Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mortification

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?""

Amen, sister.

29 comments:

David Heinzmann said...

I've had no such experiences yet, but I'll share one a friend had.

A few years ago, Dan Barry, who's an extraordinarily talented New York Times columnist, made a bookstore appearance at the Barbara's in Oak Park to promote his memoir, Pull Me Up. I rallied as many friends as I could but it rained like hell all day and night, and fewer than ten people showed, mostly elderly folk.

When it came time for questions, a little old lady asked, "How did you decide to be funny?" Dan's a funny guy, but his book was about taking care of his mom as she was dying of cancer, and then getting cancer himself, at the age of 40, when he and his wife were just about to adopt a baby. Anyway, Dan looked at her and asked her to clarify. She said, "you're books are so funny, how do you do that?"

Finally he got it, and politely said, no, ma'am. My name is DAN Barry. Not DAVE Barry.

Oh, she said. Clearly disappointed.

Leslie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie S. Klinger said...

I did a book signing with Laurie R. King at the Poisoned Pen in Arizona and was thrilled to have a crowd of 80-90 people. The following year I went back on my own and had 5 people show up. This set me straight about my own audience! (Since then, I've made sure to appear with Laurie whenever possible!)

Henry Perez said...

Sure, I could've reached in my pocket, pulled out my wallet, and shown them an id. But that would've been too easy, too logical, and a lot less fun.

David Ellis said...

Laura, I hope your July 15 event at Webster Place was not an example for this blog ... I'll bet you packed 'em in. I, for one, can recall several instances of just a few people showing up. I tell myself it's all about the bookstore and it doesn't bother me. Because none of us writers have egos, right?

Laura Caldwell said...

Poor Dan Barry! That's tragically funny. Something tells me that's not the only time that's happened to him.

There was another piece in the book about how your mortification is increased if there is another writer to witness some awful public speaking event, but I disagree with that one. If another writer is in the audience, you feel like there's a person there who gets it, and hey, at least SOMEONE is there. It's even better to team up with another writer for signings because then you just don't care if something goes awry. It's just grist for the mill and it becomes funny. That's why I signed with Henry Perez the other night and why I'm signing with Theresa Schwegel and Megan Abbott on Saturday in L.A.(2:30 at Mystery Bookstore). Marcus and I had a blast a year or so ago when we took the show on the road together. We're getting something together for the end of the summer or September. Hey, Ellis, want to join us?

David Ellis said...

Maybe---let me know the dates you are thinking of. Closer I get to October 10, harder for me to leave (baby due date). Also vacation day issues (unlike you wise people, I am a state employee). But would love to do the group thing, yes yes.

Bart King said...

On a book appearance in Seattle, I had a scheduled appearance at a large chain bookstore downtown. I showed up early to set up and was struck by how quiet the store seemed.

My books are primarily intended for middle-school readers, so I was on mini-stage in the kids' area. There was one family present there, shyly watching me go about my business. When the appointed moment came, the family gravitated over, giving me an audience of three.

I swallowed my pride and strode to the edge of the mini-stage. After thanking them for coming, I asked them a few questions. It turned out they had never heard of me. It turned out that they apparently hoped I might be a magician.

I'm a little unclear on that last detail, in that no one in the family spoke English.

But they did quite cheerfully stay, perhaps sensing that I might do something rash if they left me.

Maree Kimberley said...

Not exactly a book promotion disaster but along those lines...a couple of years ago Stephen King was on holiday in Alice Springs in central Australia (quite a remote place). He popped into a local bookshop & began autographing some of his books. One of the sales assistants confronted Stephen about 'defacing' the books. Luckily, the bookstore manager recognised the author and intervened. Apparently the sales assistant even got to keep his job!

Sara Paretsky said...

These painful moments when no one cares about us...I was sent to a store in Lexington 2 years ago that ,my publishers told me had been dying for me to be there for years. I guess they died before I got there--they had ordered one box of 12 books for the event, and there were 5 people in the audience, including 2 who'd ridden the hotel elevator with me and wondered what an author reading was about. My husband has told me many times about Nobel Prize physicist Chandra Shekhar, driving round trip 140 miles twice a week to the Yerkes observatory to lecture to the three students who signed up for his class--so when I see a small audience, I think of Chandra and give them my best show.

Anonymous said...

One of the Goldberg boys tells a story about wandering into a Crown books in LA and finding a guy sitting at a table with a stack of books and another guy standing at his elbow and nobody else.

The guy standing was Elmore Leonard's publicist.

Picks By Pat said...

At my first appearance, five people showed up. I was a little disappointed...now I realize that it could have been much worse!

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