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As I was saying to Howard Jacobson the other day...

29th March 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin

One of the great things about working in the book trade, particularly somewhere like Foyles, is the fact that we get to meet so many writers.

With the stars of, say, the music business or the film industry, all but the more senior figures and those with whom they work directly tend to be kept at arm's length, but, rather wonderfully, authors stop by Foyles on an almost daily basis to sign copies of their new books.

It may only be ten minutes or so, but that window of opportunity to ask the people whose work inspires and entertains us - and to whom we owe our living, of course - is one of the great joys and privileges of being a bookseller. So I thought I'd share some of my favourite encounters.


Richard Ford: a noble Southern gentleman, whose voice rumbled like a covered wagon crossing the Montana plains. Hearing him reminisce about his friendship with Dick [Richard] Yates was just spell-binding.

Eric Schlosser: having found myself full of questions when hearing the author of Fast Food Nation speak on the radio one morning, I was delighted to be able to quiz him when he turned up the very next day. His most memorable thought? "The biggest mistake the world makes is to think that George Bush is stupid. He knows exactly what he's doing. He's just deeply inarticulate."

Image of David Mitchell

David Mitchell (the write-y one not the telly one): despite his numerous awards, armies of fans and truckloads of critical acclaim, he's still surprised and delighted that people enjoy his books. He told us a little about his next novel - sorry, I'd better keep that under my hat, but I can tell you that it sounds thrillingly ambitious and should be in the shops in 2013. One of his biggest fans here, too shy to meet him, in the shop baked him some biscuits and was rewarded with a hand-written thank you note, complete with pictures.

Justine Picardie: the author of the superb recent biography of Coco Chanel bemoaned the difficulty of finding female subjects about whom publishers were willing to publish biographies. I think she has a point.

John le Carré: the characters come first, he explained. The story can only be convincing if it is true to their natures. It seems such a simple truth now, but I felt as if a cartoon lightbulb had suddenly winked into brightness above my head.

Howard Jacobson: he came into to sign The Finkler Question just after it had been named on the Booker shortlist. As his wonderfully arch acceptance speech was later to make clear, he held out little hope that he'd be picking up the Prize. His first-hand experiences of discussing religion with the Chief Rabbi were eye-opening, to say the least. And then Michael Palin turned up to say hello.

James Cracknell: it was like shaking hands with a mountain. And just everybody swooned.

Nelson Mandela: He came as a customer, smuggled in the back way. I didn't get to speak to him, unfortunately, but just hearing that distinctive voice was a thrill. Not surprisingly, he spent some time browsing the African history section, but it turns out he also has a penchant for crime novels.

Polly Samson: much as I love her new collection of short stories, Perfect Lives, it was impossible to avoid asking any questions about her husband, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, as well. Of his 2006 duets with David Bowie at the Royal Albert Hall: "Oh, that was such a fun evening." I'm deeply jealous now.

Peter F Hamilton: you would think that the author of such comprehensively realised SF universes, described in books that often top a thousand pages, might occasionally suffer from writer's block. But, he revealed, he spends so much time planning every detail in advance that when he comes to writing the book itself, he's rarely stumped.

Christos Tsiolkas: the idea that some of the more repellent views of the characters in The Slap reflect the author's own couldn't be further from the truth. A thoughtful man with liberal leanings, he seemed baffled by people's inability to separate the man from the book.

Image of Jennie Rooney

Jennie Rooney: she started writing Inside the Whale, later to be shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, while working as a lawyer. The chapters were so short, she explained, because that was how much she could get written in a lunchbreak: a lesson for all budding writers there, I think.

David Crystal: his book The Fight for English was written, in part, as a response to Lynne Truss' phenomenal bestseller Eats, Shoot and Leaves, so the press promptly concocted some sort of feud between the two of them. The two are good friends, however, he told me and joked that he'd be happy enough so long as his book sold as many as hers.

Ed Vulliamy: the man who spent two months on the border between Mexico and the USA risking his life trying to interview drug barons asked if he could have a picture of himself with his books in Foyles to send to his mother. I wonder what she thinks about some of the hair-raising situations her son gets himself into.

Stewart Lee: he started signing books before I was able to get down the stairs and, embarrassingly, had already been asked for help by a customer who presumed the man by the till was a bookseller.

Sebastian Horsley: he took 45 minutes to sign two dozen books as each book came with a special dedication (his home address on some of them) and regaled us with his latest tales of outrageous debauchery. The publicist accompanying him gradually slumped lower in her chair as she realised their schedule was born of unjustified optimism.

Image of Nigel Slater

Nigel Slater: I was able to thank him for recommending in one of his columns what has since become my favourite chocolate shop. We then discussed quite how many of their liquid sea-salt caramels one could eat in a sitting before feeling guilty; he evidently has more self-control than I do.

Alexander McCall Smith: the man who writes at least three books a year has a brain than seems to run at least twice as fast as anyone else's. As he diligently signed every copy of the two dozen titles we had in stock, his conversation ranged from neuropsychology to the joys of independent bookshops. Like so many successful authors, he gets his writing done first thing. That's my hopes of being a writer up the spout then.

John Connolly: I first met him in 1999 when he came in to the Bradford bookshop where I was working, to sign copies of his debut, Every Dead Thing. He won over everyone in the shop then and even though he's a huge name in crime fiction now, he's still as cheery and solicitous every time he stops by: living proof that nice guys can get what they deserve.

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