More than 90 books. More than 50 turned into films. Well over 350 million copies sold. Somehow, you’d think Stephen King would have an ego to match his stats, and the shock is that he doesn’t. Not at all.
The biggest-selling author ever to appear at Bloody Scotland appeared by live link in the Albert Halls on Saturday night wearing a Buckie Thistle top and scarf. Again, not what you’d expect (he liked the name, used it in If It Bleeds and sent them a couple of signed copies).
Interviewed by Canadian bestseller Linwood Barclay, he turned the questions round all the time. Never mind his novels, what about Linwood’s? That plot twist in Find Your First, for example – so good it reminded him of the first time he read Agatha Christie. “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that!”
Barclay is a friend as well as a fan, and probably the reason King agreed to headline this year’s festival. But while this was an easygoing conversation, it was hardly a revealing one: we didn’t get much of an insight into how King has changed or is changing as a writer, and he seemed happier to turn the spotlight on Barclay’s early days as a writer than on his own – though he did at least confirm the story about how, when he was working in a laundry for $1.50 an hour, his wife rescued the crumpled-up outline of Carrie from the wastepaper bin.
Two other things: he never said he hated Kubrick’s version of The Shining – “I just don’t like it much”. And right now he’s reading – and loving – a Chris Brookmyre novel.
Lee Child, CBE, who has only sold 100 million books, also appeared by video link, this time with his brother Andrew, with whom he has written the 26th Jack Reacher novel. Although he said that his secret fear is that the books will now be better, he needn’t worry too much about the franchise. Amazon will soon start screening eight-episode book-by-book adaptations starring Alan Ritchson, an altogether more imposing Reacher than Tom Cruise.
Yet although video links potentially offer book festivals such stellar line-ups, they don’t always work. Take the event with Kathy Reichs. I’d never seen her on stage and 40 minutes in, I still hadn’t. With admirable sangfroid, Alex Gray filled up the time by reading from Reich’s new novel, and very good she was too.
She was also too polite to point out, when the link to Montreal finally sparked into life, that the Reich’s skills as bestselling writer and forensic anthropologist don’t seem to include punctuality.
The event with debut novelists Robert Peston and Alan Johnson was even worse. If this had been Radio 4’s Today programme, chair Sarah Smith would have cut off Johnson after ten seconds, and only got back to him if he could be clearly heard. Instead, we stumbled through an excruciating hour of screen freezes and only intermittent audibility.
Bloody Scotland uses online events more ambitiously than any other book festival I know. Saturday’s event with writers from five continents (four on screen, excellently chaired by New Zealander Craig Sisterson), and yesterday’s Pitch Perfect and worldwide Crime A-Z (one writer per letter of the alphabet) were all cases in point.
But the best banter (Brookmyre and Billingham), interviews (Val McDermid)), music (The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers), and book launches (Ian Rankin talking about his Willie McIlvanney novel on the very stage McIlvanney had graced in 2012) – all were what the best events will always be: live.
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