While my primary motivation for embarking on a Master’s Degree at Kingston University was to secure a career in the publishing industry, I also arrived in London with a secondary objective. And that was to make friends with bookish people, be it writers or readers. This wasn’t just a vague hope, but a conscious strategy. I wanted to find these people and talk about books with them, go book-shopping with them, drink coffee with them, and- most of all- write with them.
I was lucky in that I was able to realize this ambition better than I could ever have hoped. However, the conditions to achieve this were far from perfect.
• We only had classes two days a week (Mondays and Tuesdays) meaning we lost momentum for 5 days between seeing each other, as opposed to being regular faces we interacted with throughout the week.
• Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there were no social events organized in the first semester.
• We were an unusually large year group due to people deferring their placements or delaying their plans during the pandemic, meaning we were more atomized and less cohesive.
• Folks commuted from all over London, so hanging out outside of class wasn’t necessarily easy.
• Given that this was a Master’s, I think, people were much more focused on their ambitions than socializing. This makes sense- when you start a Bachelor’s Degree, you don’t know anyone, and you’re gonna be there for three years rather than one, so making friends is naturally a priority. With the MA, people already had busy lives of well-established friends, significant others, and jobs.
Everyone I met at KU I liked- and everyone else seemed to like each other too. It had been noted more than a few times that there were “no dickheads” in our cohort, and I have to agree. While we were all overwhelmed with deadlines, people always expressed a wish that they could have gotten to know each other better. I found everyone I met super interesting, and I always tried to learn as much about their personal story as possible. Even though we didn’t have much time together, I felt like myself around them- which is a very liberating feeling. The people on the course were exactly as I hoped they would be.
That is to say, they were all onions.
With every layer you peeled, another revealed itself, and the center remained hopelessly out of reach:
A writer from Seattle, who arrived at KU by way of working as a photographer at Disneyland- and who took the author photos for my book on the rooftop of the Town House. A trilingual Icelandic poet whose knuckles had cracked the soft jaws of toxic males, whose crystals told you your fate, and who bore a striking resemblance to the Valkyrie from The Northman. A fellow Creative Writing graduate (and fellow Mass Effect fan!) from the University of Winchester, who was actually taught by someone who graduated with me who went on to become a professor there. A fantasy writer and fellow Swiftie from Dallas who spoke longingly of Texas barbecue and made us laugh with her quick wit during a blurb workshop. A Guinness-chugging, Shania-Twain-stanning, belly-chain-wearing publishing prodigy from Montreal, who pulled us all into the orbit of her unique charisma. A goofy English Lit grad from the University of Birmingham, who trusted me to read her writing and who drew me doodles during our study sessions together in the library (see below). A guy who made music and wrote graphic novels, who I bonded with over our shared sense of humor and love of The Sopranos. A writer from Sofia by way of Swansea, who charmed me with her chaos and her tales of Bulgarian culture. A dozen more, from illustrators to bookstagrammers and translators to composers, from Italy to Norway and Romania to India.
And of course, Emily, who readers will remember from my earlier post in this series, the enigmatic polymath from the rural wilds of Suffolk who became my best friend, strongest supporter, creative partner, and muse almost as soon as we met at the beginning of the academic year. Long-time readers of my blog will remember that this is not a new phenomenon with me. I have been very lucky in that wherever I go, while I don’t make loads of friends, I always seem to find that one friend that I click with instantly. When I went to City of Bristol College in 2009, it was my friend James, and when I went to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in 2012, it was my friend Aaron. And then Emily at Kingston University, 2021. In all three cases I was a fish out of water in a new city, having left everyone I knew behind, and the connection struck like lightning- instant and perfect- as if they were missing pieces I’d been waiting to find my whole life.
While the folks I’ve met here are certainly a motley crew, they were united by a passion for storytelling. And so, to conclude my series covering my year at KU, I’d like to share some stories about my bookish adventures with my new bookish friends- beginning today with the 2022 London Book Fair!
April 5th, 2022. Emily and I get off the train at Clapham. All around us a blur of rushing torsos, strapped with satchels. Lattes threatening to be spilled. Shirt ties flung over shoulders. A cacophony of shoe heels clapping on concrete. Emily sets a relaxed pace through the maelstrom…
“This is the route I used to take back home when I lived in Kensington,” she said. “I know the timetable here like the back of my hand. There’s always time between the train arriving from Surbiton and the overground leaving for Olympia. No one realizes they have time. They sprint like it’s about to leave any second. I always enjoyed watching them run.”
I followed Emily’s lead, falling into her confident, unhurried step. The bodies continued to race past us. Below the walkway, a train waited at our platform.
“We have time,” Emily said, seeing me looking at it. “It won’t leave yet.”
We continued walking and the crowd continued running. All of a sudden, Emily’s expression changed.
“Actually, I think we have to run,” she said.
We broke into a sprint, joining the sweaty throng in their hysteria. Dozens of us thundered down the stairs like a waterfall of limbs. Emily, clad in a long, pink-dotted black dress and high, burgundy leather boots, cut across the platform in long strides. She hopped aboard the train and I leapt after her, just about pulling my ass after me like Indiana Jones saving his hat in The Temple of Doom. The door closed shut behind me and a second later the train lurched into motion.
Panting, I looked at Emily, who brushed her bangs to the side and cleared her throat.
When we arrived at Olympia, the 2022 London Book Fair had already been in full swing for a few hours. We got into line and readied our tickets and COVID passes. Neither of us were really sure what to expect when we stepped inside. After receiving our event passes and clearing security, we ascended some short steps and passed through a set of doors into a gargantuan convention center. A multitude of voices echoed into the high ceiling. Our eyes weren’t sure where to look, but within seconds we found ourselves face to face with a friend of ours from class.
