Travelers passing through Heathrow Airport in London this week may be surprised to encounter, in the middle of its bustling Terminal 5, the writer Alain de Botton, author of popular books including How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Art of Travel, seated at a desk and tapping away at his laptop computer.
His typing appears in real time on a screen behind him, and a placard explains — in what apparently is both a literary and aeronautic first — that de Botton is serving a one-week appointment as Heathrow’s “writer in residence.”
De Botton, who is bunking at the adjacent Sofitel London Heathrow, will stray from his desk to interview passengers, baggage handlers, airline executives and more. Afterward, he will return home to turn his airport reporting into a short book, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, to be published by the British publisher Profile Books next month.
On Sept. 21, the book, which will include photographs by Richard Baker, will be distributed free to 10,000 Heathrow travelers, and then be available for sale through Amazon’s British Web site and traditional bookstores for £8.99 (US$15). The author retains the rights to the book and —on all but those 10,000 free copies — will earn royalties from it.
The stunt is the brainchild of Heathrow’s public relations agency, Mischief of London, which might make creative-control purists wince. But de Botton said in a telephone interview that while Heathrow was paying him the equivalent of a book advance (he declined to reveal the amount) and paying for his hotel and meals, he was autonomous.
“Right from the start I said I can only do this if you don’t even see the text before it goes to print,” de Botton said of his negotiations with Heathrow. “I said: ‘If I find a cockroach in the restaurant, if someone drops dead at the airport, I’m going to write about it and send it to the publisher.’ They just took a big gulp and then to their credit they said: ‘Fine, yes, you can say anything you want.’”
For Heathrow, that may sound like Russian roulette, but Dan Glover, a creative director at Mischief, said in a telephone interview: “If we funded a brochure that said how wonderful the airport was, people would switch off because they’d think they’re being marketed to.”
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