One of my favorite books of all time is an anthology called Mortification: Writer's Stories of Their Public Shame. In it, authors like Margaret Atwood, Carl Hiaasen, Chuck Palahniuk and Michal Ondaatje tell stories about their most humiliating public speaking engagements. In one, Rick Moody looks around at those gathered for his book reading and realizes there was only one attendee who "hadn't expelled me from her uterus." In another, John Banville was approached by a potential customer in Miami who said, "I'm not going to buy a book, but you looked so lonely there, I thought I'd come and talk to you."
One of my own most humiliating moments was during the promotion for my first novel, Burning The Map. My publisher called, asking if I would make a "big appearance" at the opening of a super store in South Bend, Indiana. The store was on the campus of Notre Dame, which, they said, would tap right into my college age demographic for the book. There would be "massive PR" around the opening, I was told. I agreed and on the appropriate Saturday drove off to South Bend, where I found not a super store, but rather simply a grocery store. My big appearance took place at a card table in the frozen produce section. I sat there, shivering, near a large stack of my untouched books. Thankfully, I was approached by a woman writing sci-fi romance. Her book was forty pages long, she said, and she was ready to publish it. I counseled her for about an hour on the publishing business and then she left without buying a thing. The manager took pity and bought ten books for me to hand out, but no one wanted them, they just wanted directions to the chicken nuggets. Finally, still trying to make me feel better, the manager showed me the "massive PR" which consisted of a tiny photo of me in the coupon newsletter, right below an ad for .25 cent green beans.
Last night, I told this story to new author Henry Perez (henryperezbooks.com) when we signed together here in Chicago. I assumed Henry wouldn't have any such stories yet to contribute, but I was wrong. Henry stopped in a book store and proudly told the clerks he was there to sign his books. But they didn't believe he was the author, no matter what he told them. Finally, he was forced to show them his author photo, which still didn't convince them. In the photo, he's leaning on a railing over a river and looking over his shoulder. Determined to prove his authorship, Henry turned around, leaned forward and looked over his shoulder at them (a stern expression on his face), acting out the authorial pose until they grudgingly allowed him to sign a few of his own books.
One author in Mortification, Deborah Moggach, posits that writers actually feed off mortification. "We can use it in our work," she says, "just as we use everything else. And we know, deep down, that we deserve it. Every writer I know is waiting for the tap on the shoulder and the voice that says: "So you really thought you could get away with it?""