who works here can purchase books at incredible discounts. She tells me the whole staff are avid readers. Would I like something? I do the short-hand math in my head – my suitcase has my whole kilt outfit in it, so already weighs a ton and a half. If I don’t want to herniate myself I’d better not buy any more than about a half-dozen paperbacks. I’m ponderously selecting them when she slides up and tells me not to be so wet – for me the books are free, so stop sodding about. It’s like being given the keys to the sweety shop! Books! Lovely BOOKS!!! It’s an embarrassment of riches, and I’m still a bit nervous about the whole coming across like a freeloader thing, even though Janis is encouraging me to greater and greater excess. And every time I pick up a couple of books to look at they’re whisked away to an awaiting pair of boxes that’ll be posted up to me. How cool is that? Once again I’m left staggered and humbled at the generosity of the people in publishing. AND I’m getting heaps of great books!
Before I go, Marie comes through to tell me there’s still a couple more books to sign. When they have a new book in, they put up notices and posters all over the building, and the people who work here are invited to buy the book and have it signed by the author. And there’s a list of people who want Cold Granite – ALL of whom get an illustration, and my heartfelt thanks for buying my book. It feels like I‘ve been given a great honour – and I have – and I can’t help grinning like an idiot. We even have a little photo call with the first person to buy it (I’m keeping the details secret at the moment, as Marie has promised to email the photo through to me. But as soon as it arrives it’s going up as a news story on the website – my first ever UK sale!) who’s lovely, freckled, and even shyer than me.
The train ride home is much the same as the one down to Glasgow, only in the opposite direction, and the motion sickness kicks in a lot sooner as I hammer away on the laptop keyboard. By the time I get to Inverurie I’ve got two and three quarters chapters of TSA done and am convinced I’ve lost my car keys somewhere between breakfast and the Glasgow Queen Street train station. But luckily I’m not quite that stupid.
But for a minute there it was a close-run thing.