People assume that the hard part about writing books is the writing part. And there is a certain challenge there. But having written, gee, eight books now, with the ninth on the way, I can tell you that writing books is difficult in the same way that dieting is difficult: it isn't any one moment that's especially challenging, but doing what you need to do to accomplish the task, day in and day out, and persisting even when results seem slow in coming.
No, the hardest aspect of "writing books," is not the writing part, but the books part, when the tangible object is published. The new book comes into physical being, and then you have about two minutes to make something happen, to generate buzz and heat and interest during the brief window when the book lingers in stores -- what stores are left — and at the top of web sites, before your book, your baby, your joy and heartbreak, sinks into the slurry of forgotten tomes, never to be seen again.
It engenders a certain sense of, well, panic. The moment is now. You've done all this work. You love the result. The clock is ticking.
A nightmare really. I used to say that having a book published is like having your children kidnapped and held for ransom at bookstores. They're tied to a chair, whimpering into their gags, struggling against the ropes, waiting for you to do something. You can, diabolically, see them. But you can't rescue them, not by yourself. Someone has to help you. Now. Under these circumstances the slowness of friends to react can be maddening. "What, your book?"they drawl, scratching, stretching, as if they had forgotten. "Oh yeah, man. that's right, I umm, meant to, ah, slide over to the Book Hutt and get it, but these old egg cartons needed to be painted..." and you just want to grab the person by the shoulders and shake them, then draw their face close to yours and shriek, "Buy my book, buy my book ... or, or, or... I'm going to kill you right now."
Thus I traipse off to book signings, buy books I have no interest in, and in fact will never read, and can't get rid of, because they're signed to me. I remember, years ago, walking down Wabash Avenue to the old Kroch's & Brentano's book store, where Roger Ebert was signing his novel, The Phantom's Mask. The co-worker I had dragged along, to boost the show of support, quizzed me: Why were we doing this? Roger was already rich, already famous. Lots of people would be there. He didn't need us.
That's not the point, I replied. Friends buy friends' books. It's a moral duty. They're splashing around in the lake, drowning, dying. You've got the rope. Throw them the rope.
And because I'm a newspaper columnist, that adds an additional level of responsibility. Friends also promote friends' books, or try to. They at least look at them. Thus I found myself, with a bit of gee-I-hope-no-one-is-watching-me apprehension, sitting on the Metra 5:12, opening Carol Weston's new novel, Ava and Pip (Sourcebooks: $15.99). The novel is intended for junior high school girls, which kinda puts me out of its target demographic. No matter. I have known Carol for 32 years, since I walked into her lilac-colored farmhouse on North Ashbury Street in Evanston and rented a room to live in during my senior year at Northwestern — and what a glorious senior year it was, full of sophistication and fun, thanks to Carol and her husband, the playwright Robert Ackerman. Champagne brunches. Dinner parties. Drama.
Opening the book's package, shrugging and sliding it on the shelf, unread, was just not something I was willing to do.
"DEAR NEW DIARY," the book begins. "You won't believe what I just found out."
What follows is a witty, warm, wonderful story about Ava, a smart 5th grader in a family addicted, as families sometimes are, to puns and wordplay and palindromes—words and phrases spelled the same way, backward and forward, such as the first man's introduction to the first woman in the Garden of Eden: "Madam I'm Adam."
I might have opened the book due to the obligations of friendship, but I kept reading on the book's own merits. I was drawn into Ava's world, her problematic older sister, Pip—why ARE older sisters always such trouble? Her well-intentioned dad, her too-busy mom. Especially her voice, her mind, the way Ava puts things. Here's her description of a boy new to school: "He has as many freckles as Pip and is the kind of boy who's cute if you're the kind of girl who notices. Which I'm not." I love those last three words; the girl doth protest too much, methinks.
Reading a friend's book is obligatory—finishing is not. Books get started and set aside; I don't write about them all. I can't. I know a lot of writers and, besides, my internal value system is such that, if a book disappoints, I can't stand on a chair and sing its praises insincerely. That doesn't do anybody any favors. I remember my late pal, Jeff Zaslow, gingerly inquiring about The Girls From Ames. I had written about his previous books, but not that one. A silence. "Too many girls from Ames," I finally confessed, as kindly as I could. "I couldn't tell them apart." He seemed to understand.
So while I started the book out of one kind of duty, I finished it out of another—it's a good book, with real characters and a compelling story. I had to finish it. As with all good books, I was both eager to find out, and reluctant to have it over, noting with sorrow the dwindling pages. Maybe I don't read enough novels — the last one I read was The Circle by Dave Eggers. But I was charmed to spend time with the 5th grader created by Carol—the advice columnist at Girl's Life for 20 years, she knows of what she speaks—as Ava navigates her world of slumber parties and mean girls and a library writing contest she enters with a tale ... well, I don't want to give too much away.
Lest my judgment be too constricted by the cords of friendship, whenever I write about a friend's book, I require myself to dig up a criticism, and with Ava and Pip, that is easily done: I thought things worked out perhaps a little too well, a little too neatly. Not to reveal the ending, but let's just say Ava isn't left weeping on her bedspread, neglected by her mother, nor do we see older sister Pip muscled into a straight jacket and dragged off to a mental hospital, writhing and screaming like Frances Farmer. Everybody turns out to be really nice, even supposed mean girl Bea. My impressions of family and school life and life in general are a bit more fraught and unresolved than what Carol presents, so if you are looking for Death of a Salesman, this ain't it. But few 5th grade girls are, I imagine, and I am sincere in that, in the flaw department, that was about all I could come up with.
Being a writer, I found the palindromes like little gifts, scattered throughout the book, and rather than puzzle you with a mysterious location today—which keep getting solved before I wake up on Saturday—I thought I'd share three examples from the book, represented by these three pictures. Had I been able to find a photo of some very old cats, I'd have gone with "Senile felines"— I think that was my favorite— but I couldn't, so I offer up these three. Your only hint: the guy in the white suit is Teddy Roosevelt. Figure them out—remember, your answer will be spelled the same, backward or forward—post the answers below, and the first one who gets all three correct will receive one of my blog's limited edition, hand-set, signed and numbered posters, which are going fast. Good luck.