Take Him to His Readers: Booksellers Trade Paper for Film to Put Author on Tour

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

"This is an unusual author event for us," says the guy introducing novelist Ian McEwan to the couple dozen book lovers assembled at the Warehouse Theater -- and he's not kidding.

For the McEwan he's introducing is a virtual one. The celebrated British author of "Atonement" and "Saturday," who has just published a short novel called "On Chesil Beach," is nowhere near this funky venue on Seventh Street NW.

McEwan hasn't done a major tour for many years. The closest he's likely to get to reading in Washington this year will come courtesy of the experiment being presented at the Warehouse. It was dreamed up by the good folks at Powell's Books, the independent Portland, Ore., institution often called the best bookstore in the United States.

As with many bookstores, Powell's is heavily invested in author appearances to generate sales and -- even more important -- to build and maintain a community of readers. Yet many authors don't do full-fledged book tours, whether by choice or for lack of publisher support. And even if they did, they would hit only a tiny minority of communities.

So the idea arose: Why not make a high-grade film and build author events around that instead?

The lights go down, the credits roll, and heeeeere's Ian. He's mild-mannered, soft-spoken and as up close and personal as he could be without actually being there.

"They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night," McEwan reads. He has started with the first sentence of his latest novel. It introduces his major characters, Florence and Edward, who "lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible."

"On Chesil Beach" is set in 1962, its action occurring just before what the author -- in an interview included in the film -- calls the "breakdown of a whole range of social restrictions." But these changes hadn't happened yet, McEwan says, and it's as if Florence and Edward "stand on a kind of shore, a beach, a beachhead of change."

The film may be part of a beachhead of change in the way readers and authors connect. But if so, the group at the Warehouse isn't ready to storm it yet: They sit quietly, not reacting much, as the experiment proceeds.

Filming McEwan -- and eventually, it is hoped, a series of other authors -- was the brainstorm of Dave Weich, Powell's director of marketing and development. Weich recruited McEwan's American publisher, Doubleday, to help with costs. In April, he and director Douglas Biro flew to London and spent a day with the author. The filmmakers then spent a few more days interviewing editors, critics and writers about their subject and shooting the landscape in which his novel is set.

Over the next week, there will be 53 other American screenings of the film. Many will be in bookstores, but others, like this one -- which is being hosted by Olsson's Books and Records -- will be in offsite locations.

Olsson's has customized its event with three local novelists -- Keith Donohue, Thomas Mullen and Susan Coll -- who are to lead a discussion afterward, and with singer-songwriter Brendan Butler, who kicks off the evening with a short guitar-and-harmonica set.

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