On manuscripts and book stores

Michael Glover grabs a front-row seat for a Susan Sontag soiree
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The Independent Culture
Simon Roberts, convener of literary soirees at Waterstone's, Islington Green, had a high sheen of sweat on his brow. Things were not going too well. First of all, there'd been the argument on the stairs. "We didn't know you had to book," said one young man. His glasses were all fogged up. It was that kind of a night. "We wouldn't have wasted our time coming all this way to see Susan Sontag if we'd known that." He turned, and started stomping back down the stairs.

Luckily, Simon had a trick up his sleeve. Perhaps it was an old one. You never can tell just how cunning people are. "You can have this one free," he said, handing over the piece of paper that he'd just produced from somewhere - or nowhere. "It's been paid for. Someone just rang to cancel..."

Meanwhile, I moved upstairs into the audience, some of whom were falling over chairs. Susan Sontag's publicist was smiling dreamily through a glass or two of wine, having already succeeded in dulling the anxieties ahead: that dinner with Susan in the restaurant later, which would require intelligent responses to quick-fire New York humour stuffed full of a bewildering range of literary and cultural cross-references.

It wasn't until I'd found my seat on the front row, squeezed in next to a director of the Brighton Literary Festival on the scout, that I noticed the woman standing in the corner with her back to us, just to the right of the microphone and that intimidating dumpbin of Susan Sontag titles in paperback. I counted 10, ranging from A Susan Sontag Reader to Aids and its Metaphors. I saw her whip the blue velvet hairband off her hair, and give it one last quick drag-through with the comb before she turned to face the audience. We were all so shocked by her hair - entirely black apart from that strangely endearing lick of grey at the front edging off to white. I thought of Robert Lowell's poem "Skunk Hour" - but Sontag is not, of course, a poet.

She seemed very relaxed tonight. "I just love these independent book stores," she said. Thankfully, no one interjected that WH Smith were in charge these days. She leant her elbow against that bookcase with all her books in it. How reassuring - or threatening - it must have felt. I'd just counted 16 copies of The Volcano Lover, a Romance. "You know, the great city that I come from, New York City, so famous for its energies," she went on fairly languidly, "is the poorest capital that I know for book stores." Then she sighed a small sigh. "And I really love talking to small audiences too..." She gave us one of her lovely, complicitous smiles.

She picked up a copy of The Volcano Lover and read a slab of it. Then she picked up the manuscript of her new, unfinished novel and read a slab of that. Total reading time: one hour and a bit. A little later, during question time, she told us that she often writes 30 or 40 versions of a single page of a manuscript. She's that scrupulous. She keeps them all, too. No one thought to ask her how many times the ceiling had fallen in back home.