I did a practice run with some colleagues last Friday, with a dry mouth and a shaky voice, which I think got most of the nerves out of the way. On Sunday morning, the day of my reading, I practiced once in front of my sister, both of us in our pyjamas, and decided that I would imagine it was just the two of us again when I did the real reading to a group of strangers.
I got some good feedback from my colleagues and sister: show a bit more emotion, vary the tone of your voice, don’t read too fast, project your voice. I was lucky enough to interview Michèle Roberts when she was up for the festival and she gave me some great advice: “Imagine that there’s a friendly being in the front row that admires your work and wants you to do brilliantly. I tend to imagine that my grandmother, who is dead, is sitting in the front row because she loved me and I loved her very much. If you know your text really well you can keep glancing at the audience and they love that because it means you really know that they’re there and you’re in touch with them.”
Luckily I didn’t have to imagine the friendly beings. My brother and sister were both there to support me so I instructed them to stand at the back and quite far apart so that I could look from one to the other and give the impression that I was making eye contact with the audience. The plan was that they were to smile when I looked at them which in turn would make me smile, but in practice it was quite a sombre story so the most I got was lips pressed together in acknowledgement that I was looking at them.
There were quite a lot of people there, but I was related to half of them so it was not as nerve wracking as I had imagined. Cousins from both side of the family came, an altogether weird situation which would normally be reserved for me or one of my siblings getting married. “Not much chance of that,” my sister said.
I think the best thing to come of it was my brother telling me afterwards that he was inspired to write a story that would be better than mine. And I feel inspired to write more fiction too, and a lot more confident about reading it in public. If you get the chance to read your story in front of an audience, go for it! I can tell you that there is life on the other side. And if you have any advice to share about short story or book readings, I’d love to hear it.