New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Raleigh, Dallas… I’m on a book tour in Donald Trump’s USA, which feels much like the USA I’ve visited many times before. The tour doesn’t go to any of the so-called ‘rust belt’ cities where Trump has his main support and the people I meet are quietly shocked, apologetic — as if their President is an elderly relative who has displayed horrible manners at the table. Washington is such a handsome, classical city, with its free museums and wonderful collections of art, that I feel a stab of pain as I drive past the White House and think about the man inside. A single protestor stands silently, at attention, outside the Lincoln memorial with a placard that concludes: ‘It’s time to end this national disgrace.’ My first thought is that he must be mad to be there all day. My second is that he’s completely sane. Almost everyone who passes mutters words of encouragement.
I have a little time to pop into the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and look at all the presidents on the second floor. It’s strange and again disconcerting to think that Trump will one day sit among them. Who will paint him and in what style? Surrealism springs to mind. In fact, I’m tempted to say that every president gets the portrait he deserves. Bill Clinton gets a brash, lurid representation by Chuck Close. Jimmy Carter looks hesitant, lost in his surroundings. But my theory comes crashing down to the ground when I see a tremendously flattering, respectful portrait by Norman Rockwell painted in 1968. The subject is Richard Nixon.
I once met Harvey Weinstein. Dread words! But he’s the other national disgrace that’s following me on tour as I’m here promoting Alex Rider. As it happens he was the producer of Stormbreaker, back in 2006. He’s also the main reason why there have been no more Alex Rider movies since. I still have nightmares about my breakfast with Harvey at the Mandarin Oriental in London, of being magnetised by him in all the wrong ways. An astonishingly ugly man, he arrived in a tight-fitting grey polo shirt with a lit cigarette poking out of his mouth (it was legal to smoke indoors then, though odd so early in the morning). As he sat down, a length of ash fell and landed on his man-boobs where it remained for the entire meeting. I was hypnotised. I couldn’t concentrate on a word he was saying. All I wanted to do was to flick it off. My finger is twitching even now.
So much has been written about his assaults on women and of course my own experiences have no comparison, but I hope one day that the argument will move on to his business practices, which were, to say the least, destructive. The old beast is still litigious so let me put it in his own brother’s words. ‘He was a bully… he was arrogant… he treated people like shit all the time.’ Despite all his promises, he also failed to release Stormbreaker in the USA, effectively killing it. By coincidence, there’s a shabby TV producer called Harley Weinberg in a later Alex book. He’s last seen rolling around in a puddle. On fire. Childish, I know, but what else could I do?
While I’ve been out here, UK newspapers have been asking me to comment on the number of children’s books being written by celebrities, particularly as so many of them were chosen for World Book Day. I’ve declined because it seems to me that we spend so much time worrying that children don’t read at all it’s rather perverse to complain when they find something they enjoy. It’s true David Walliams now tops the bestseller lists and is said to have made £17 million out of his books, but much bigger news is Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust, which only shows that the industry is still a very broad church. The fact that a writer as profound and as challenging as Pullman can still attract so much attention within it is very reassuring.
I do my best to keep out of the papers these days, although without much success. Journalists now follow writers to literary festivals and then report — or misreport — what they have said as news. This can include off-the-cuff remarks, rhetorical questions and jokes. A Times journalist recently came to Edinburgh and cheerfully reported I had told an audience of about 500 that theatre critics should not be given free tickets to first nights. In fact, I had said — and believe — the opposite. It’s irritating because part of the pleasure of literary festivals is being able to talk in a relaxed, informal way. Is it becoming necessary to introduce Chatham House-style rules?
Once I’m back in London, I’ll be head down, working on my new James Bond novel. It’s incredible to think that Ian Fleming worked only about four hours a day. Casino Royale was written from start to finish in just six weeks. Part of Fleming’s genius is that he makes the books look so easy. They aren’t.
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