SPECIAL FEATURE Asking Maggie O'Farrell where she got her wallpaper

For Michael Cail, with his glass half full attitude, 2020 has bought him a world of opportunities.


With apologies to Jane Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that writers need to have optimism. I’m optimistic that the next agent I pitch to, the next Undiscovered Voices I enter, the next Agent Open Day I apply for, will be The One That Gets the Book Deal, and each royalty cheque after that will put an extra room on the house. 


See, optimism. 


And I think it’s that optimism, that way of looking for the good, the reason behind everything that happens, has made me see a positive aspect of this terrible pandemic. 


No, wait, before you go scrolling on, let me explain. 


I live in a small town in North Yorkshire that you’ve probably never heard of: it’s an infrequent stop on the East Coast Mainline, so the big express trains usually hurry through on urgent business elsewhere. Nothing to see here; move along. 


It also means that opportunities to attend book events are limited due to prohibitive cost. Or they were, until the pandemic landed. 


Without leaving my chair, and through the wonders of a smartphone and various streaming platforms, I’ve attended festivals at Hay-on-Wye, Henley-on-Thames, YALC, I Am In Print and – randomly – The Westport Library in Westport, Connecticut, in the United States. 


Seeing authors in their own homes adds a layer of cosiness to it. You feel like it’s just you and them. I’ve sat in Stephen Fry’s study, Maggie O’Farrell’s living room and Non Pratt’s garret. I've met Ingrid Persaud’s dog. I've fangirled Francine Toon over how great Pine is. And me and Kat Ellis are now mates on Instagram. Plus, John Grisham had a fire alarm go off in the middle of his live event, and we travelled with him through his apartment while he checked for smoke. I suppose at least we knew it was actually live, and being live means there’s an opportunity to ask questions. It can be nerve wracking to put your hand up in the middle of a huge auditorium, but events going online means that everyone with a keyboard has the opportunity to answer a question. 


Even if it’s just to ask Maggie O’Farrell where she got her wallpaper. 

That wasn’t one of mine. But I did have a pretty good record of getting my questions answered. In fact, I was so excited when Stephen Fry chose my question from the (literally) thousands being asked, that I ran downstairs, holding the phone like it was a bar of gold, gabbling something to my wife that probably sounded like, 


'Stephen…Fry…question…answering…my question…answering…'


Kim’s used to me not making sense, but this was a whole other level even for me. I pulled the headphones out so that she could listen. 


And that’s when the screen froze. 


It was like the scene in Jaws when the chief sees the shark attack, and the camera does that weird zoom-fade thing on his face. No. No. No. This can’t be happening. But we managed to get the connection back and Fry was mid-flow. Only now I had no idea whether he was still answering my question or if he’d moved onto someone else’s. All I could do was shake my head and think, 'Why, why, why did you unplug the – oh, no, wait. He’s still answering my question'. Phew. Catastrophe avoided. Thankfully I got to listen to the whole answer in the catch-up – which is another wonderful element of online events: you can watch them all again. 


But it’s not just book events. My brilliant and supportive SCBWI York group has continued to share work in Dropbox and critique virtually through Zoom. As a writer trapped in the nine to five, those meetings are a lifeline. I’m so glad that we’ve been able to carry on meeting. Even if we do have to log back in every forty minutes. On the plus side, they have the option to mute me if they need to… 


But I think my favourite moment was at the end of Non Pratt’s brilliant Inside Publishing event, that was held to celebrate the launch of Every Little Piece of My Heart. Non’s a brilliant writer, and is a Teessider like me. Indeed, Every Little Piece is set in a fictionalised Teesside. At the end of the event, Non and I ended up reminiscing through the chat about childhood trips to Seaton Carew and Redcar for a Pacitto’s lemon top ice cream. Once this madness is over, I recommend everyone taking a trip to the far-flung edge of Teesside for a lemon top from Pacitto’s. You’ll taste it and wonder how you lived without ever trying one. 


And that’s the thing – this madness, this terrible virus, will pass. We will prevail. We’ll probably appreciate a lot of different things a whole lot more. 


It’s a bizarre paradox that in this year of lockdowns, I’ve attended more writing and author events than I ever have before. My hope, my optimism, is that organisations and festivals will continue to offer some form of streaming capability. While nothing can compare to the energy generated by being in the same room as another writer, it’s my hope that the success of streaming events will allow for more accessibility and inclusion in the future, which in turn will bring more writers and readers together than ever before, irrespective of where in the world they live. 


Oh, and I’m serious about the lemon top. 



Michael Cail is editing his YA supernatural thriller before testing his optimism and submitting to agents. He’s promised his wife he’ll write something happy next. She doesn’t believe him.

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