The Reading That Was
On a recent trip to my husband's native South Africa, my Lorraine, mother-in-law (who lives in Johannesburg), offered to set up a few book readings for me. One of the events was at a ritzy wine café where Lorraine bribed thirty friends with free wine and hors d'oeuvres to come and listen to her American daughter-in-law read from her novel. The scheme worked. We let the guests drink for an hour, I read for twenty minutes, the drunker people bought my book, and we carried on drinking for about four more hours.
The Reading That Wasn't
The other reading was arranged with Lorraine's dear Auntie Athley, who lived in a retirement community about 45 minutes outside of Joburg. I was to attend the weekly gathering of Auntie Ath and the other women from the community and peddle my novel, THE LIFE PLAN, which is about a 29-year-old drinking her way through Thailand as she deals with her crumbling marriage. Oh, and there's jungle sex too with a hot English bloke. Seemed like a good match. We were to arrive between 3 and 5 pm, and--this was the important part--bring two cakes. Unfortunately, a late doctor's appointment, rush-hour traffic, and a sudden thunderstorm brought us to the retirement village just at 5. Although I'd optimistically packed a stack of books, I only brought one book in so as not to get the others wet. Rowan could run back to the car and retrieve the books once I'd wowed the women with my reading.
I entered the room sopping wet to meet the gaze of 15 grandmothers obediently sitting a long table. Some were knitting. Auntie Ath informed us the women had stayed at little later because they didn't want to go out in the thunderstorm. After she introduced me and Rowan, one of the women asked--so you wrote an article or something? Before I could answer, the woman, along with the others, abandoned me for the cakes Rowan brought in. Auntie Ath put the kettle on for tea and instant coffee while another woman cut generous portions of the cake and placed them on china plates. One woman told me how she'd escaped boring Britain and become a nurse traveling the world. Another discussed the beauty of South Africa. Another wrapped her cake in a napkin, saying she was saving it for dessert that night. And then they were gone. At one point my novel was passed around the table like some strange artifact from an unknown world. But as soon as the cake and the rain disappeared, so did the ladies--after all, at their age, their Life Plans were working just fine.
The Reading That Should Have Been
A few days later, I was in a truck with 12 other tourists from Australia, Canada, and South Africa beginning our incredible two-week trip through South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia, when I had an "aha moment." Most of the tourists were reading books, we would be in the truck 4-8 hours every day, and these tourists were the demographic group for my novel. Did I have any copies of my book with me? Of course not, I was on vacation, damn it, and I wasn't going to pimp myself another day. A rookie mistake, for I've since realized that a writer with a book is a pimp 24/7. An author carries copies for just that kind of moment--a captive audience, with cash, and desperate for reading material. Every night around the campfire I could have read another chapter, who no doubt would have been begging for more. And I should have also had copies to leave at every lodge we stayed at--after all how many writers can say their novel is being read in Zambia?
Sybil Baker's novel THE LIFE PLAN was published by Casperian Books in March 2009. You can read more about her at her website at www.sybilbaker.com
Posted by Robin Hemley on June 15, 2009 8:35 AM
I did a signing at a bookstore in Manhattan (I want to say Benedettos or Bennitons or Brentonios or something like that --- I think it's out of business now) when I was nominated for an Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America for a book I wrote called "Scarface," a YA about a kid who finds Al Capone's treasure. I was there with a large group of fellow nominees including luminaries like Elmore Leonard and Laurence Shames and Carl Hiassen, and felt more than a little flattered to be in the same room with those guys. I wasn't expecting anything like an equal amount of attention. In fact, more people stopped at my table than any other, because I was stationed on the landing by the top of the staircase, where several dozen people asked me where the bathroom was. Not one asked me about my book.
I did another signing in a cavernous exhibition hall at a place called The Big E, in Springfield, MA, which was home to what might be described as the western Massachusetts state fair. The room was full of booths with people selling lawn care services and Florida time-shares. Across the aisle from me was a man with a very loud microphone, selling miracle no-stick cookware. I almost bought a set --- he was very convincing. The woman who'd prepared my display (a professional author-escort --- I didn't know there was such a profession) had ripped the cover off one of my books and scotch-taped it to a piece of poster-board, upon which she'd written with a red Sharpie, "Author Signing." She didn't even form the scotch tape into concealed loops to stick to the back of the cover --- she just plastered a piece of tape across each of the four corners. For a while, she hung out with me and told me how she cuts up half a year's worth of onions and green peppers at a time and puts it all in her freezer because it's cheaper that way and why the hell not? More often, she left me alone a lot because she smoked three packs of Benson and Hedges cigarettes daily and needed to step outside for frequent "ciggie-breaks." She had a gravel voice and sounded a bit like Tom Waits or Louis Armstrong. Mostly I sat there, alone, and people would come up to my table, pick the book up, glance at the cover, make sounds of disgust and toss the book onto the table like they were throwing away a used Kleenex --- I don't think they realized I was the author. I did this for six hours.
