Firstly, publicity is daunting - and it is pretty much a hundred times more daunting than standing up in front of a room full of children as I used to do in my other life as a teacher, or making a speech at a wedding, or any other public speaking that we do in our normal lives - but it is also a privilege. To be given a platform to talk about your work, despite the fact that you are an emerging writer or come from thousands of miles away, can, in fact, be transformative. During this fortnight, I found an open-minded, generous community of readers and writers which had space for writers like me in it, and the importance of that to my morale as a writer cannot be overstated. The first photo above is from an event that my Canadian publishers, Doubleday, organised for The House at the Edge of Night and The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (which I encourage you to read because it's excellent!). I also did my first bookstore event while in Canada, at Novel Spot Bookshop in Toronto (see second photo), and about ten heroic early readers actually showed up. And the third photo is with other debut writers Imbolo Mbue, Emma Cline and Martha Hall Kelly at Random House's twice-yearly reader event, Open House. Here's a link to another of my favourite things: discussing the book on Canadian TV. I think Canada must be one of the only countries in the world where the national media spends so much time talking about writers and books. When I asked the producer how many writers they featured, he said: 'As many as possible.' Therefore they are my new literary heroes, and you can find the link here.
Miraculously, shortly after I arrived in the States, people also began reviewing the book. It was featured by People, The Dallas Morning News, NPR, the Star-Tribune, the National Post, Interview Magazine and New York Magazine, which named it one of their 100 Best Beach Reads Ever (a little bit ridiculous given that, in my opinion, you can read anything on the beach like Marquez or Tolstoy or George Eliot or Shakespeare, but I'm not going to split hairs here...). I'm incredibly grateful to all of these critics for reading and engaging with my work. As a writer, you're often advised not to read reviews. Critical opinions are the obvious exception. To have your work reviewed by a newspaper or magazine is a rare opportunity to see how a serious, informed reader reacts to what you have written, and it always leads to interesting conclusions. For instance, from reading these reviews of my work, several things came up which I'll take back with me to inform my future work. Firstly, that people are still overwhelmingly willing to read magical realism, and to read about small places and alternate versions of history, which kind of gives me a license to keep doing it. Also that all those hours I spent honing my sentences were probably worth it. And that there is an interesting split between readers who see my writing as serious, realist (although in a different tradition to the dominant realism of English-language literature) and focused on historical issues, and those who see my work as escapist and romantic. Obviously, I hope it can be different things for different readers, and I believe that there is no rule that says a writer cannot both celebrate beauty and seek truth, but it's interesting to see that division, and that both kinds of readers can like my work. Because I can't see Italy or Europe from the outside since I live here, and because most of the early readers with whom I checked my work are actually from small islands and small towns, like me, so were focused on the accuracy of how I depicted the small place, it is interesting to me that outsiders from great cities have such overwhelmingly strong cultural associations with the idea of Italy that they might automatically see the island on the book as more 'romantic' and 'escapist' than I do, or than it is for the characters. And that is actually pretty interesting and important to discover. Also, I have learned that there are a million different ways of interpreting the words 'beach read', but New York Magazine's, which encompasses Tolstoy, Marquez and F. Scott Fitzgerald with the definition 'a beach read needs narrative momentum, a transporting sense of place, and, ideally, a touch of the sordid', is pretty much perfect.
Now that The House at the Edge of Night is out everywhere in English, the book is no longer mine, and that's a good thing. Writing a book is always a slow process of losing. As you edit, and then watch the publicity process unfold, and then see the book in shops and reviewed in newspapers, the book becomes less and less yours and more and more the world's, until you bid it farewell and it goes away from you. So, honestly, I feel a little bit like a parent on their child's first day of school who has packed their lunch, dressed them in their new uniform, walked them to the gates and is now, finally, ready to let them go out into the world on their own. Very soon I'll be working intensively on the next one. This is right and proper, but the fact that I feel The House at the Edge of Night couldn't be in better hands is a big part of what makes me willing to let it go in the first place. And this is mainly thanks to the way in which my publishers, Hutchinson UK, Random House US and Doubleday Canada, as well as booksellers, librarians and readers, have supported, championed and advocated for the book so that I no longer feel I have to.
I didn't realise until this fortnight that when you write a book, people will also let you write other things, and that this takes ages and is really difficult because you are not a journalist but is something you should probably say yes to. So I wrote this essay for LitHub, about how we support emerging writers through the long apprenticeship necessary to the craft, which I've wanted to speak about for the longest time. As writers of long-form work, I think we often feel powerless to engage in short-term debates - to write a book takes me two years, so watching events like Brexit or the sinister rise of Donald Trump unfold and not being able to say something coherent about it the way a talented journalist can is sometimes frustrating. But writing this essay has persuaded me that there are ways we can engage more immediately with the world, as writers of novels, and that we should probably do so more often.
And finally, for one of the first times in my life, I also met some other writers. In particular, meeting Jennifer Close, Imbolo Mbue, Emma Cline and Martha Hall Kelly during this trip - four very different women writers, all of whom were kind and supportive - was a high point of the whole process. So, to finish, here's a link to one of my favourite moments, a panel discussion at Random House's Open House day with three of those writers. We found many points of connection and solidarity, and that's something I've carried with me back across the sea.