It was in another country. It was a ‘lunch event’. Six authors, various publishing company people and a wodge of journalists and media types. The venue was a private dining room at a contemporary art gallery. Round tables with place names. Like a wedding where I knew no one and no one was talking about love.
The idea was that the authors would shift along a table with each course. There were two menus at each place setting: a real one that listed the food choices and then a second menu that pretended the authors were dishes. So for example on the first table I was sat at, ‘Catherine O’Flynn – The News Where You Are’ was listed under appetizers. On the second table I was listed under ‘Mains’ – etc – you get the gist. The previous day I’d been told by the head of marketing at the publishing company’s office that my job at the lunch was to sell. Now I was being presented as something to eat. It was confusing. I was a self-selling sandwich.
The whole concept of the lunch – ie. that the authors would somehow be so charming, intriguing and sparkling that the journalists would be captivated and well disposed to them and their offerings – seemed both misguided and terrifying. To have this concept really spelled out by being presented as a tasty dish for everyone on the table to pick over didn’t lessen the anxiety at all. I think I pretty much failed as an appetizer. The woman on my left had a polite nibble, but the other two journalists didn’t appear to be remotely peckish. Who could blame them? They just wanted to chat and catch up with each other and had what I would consider a fairly natural aversion to calling across the table to a stranger. I felt kind of sorry for the publicist sat with us as she attempted various excruciating opening gambits– like ‘One reason that I really love Catherine’s book is…’ or ‘Catherine writes so movingly about…’ to a fairly blank wall of indifference. I was a piss-watery sorbet that singularly failed to register on the palate.
There was someone from the publishing company at every table. I guess this was to act as some kind of social lubricant, but also to police our comments and prevent us self-harming or flicking any of our piquant emulsion at the journalists. In my role as main course I was on the same table as one of the publisher’s key marketing staff. One of the journalists there (who were a little more game than the previous table and at least were pretending that they might want to eat me) asked me what the book was about. I gave my very snappiest synopsis of both theme and plot. After I’d finished there was a beat and then the marketing woman said to the table:
‘That is not what her book is about. Let me tell you what her book is about.’
It was about roots apparently, and not forgetting where you came from and hanging onto something or other. To be honest they didn’t look anymore impressed by her synopsis than by mine.
By the time I was the dessert I could no longer fail to notice that the author who was always a course ahead of me, who I will call Bob, was clearly the tastiest dish anyone had ever sampled. After I was rapidly bumped from the main course table for my woeful synopsis, I moved over to where I would be served as dessert, only to find them all still chomping on old Bob the main course. The publishing company staffer said ‘Oh he’s in the middle of a particularly interesting anecdote’ so I had to hover behind him, like a really appalling looking blancmange about to destroy the taste of the delicious main course.
As far as I’m aware not a single line in print about the book resulted from the lunch. It cost the publishers a ton of money – the flights, the accommodation, the posh venue, the fine dining menu. I still feel bad for all the expense and the palpable failure, but worse than that is the unsettling empathy I feel with those easily overlooked, unspectacular items on every restaurant menu. Carrot and coriander soup I think, that’s me.