05.10.10 | Graeme Neill
I never thought I would be at a publishing event where the police get involved. However, last night's launch of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, when the increasingly unfortunate author had his glasses stolen from his face, was one of the most bizarre evenings I have spent as a book trade hack.
It had started innocuously enough with guests milling around the Serpentine Gallery, where the red-curtained walls put me in mind of "Twin Peaks". Both HC c.e.o. Victoria Barnsley and 4th Estate publishing director Nicholas Pearson were hugely apologetic about the typesetting debacle of last week, leading them to reprint Freedom, and effusive about the quality of the novel, with Barnsley already hailing it as "the novel of the decade".
Franzen was largely gracious although I felt him saying "[the mistake] was a big deal" was rather pointed. But he was happy to move on, "let's talk no more of it", as he said.
So far, so book trade. Then I noticed a murmur of discontent among HC staff. I ended up beside Press Books m.d. John Bond, who was clutching what I later learned was a ransom note. After learning of the still hard to believe events—two men gatecrash the party, claiming to work for Puffin, one snatches the glasses from Franzen's face and scarpers, the other leaves behind a ransom note before fleeing—I did what any hack would do. I leapt on Twitter. I wasn't the only one. GQ's extremely quick coverage was highly entertaining.
When the thieves first fled the scene, one of HarperCollins' sales team, who modestly now wishes to protect his identity, charged in pursuit, and so he was on the scene when one of the thieves was found hiding in the bushes of Kensington Gardens. The miscreant yelled at the salesperson that he was a better writer than Franzen to which the HC man shot back: "no you're not, you're a fucking dickhead". Short, and to the point.
However, the glasses have since been returned to Franzen and he has decided not to press charges. The news quickly spread around the party with the mood ranging from anger (among HC staff initially), disbelief and amusement. Things got weirder still when I heard a helicopter overhead. It took repeatedly serious assertions from Victoria Barnsley for me to believe a police helicopter had been called out to search for the thieves. That, I suppose, is the price of Freedom.