I heard a story once the some university invited Stanley Elkin to come give a reading, but showed him very little respect or hospitality. Ultimately, after a lame post-reading reception at a dorm lounge, some young college girl dropped him off at his hotel and told him he could order dinner from room service if he was hungry and charge it to the university. According to the story, Elkin was so annoyed that he ordered dinner for 200 people and flushed it all down the toilet. I wouldn't do that, but I get it.
Pete Nelson writes books and magazine articles and lives in Westchester, NY, with his wife and son. For more info, go to: http://members.authorsguild.net/ipetenelson/
Posted by Robin Hemley on June 13, 2009 1:08 AM
Here's a painfully funny book tour disaster story from Barrie Jean Borich:
By the time I arrived in Bellingham in the fall of 2000, touring My Lesbian Husband, I thought my experiences plugging the book in the Midwest and California had prepared me for anything. I'd been one of two authors in a Bay Area feminist bookstore reading to an audience of one, while seated at a round table (were we expected to reach consensus?) as bored collective members washed dishes and filed endless stacks of index cards; I was impressed by the pre-reading crowd gathering in an Ohio store, until I realized they were the local lesbian roller skating club, rendezvousing before their weekly outing; I'd kept my cool while the guy in another Ohio store noisily flipped pages of a gay entertainment magazine, then interrupted my reading to ask visitor's bureau information questions about the Minneapolis setting of my material.
By comparison the Pacific Northwest junket was going well. I was spending the last of a grant to team up with another writer to tour the now vanishing GLBT and women's bookstore circuit. My travel companion lived in Vancouver and her home crowd was so welcoming I didn't mind that the airline had misplaced my luggage, forcing me to read that first night in rumpled plane clothes. Attendance in Seattle was light, but Portland, where the feminist bookstore had a loyal clientele, was better. Our finale in Bellingham was to be an afternoon event in a little GLBT store called Rainbow something.
We drove up the coast after spending the night in side-by-side Howard Johnson's rooms. Considering our tiny budget we should have doubled-up; that we did not speaks to the tensions of a driving tour undertaken by two strangers. We two didn't have much in common aside from lesbianism, me a literary essayist and she the author of popular fiction and editor of erotica anthologies. We both had long-time beloveds at home and I can't say there was any particular spark between us. Yet those hours we spent in the car, the repeated shared act of gearing up for performance, and that we both, judging by the looks of our current lovers, vaguely resembled the sort of woman the other might hook up with, had we been single-- she a suit-jacket-and-tie sort of woman, me a girlier opposite-- added to our off-synch intimacy.
An hour before reaching Bellingham we shared the curious closeness of changing our clothes in a moving car, and for the rest of the trip rehearsed, prepping what was to be our crescendo. By the time we got to Bellingham we could have passed as old show-biz marrieds.
We pulled into town assuming we'd be able to find the bookstore easily. The stores and bars flying the queer rainbow flag in any locale tend to be off Main street, but Bellingham is not that big. We had the address, found the block. We circled. Where was the store? We circled again. The teenage clerk in the video shop said "Oh man that place closed months ago," but he couldn't be right. We'd hired a publicist who'd promised us this gig was verified, advertised. When we called the store the recorded voice was chipper. The first message I left was equally cheerful--we're here, we're ready, now where are you located? As we circled the block a few more times I kept calling, my messages increasingly tight, sharp, the last conveyed in the pitch that gets movie stars in trouble on celebrity gossip TV.
Our last time around the block I looked harder at a funny angled turn I'd mistaken for an alley, a shadow street I can't find on a map today. A few strides in I found what we sought, and I can see the moment still. The clean plate glass of the shop. The wide and slightly dusty expanse of empty shelves and bare walls. A little transparent rainbow flag sticker in the corner of the glass door the only evidence of what had existed here. The two writers, momentarily mated, dressed for company, hands shading our eyes, peering in, wondering if this was what the rest of our literary lives had in store.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), winner of an American Library Association GLBT Nonfiction Book Award, and Restoring the Color of Roses (Firebrand), a memoir set in the Calumet Region of Chicago. She has essays forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review and Seattle Review and her work has been listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and received Special Mention in the annual Pushcart Prize anthology. She is the nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review and an assistant professor in the MFA program at Hamline University's Graduate School of Liberal Studies in St. Paul Minnesota.
Posted by Robin Hemley on June 6, 2009 10:14 AM