He was volunteering at the LBF by handing out copies of The Bookseller as people entered the building, his face fixed into a weary smile like the “Hide the Pain Harold” meme. It was a relief to see him and we told him he was doing a grand job as he handed us each a copy.
At first, Emily and I just tried to get our bearings. The convention center floor was full of these huge, meticulously-decorated stalls representing all the major publishing houses. Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, you name it. A huge advertisement teased the return of Cormac McCarthy with a cover of The Passenger. A glass cabinet held a mysterious copy of The Lord of the Rings with a white-gold cover and pink sprayed edges. Everyone there was wearing a pressed suit. Beyond a line of red tape there were hundreds of small tables marked with the names of literary agencies, all of them hosting meetings. There was a frenzied energy about the many eyes, lips, and hands as hundreds of negotiations layered on top of one another, echoing toward the curved roof. Coffee-infused fingers shuffled documents and polished Colgate-smiles obliged each other in perfect symmetry.
As well as publishing houses and their imprints, there were stalls representing each country too, with none more prominent than the one for Ukrainian literature. The whole place was covered in a rich blue carpet but the stalls were each subtly raised by about an inch or two, so I kept tripping up as I approached them, almost going ass-over-tit into some commissioning editor. At first we didn’t do anything at these stalls, as everyone there looked to be in the process of doing something important, but we did plenty of poking around. This was ostensibly a field trip after all, and not content to play the role of extras, Emily and I decided to insert ourselves into the proceedings. We craned our long necks over barriers, we stared at people until they looked away, we nodded along to ongoing conversations. Soon we found ourselves at a large stall for Hachette, with an enclosed space full of small two-person tables, bordered by high walls beautifully illustrated with recent book covers from their catalogue. I approached the front desk and asked
“What’s going on in there?”
The woman raised an eyebrow at me.
“Do you have an appointment?”
We were silent for a long moment, then we nodded at each other and I walked away. Deciding to leave the main floor for a while, Emily and I headed upstairs. There we found many interesting stalls hosting an eclectic schedule of presentations. Poet’s Corner, a particular favorite of ours, held poetry readings all day long. Any time you were tired from networking, you could go there and recline on a beanbag and listen to poems that ranged from topics such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine to taking the bins out. From the Dutch guy ranting about cock to the old lady outlining the futility of existence, it was never dull in Poet’s Corner.
Towards the back of the second floor we found Writer’s HQ and bumped into many of our classmates. We watched several interesting presentations, including one on self-publishing and another on the way Tik Tok has revolutionized book marketing. Both of these were relevant to the practical publishing projects Emily and I were soon to undertake in place of a traditional dissertation. In fact, it was only a month or so after the LBF that I created my official author Tik Tok account (@tumbleweedtoks) in which I drew heavily upon the wisdom of the panelists, especially Fiona Lucas.
After a morning of presentations at Writer’s HQ, Emily and I mingled a while with our classmates. Like us, they seemed to be unsure of what we ought to be doing here in our capacity as students. We were keen to find our professor, and though she was definitely there, we couldn’t find her all week. One of our classmates, a writer and journalist with a sunny disposition, exclaimed loudly, “WHERE IS SHE? I WANT MY MUMMY.”
We had to laugh. It was funny how, even at the postgraduate level, a teacher could still be a maternal figure. Our professor knew everyone that was anyone in the publishing industry, and her presence would have been a very comforting one. But she remained elusive, and we pressed on toward a scheduled interview with Maggie O’Farrell, the LBF 2022 Author of the Day.
The room was already packed when we got there, so we had to sit on the floor. I hadn’t read Hamnet, but I knew it by reputation. Even so, getting to listen to a major novelist share her insights was fascinating, and it was probably the highlight of the LBF for me. It didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t read her work before, because the talk- though it touched on a few plot details- was focused on the writing process as a whole. Overall she seemed like a pretty cool, intelligent, and down-to-earth person, and I left feeling much more inclined to read Hamnet than before.
With no more presentations that we were interested in, Emily and I decided to take another crack at the stalls. There were stalls for all of the major self-publishing services- KDP, IngramSpark, Lulu, et cetera. We made sure to talk with each of them, as neither of us had yet decided who to go with for our books. The representatives were really friendly and left us with a bunch of literature to take home. The American lady from Lulu was especially nice to us, and curious to know what we were making of our first LBF.
“Is it all a little overwhelming?” she asked.
“Kinda. We’re not really sure what to do with ourselves,” I said.
“There’s a lot of important-looking people here, so it’s quite intimidating.”
The lady smiled at us and leaned close, lowering her voice. “Oh, they like to think they’re important, but don’t be fooled!”
The last thing we did before leaving was hit up another Hachette stall on the main floor. Unlike the first one, this was smaller and didn’t seem to be a place for conducting meetings. There were maybe four members of staff, smiling approachably at passersby, and some cozy shelves displaying notable Hachette titles. I asked one of the representatives if we could ask him some questions about breaking into the industry and what it was like to work for Hachette, and he seemed delighted to oblige us. He had only been there for six months, as it turned out.
“How are you liking it so far?” I asked him.
“I’m still absolutely buzzin’ mate,” he confessed, and I could tell that he meant it.
When we asked what skills we needed for day-to-day responsibilities, he even called over another member of staff that was unoccupied, to give us her insights as well. They were really encouraging and super friendly. What I liked best was that they seemed genuinely interested in helping us, and it was all I could do not to blurt out “Take me with you”.