From a darkened room to Zoom…
I always think of myself as an introvert, and happy in my own company, but during lockdown I’ve come to realise I also need the company of like-minded people at least now and again. So I have been very grateful for the online events that have popped up to keep us crime fiction fans connected – I’m going to talk elsewhere about online festivals, here it’s all about my beloved Noir at the Bar nights.
Noir at the Bar (NATB) was begun in Philadelphia by Peter Rozovsky in 2008 (there’s an interview with Peter and other early hosts here). In its earliest incarnation, it was one writer, reading and being interviewed by Peter, but has morphed into being a series of authors reading a snippet from their work in front of a friendly audience in a bar, with plenty of time for socialising. It spread across the US and came to the UK several years ago, with an early chapter established in Glasgow by Jay Stringer and Russel McLean. It pops up here and there, sometimes linked (officially or otherwise) to a crime fiction festival, but the two longest-running regular events I know of are in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, hosted by Vic Watson, and Edinburgh, hosted by Jacky “Dr Noir” Collins.
In February I attended Newcastle and Edinburgh events, while we were still oblivious to the dangers of being in a crowded room. It’s very odd looking back at those two nights – we were all sitting close together, laughing and talking energetically; unthinkable now. But both Vic and Jacky (and those who help them make the magic happen, in particular author Simon Bewick and blogger extraordinaire Kelly Lacey) have done a great job in keeping the crime fiction love flowing while we’ve all been in lockdown.
Jacky tells me that Edinburgh is currently on a short hiatus but will return in August, probably as a monthly event interspersed with more one-on-one author interviews and book launches. Keep an eye on their social media channels for more information (they’re on Facebook and Twitter @NoirBarEdin).
Meanwhile, Newcastle continues weekly sessions under the VNatB banner. I spoke to Vic about how she and Simon have crossed the world without leaving home.
Let’s go back – when did Newcastle NATB get started, and how did you get involved?
It began on 1 June, 2016, so a little over four years ago. I’m not sure how we got onto it, but basically Jay Stringer and Graham Smith bullied me into it! Seriously though, I think I apologised to Graham for not getting to one he’d organised in Carlisle, and he said there’s plenty of talent in north-east England, enough to do a NATB in Newcastle, and I said “but who’ll present it?” and that was that. I’ve never been outgoing or considered myself a host at all, but it’s something I’ve got more comfortable with. I certainly couldn’t have envisaged doing a weekly online one in front of more than 100 people!
You’ve been online since April – how has it changed from the real life version?
We started off with the core of those who came to the live events, but each author brings their own fans, family, friends with them when they read, and some of those people stick around and return each week. Some people are drawn in by one name, and then stay for more when they see what it’s like. We’ve now got regulars tuning in from Europe, the US and New Zealand, despite the time difference, because while they could catch up via the archive, they like the interaction. It’s also built up in numbers, the last couple of weeks we’ve had about 110 people for the live event – it’s mind-boggling, in a lovely way! We’re at about 150 authors, from unsigned writers to big names like Ann Cleeves, Larence Block and Linwood Barclay, and will have had about 220 by the time we hit the end of August.
Much as we’d love it, you can’t go on indefinitely – what’s the plan?
The last weekly VNatB event will be on 26 August, and we’re going to discuss what happens after that. I’d definitely like to do virtual events between live ones, as the feedback has been positive. Some people are isolated regardless of what is going on outside in terms of Covid-19, and moving online has made it more accessible in many ways, not just geographically. We can fit a lot more people in the virtual bar, too! It’s unnerving not having the audience there, and making jokes into the void, but the audience encouragement through the chat box is a help.
What have you enjoyed about it? We saw your excitement at having Linwood Barclay – is there anyone else you’d love to have on?
There were a couple of people I’d love to have had that we asked but circumstances intervened and it didn’t happen, but we’ve had lots of great readings. Simon would love to have Stephen King! I’m looking forward to a few people coming up – we’re really lucky in who we have, as everyone is giving their time for free. We do a rehearsal, just to check the technical side, on a Sunday, and it’s become like Through The Keyhole – and there’s always a lot of “I love your bookshelves” in the chat each week! The afterparty is one of my favourite parts, it’s nice to see how authors have enjoyed other people reading. And the milling around in the chat, seeing people getting together, is lovely.
I’m grateful that Vic and Simon have given up their time week after week to keep the crime fiction community together and carry on introducing us to new authors – and of course there’s the short story anthology that they pulled together in a matter of weeks, thanks to the generosity of and help from the authors, editors and cover designer, with profits going to NHS charities (£1,100 and counting).
You can buy Noir From The Bar in paperback and ebook at That Big Online Shop and in paperback from indie Forum Books (the NHS gets the same amount either way). Check out VNatB on Facebook and Twitter @VNatB1 to sign up for the newsletter and join the online fun, and check out the archive of past events online here. See you in the chat box!