Carolyn Kirby: my lockdown launch

Opinion - Books Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Carolyn Kirby was dismayed when Covid-19 forced the cancellation of events promoting her new novel. But virtual alternatives have come to the rescue


In 2019, the publication of my debut novel The Conviction of Cora Burns was the social highlight of my year. Guests crammed into the Grant Museum of Zoology in central London for a sparkling launch party, I was interviewed for BBC Radio WM at their swish offices in Birmingham (where that book is set), and gave talks to a variety of live audiences.

At the start of this year, I was looking forward to a similarly packed schedule for the launch of my wartime thriller, When We Fall. Timed to coincide with VEDay75, a London launch party and various events were planned for publication, but when lockdown was announced they were all cancelled. I was crestfallen, but as it turns out, my 2020 book launch has been both exciting and a little humbling.

"I am sure online formats for literary events are here to stay"


When We Fall is an adventure and dark love story set between Britain and Poland during WW2. This book, although my second to be published, was actually the story that got me started as a writer. With previous careers in social housing and teaching, I didn't write any fiction until the day in 2008 when I saw an obituary for a wartime woman pilot. Reading about her war work, filled with the excitement, glamour and tragedy of flying warplanes around Britain, made me realise I should stop fantasising about writing a novel and make a start. So I set off, thinking this project might take me a few months. But the story that became When We Fall has been, off and on, 12 years in the making. Thankfully, my brilliant publisher No Exit Press, which bought my debut in a two-book deal, was happy to use this wartime story as my follow-up novel.

On 3 May, launch week got off to a great start with a glowing Sunday Times review; and then on the VE Day bank holiday itself, I was delighted when the Daily Mail called When We Fall "a terrific World War II novel". Although Covid stopped the street parties that should have celebrated this VE Day anniversary, lockdown has seemed to raise public awareness of Britain's sacrifices during the war. "We'll Meet Again" has become the lockdown anthem, after all.

Orders for my book began to flow in. But when friends around the country asked me where they could buy it, there was no easy answer. At some online retailers, stocks and delivery times were uncertain, and my usual recommendation to support local booksellers was not always possible, with Waterstones closing all of its physical shops (although thankfully readers could still order online) and many independents being closed completely. Fortunately, one of my local independent bookshops - the Wallingford Bookshop - has valiantly kept trading using a pick-up and delivery service, along with some other independents across the country. The shop even made an eye-catching VE Day window display with the yellow covers of my book and Union flag bunting. No Exit Press also sold copies directly, with the publisher Ion Mills working alone in the office to post copies.

Despite being disappointed about the cancellation of my Waterstones party on the evening of launch day, its replacement, a "virtual bookclub" organised by No Exit, turned out to be brilliant! Barry Forshaw, the FT crime fiction critic, interviewed me online with a watching audience of nearly 100 friends and fiction fans from round the world. Many of them chipped into the lively chat with on-screen comments and questions, and at the end of the broadcast I was on a high, as if I had hosted a real party! You can view the recording of this event at www.crowdcast.io/e/WhenWeFall.

Once social distancing ends, it will be great to get back to meeting readers in person and signing their books. But new online formats for literary events, which would have been little used without lockdown, are so accessible and popular that I am sure they are here to stay.

When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby is published by No Exit Press.

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