Greatest Hits with Laura Barnett and Kathryn Williams
It had been a very hot day.
Trains from London to Ipswich were cancelled because of the heat (affecting overhead cables, apparently). I had arranged to collect the guests for this event at Woodbridge Station at 6.30pm, so what would we do now?
Novelist Laura Barnett and singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams had instead braved a drive up the A12 to Suffolk. Having requisitioned a green Mini Cooper, with air conditioning and stereo on full blast, they arrived in good time. In fact they were able to sample the delights of the Bull Hotel before walking down to the library, but I didn't realise they were in town until 6.50pm so was still imagining them getting lost or being stuck in traffic jams.
Once I knew that Laura and Kathryn were only minutes away, the only problems left to address were temperamental microphones and deciding a strategy of standing room only for any further ticket sales.
This very special event launching a very special concept, had been surprisingly slow to take off. I had just 30 people committed to come five days previously, despite two months of constant promotion.
The collaboration between a novelist and a songwriter to produce a soundtrack for a book had to be explained of course, but it also seemed that the good people of Woodbridge couldn't quite believe that it was 'the' Kathryn Williams who was involved.
However, the interest started to mount as the book and album were published a couple of days before our event. The reviews and features started appearing in the national press, and there were interviews on BBC Radio Four's 'Front Row' and 'Loose Ends' - Clive Anderson even mentioned on air that Kathryn was coming to 'Woodbridge Library, Suffolk'. A coup!
In fact there were 80 people in the audience, many of them travelling some distance to be there - Colchester and Norfolk were mentioned.
And they weren't disappointed. There was spontaneous and heartfelt applause after each of three songs performed by Kathryn on guitar, and when I suggested we thank both Laura and Kathryn at the end of the evening, there was some question when the clapping would stop. And there were the loveliest comments from people afterwards as they queued patiently to buy the books and CDs, and at the signing table.
We packed a lot into the evening, looking back. After a short introduction from me, Laura explained the concept of the book about her fictional singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler. She then read a short passage from the novel.
Responding to a just-perceptible nod, Kathryn quietly starting playing the guitar as Laura continued to read. Then Laura stopped and Kathryn started to sing. As soon as Kathryn breathed the first words of the song, 'Don't Step on the Cracks', I think we all felt our shoulders drop and our spirits soar. It was beautiful!
We had two further readings with the songs 'Edge of the World' and 'Just Us Two', as well as a couple of bars of 'Common Ground', unaccompanied, as Kathryn explained how she turned Laura's 'holding lyrics' spontaneously into a song on their first meeting. Realising immediately that the collaboration was going to work reduced them both to tears at the time, they said, and cemented a working partnership and a friendship that is obviously very special. Indeed Kathryn was an incredibly generous and warm guest to everyone she met, liberally dispensing hugs during the evening.
They were both very natural behind the microphone and created some marvellous images to describe how they felt at various points during the collaboration.
Laura talked about how she had always wanted to make a career in music and so was delighted to get involved in studio recordings and meet with the musicians. But, she said, she went along with her banana bread expecting to invite them to join her for a break on the beach, not realising that musicians "work very hard indeed". She said that she was used to doing four or five hours writing and then would leave her desk to do something else, but musicians will work for 15 hours at a time.
Kathryn described how she felt when she was reading Laura's book for the first time. She had held off from doing so while she was writing the songs because she didn't want to be encumbered by Cass's back story. She said that she needed just the scantest information, so that she could come to writing each song fresh. When the songs were complete and she did read the book, she said it felt like being at the theatre: whereas normally the reader would be a member of the audience looking at the performers on stage, Kath said she felt she was standing watching the action from the wings.
I asked Laura about the research for the book and she described the various biographies and autobiographies she had read about some of her music heroes. But once read, she said, she put them aside. She believes in the importance of holding your research lightly. And she described it as diving into a pool and swimming a few lengths, then coming out and drying off, but knowing the pool is still there if she needs to go back in.
Kathryn told us that she was playing Glastonbury the following week, which met with a murmur of approval from the audience. She said it's not so exciting for her because of the size of the festival - it takes ages to take the equipment to the right venue. And she said she's never felt entirely at home in the music world. She'd be invited to glamorous after-show parties (she named either a couple of bands or a couple of venues and looked to me to be impressed, I think, but sadly they meant nothing!). She said that even if she went along, she'd make her excuses to leave earlier - she would say she was tired because she'd been doing too much gardening, or she needed to get back to feed the cat. Not very rock 'n' roll! Now that she's mingling in literary circles, she said she feels much happier - people listen to the words of the songs, she said.
There were some good questions from the audience members (who were coping well with the heat) - one lady, a keen fan of Kathryn's, asked how the book should be read: before, during or after listening to the CD. One gentleman complimented Laura on her scene setting in 'The Versions of Us' and asked how she conjured up the sense of place in her books - did she have to revisit locations in order to write about them? Another person queried whether Laura and Kathryn would work together again? While they couldn't answer this, Kathryn did reveal that a forthcoming project for her was to work with the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. She wasn't allowed to give us any details.
I concluded by thanking everyone for coming. By attending they had not only had an entertaining and inspiring evening, but had also supported their local independent bookshop, their local library, and the charity UK Mastocytosis Support Group. This was the nominated charity for our lovely book group member Pam Walker who sadly passed away earlier in the year. Pam had enjoyed Laura's first book 'The Versions of Us' and was also a fan of the music of Kathryn Williams. What better way to celebrate our memory of her.
As everyone left their seats, it was lovely to see long queues forming for sales of books and CDs. No one was rushing away - they all wanted to meet Laura and Kathryn to have a personal inscription and to give their own words of thanks.
I'm always so thrilled to receive people's comments after the event:
"Thank you for last night, it was brilliant. I feel privileged to have been part of it." Jacq
"It was brilliant!" Barbara
"It was a lovely event. Thank you for organising it, and for everything you're doing for literature in our area." Marti
"Great evening Catherine. Thank you and well done!" Emma
"Well done you! We thoroughly enjoyed it and I am listening to the music now!" Gwen
"Thank you so much for last night’s wonderful event at the library. Really excellent." Jennie