Thursday, August 25, 2016
A brief visit to Seattle
Eric Zorn asked if I've ever told this story on the blog, and I said no, I don't think I have. While it is probably much improved by being told in person, with me goggling my eyes and wildly gesticulating to emphasize the quivering horror of the thing, I will do my best to convey it here with all the brio at my disposal.
The subject is book signings, an odd ritual of authorhood occasionally remarked upon, usually to underscore the humiliation of sitting at a table in the back of a bookstore, puffing out your cheeks, watching strangers cast you indifferent glances as they hurry past to the cookbook section. Every writer goes through one of those.
I try not to worry about book signing disasters, since I've already had the worst signing humanly imaginable, at the old Barnes & Noble on Diversey. They put me in the coffee shop at the section of the store. My wife and a pair of our oldest friends had tagged along; the idea was to share in my glory, but they turned out to be unfortunate witnesses. Some harried clerk introduced me at a podium. The dozen or so folks sitting at tables, drinking coffees, busily cribbing from Foder's guidebooks they were too cheap to buy, swiveled their heads up in unison. I began to read. Their heads swiveled back down, again in unison. I soldiered gamely on, my voice both amplified and muted at the same time. Chairs scraped. People came and went. Old friends greeted each other, loudly. Sweat cascaded down my face. It was so awful I really don't have much of a memory beyond that. If my wife told me she sponged me up with a mop, a puddle of shame, and carried me home in a bucket, I couldn't contradict her with confidence.
That wasn't the incident Eric had in mind. Too bleak to make a good story.
I should point out, that I have had my share of successful signings. I don't want to paint myself as a sad sack. I once spoke at the Arizona Kidney Foundation's literary luncheon and, afterward, 247 people stood in line and bought a book. I remember the number distinctly and, if I ever get a tattoo, I think it would be "247."
But signings are a random thing, and success one day doesn't guarantee success the next. The Arizona triumph was for my "Failure" book, which was published by Doubleday, a big publishing house that, in the pre-Internet mid-1990s, would send authors around promoting their work. They arranged to send me to Seattle in October, 1995.
I wasn't sure if I should go at all. My wife was more than eight months pregnant. What if she had the baby early? We decided I was really only a few hours away—I would phone from the airport in Salt Lake City, where there was a layover, and if labor had started, I would turn around and immediately fly home.
As the event approached, another reality began to dawn on me. The signing was on Oct. 17, at an hour which also happened to be the middle of the sixth game of the American League Championship series at the Kingdome between the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians. Nobody but nobody was going to skip the ballgame and go to my signing. I was tempted to duck out myself, and go see my beloved Indians play. I grew up, remember, in Cleveland.
"You have to cancel this!" I begged the publicist.
That was impossible, she informed me, I was doing television—some forgettable midday news show on KOMO. I was doing radio. We had to fulfill our obligations. No canceling.
I flew out like a man condemned. Met at the airport by Chic, my handler, a man in his 50s. That is an actual job: squiring authors to publicity events, or was, I imagine it has melted away along with so much involving words. But at the time the publishing house not only sent you to cities to drum up publicity, but when you arrived there was a perky local fellow or gal to take you where you needed to go, chatting all the way about actual authors, authors other than yourself, that he has been privileged to meet. A sort of primitive Uber.
He took me to the Hotel Alexis, a small boutique hotel downtown. I repaired to the bar for a few quick Jack Daniels. The wonder isn't that some authors drink, but that they all don't. Then we were off to my signing.
I can still see the Borders in Tacoma, Washington as we approached, lit up like a cruise ship on a flat sea, the parking lot. A couple cars—staffers—and nothing. Lines on asphalt. We were met by a bookstore clerk who, at least in my green-tinged memory, was wringing his hands in embarrassment. He conveyed us to a back section of the store, where there were 30 chairs set up and a lectern and a metal pitcher of water.
I can see the chairs, empty but for the clerk, gamely holding down the first row. I can see the pitcher, the beads of condensation on it. The empty glass.
So what do you do in a situation like this? What is the graceful, charming way to redeem the situation? Pour a slug of water, crack open my book, glance around at the empty chairs and, with a brisk, welcoming nod, begin to read.
Eventually, a couple drifted by. In my memory they are a "hippie couple," a pair of moldy 1960s sorts with stringy hair, the sort of people who would be at Borders in the middle of the Mariners/Indians playoff game at the Kingdome. They perched tentatively on their chairs. So now I had an audience. I began to read with extra gusto. But something about their body language said they were poised to flee. Very quickly I stopped reading, closed the book, and addressed them directly.
"You're not going to buy this book, are you?" I said, breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps the lingering effects of those bourbons.
They looked at me, befuddled.
I reached into my jacket pocket, withdrew my wallet and removed a business card.
"Tell you what," I said, leaning over the podium, waving the business card in the air. "Take my card. Buy the book. If you don't like it, send the book back to me and I'll refund your money."
Still silence. They sat there, looking at me, perhaps wondering if they could make a break for the door with me in howling pursuit.
We looked at one another.
"Okay," I said, improvising. "How about this. Take my card. I'll go to the register with you and buy you the book, for you. Read it, and if you like it, send me a check."
That worked, not in that they let me buy them the book, but that it shamed them into buying it themselves. I observed from a respectable distance as they performed the transaction. They never asked for a refund.
Later that night, in the hotel bar, I discovered the Indians had won the pennant for the first time since 1954. I flew home the next day. Exactly one week later, my son was born.
The moral? As I tell young authors, if you don't care about your writing, then nobody will. Sometimes you fly to Seattle to sell one book. I've actually performed greater feats of desperate salesmanship than pressing a book on that couple. Once, in Washington, D.C., at another solitary signing, I convinced a bookstore clerk to buy the book. The idea of these trips is to move copies. They're hard enough when a publishing company underwrites your trip, but an even more queasy odyssey when you pay for them yourself—which is what I'm doing when I go to Cleveland, which sparked this whole book signing conversation in the first place.
What's another couple hundred bucks after nearly five years of work? People make the mistake of valuing their money but not their time, when it should be the other way around. The ash heap of those five years sits cooling behind me, the only tangible product, this new book in my hands. The trip, striking another match that might or—much more likely—might not set anything ablaze. Maybe there's some guy who's going to be browsing in that Barnes & Noble, someone who'll hear my voice, wander over, and his life will be changed. Could happen. But you never know, and if you don't try, well, you know how that works out. You know the butterfly effect: who knows what ripples of success will echo forth from that 1 p.m. signing at the Barnes & Noble in Crocker Park on Sept. 17? "It is," as I tell my boys, "called 'trying.'" Or put a better way.
"I will be conquered," Samuel Johnson once said. "I will not capitulate."