Friday, September 29, 2006

Report from the Front Lines

Author, playwright and screenwriter Sally Nemeth took my Book Promotion 101 workshop in Los Angeles, her current hometown, this past January. She just returned from her first book tour, and offered to share her marvelous account of it here.

My Virgin Voyage into Book Tour Land
by Sally Nemeth

My book, The Heights, the Depths and Everything in Between, (Knopf), came out this past July. I had a great local launch party and signing here at Skylight Books in LA, and sold lots of books to my friends. And then what? OF COURSE my friends are going to buy my book. They're my FRIENDS. How do I get perfect strangers to do the same? Well, tour the damn thing, I guess. But where to begin?

Even though the book is set in Delaware, and that great small state will be next on the itinerary, my fabulous publicist, Paula Singer, and I had decided that we'd begin my book tour in Birmingham, Alabama, since it is a) where my family lives, so I can not only visit with them, but I can STAY with them; b) a smallish market, so getting press shouldn't be too difficult; c) a place where I have an existing relationship with schools so I can easily arrange school visits; and d) a destination to which I can use my boyfriend's frequent flier miles. So aside from the petsitter and the airport parking, the trip would be, miraculously, FREE.

I arrived in Birmingham on a Tuesday night after rising at 4AM to catch a 7AM flight. This is the problem with living in Los Angeles: unless you're flying WEST, to say, HAWAII (dream on), you're losing time, so a travel day east is a lost day. Paula had managed to get me an interview with the local NPR affiliate, WBHM, but the only time they could talk to me was at 8:30 AM Wednesday; so, sleep deprived and gravel voiced, I did my interview. I'm not sure what I said, but I'm sure it can be artfully edited. It hasn't aired yet, but will eventually on their arts magazine show, Tapestry. Tune in online, if you so desire. I make no promises as to my coherence.

By the way, the theory that since Birmingham is such a small market that press should be easy to get -- not true. Birmingham, for all its charms, has pretentions of being Atlanta, a cultural bastion and the de facto capital of the Deep South. Not that Birmingham doesn't have culture. It's got a decent symphony, good museums, a nationally recognized high school for the arts (and more on that later). But it ain't Atlanta. Still, the arts reporters couldn't have cared less, even with the home-town-girl-makes-good angle. My mother kept going on and on about how much press John Green -- fellow alum of my high school (though decades after me) and fellow YA writer -- got when HE was in Birmingham flogging his book. I had to point out to her that he SET his book in Birmingham. And then he won every award known to man. Enough said.

Anyway, after my WBHM interview and some down time, it was off to the Alabama School of Fine Arts to talk to the writing students and faculty there, about 100 folks in all. I had gone to ASFA for a blessed year in '74 when I first moved to Alabama, and it is a phenomenal school. Since that time, it has added a math and science wing, and those brainiac students win national awards with alarming regularity. I told the writing students about the old days at ASFA when we went to class in the semi-demolished dorm of a local college campus and were roundly despised by the college students, and the kids pored over my old '74-'75 annual, wisely supplied by my sister Carolyn -- a BIG hit. The clothes, the hair. They couldn't get enough of it.

I talked about my career as a writer, did a seventies trivia quiz (the book is set in the 70's, all trivia questions relate to the book, and I award correct answers with pencils, not found in any store), read from the book, and then opened it up for questions. It was a complete barrage. I hadn't expected it. Not only did they want to know about the writing of the book, and -- yup -- what the school was REALLY like in the 70's (even though they had photographic evidence), they also wanted to know about the writing life, and how I've managed to make a living at it for 15 years. I'm not even sure myself how I've managed, but I faked it good. They were great. Afterward, the owner of the Little Professor Bookstore in Homewood was there to sell books, and sold all of ONE. It seems the ASFA folks didn't tell the kids she'd be there, so none of them had a dime. But a faculty member bailed me out and bought a book so I didn't feel so very lost and lonely.

The next morning was Indian Springs School, my alma mater, and the campus immortalized in John Green's Printz Award-winning novel, Looking for Alaska. There, I spoke to the entire student body -- about 300 high schoolers. After an embarassing intro by my old English and drama teacher, Mr. Ellis, where he READ FROM ONE OF MY OLD PAPERS (God, do teachers save EVERYTHING?), I again talked, did the 70's trivia quiz (it goes over BIG every time), read and answered questions. This time, aside from wanting to know about the book and about my stint writing for "Law & Order," the kids wanted to know about -- yup - ISS back in the 70's. And, again, they were great. And THESE kids had credit cards. The woman from Little Professor was there again, and sold out two cases of books. I felt much better for her, after having schlepped the books to TWO event, that she sold 'em out.

That afternoon was my public signing at a local indie bookstore, Milestone Books, that was lovely, but the owner, Linda, a really wonderful woman, was a tad overworked and scattered. In fact, she had ENTIRELY FORGOTTEN I was doing a reading there until Paula -- who had booked the reading in July -- called her a week before to confirm. Oops. Still, she rallied, and sent out letters and e-mails to her teen reading group. Bless, her, she even got phone orders for the book and ended up having to reorder, since we sold her out of two cases as well. So, aside from family and friends, I did have some complete strangers there -- book lovin' teens -- who not only bought the book, but one of them read it THAT VERY NIGHT. And how do I know this?

Well, the next day, I visited my niece Lily and nephew Carter's middle school, and talked to the 100 or so students in their 7th grade "pod". Which I guess makes them pod people. But that same girl was there, and told me she'd devoured the book overnight -- probably reading under the covers, right? And haven't we all, when riveted to a book? I was totally flattered. The kids were amazing, through the talk, the trivia quiz and the reading. And then they asked incredibly insightful questions -- stunning from 7th graders. And I do know the level of 7th grade discourse. (In fact, Lily & Carter, who are cousins, have a movie posted right now on YouTube called "Things that Hurt Carter." Look it up if you want a good dose of 7th grade humor.) The leader of their pod, Mrs. Montgomery, was even surprised by the depth of their questions. Though there was no bookseller there, I did donate a copy to the school library and hand out book cards, so I'm sure I'll get a reader or two. Eventually.

I had a weekend with family -- nieces, nephews, sisters, parents, dogs, cats -- then on Monday I went to Atlanta to what is probably the best children's bookstore I've ever visited: Little Shop of Stories in Decatur. Amazing store. The manager, Terra McVoy, had her teen reading group read the book, so we sat on a sofa while the kids had some after-school ice cream from the lunch counter in the store, and I finally got to discuss the book with kids who had actually read it. It was wonderful. Prior to this, it had all been about introducing the book and getting people to buy it. Now I was talking with actual readers, and they had some interesting thing to say.

And here's what all kids want to know: Who am I in the book? And I have to tell them the truth: I'm every character. I have to be. If I can't get inside every character and inhabit them, they aren't real for me. So there's something of me in every character.

Before I left Atlanta, I signed some stock for Terra and we talked about the possibility of having me participate in next year's Decatur Book Festival, sponsored by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which would be great if it could happen. I returned to LA the next morning, tired, entirely out of book cards and pencils, and happy for the experience.

And what has it taught me, my Virgin Voyage in Book Tour Land? Next time, more lead time -- Paula and I are now working toward having me tour Delaware and Chicago, but are planning for the spring. It gives bookstores more time to hook into schools, a YA writer's bread and butter.

But the biggest thing it has taught me is that no matter how great the internet is and how many venues and avenues there are for getting yourself and your book out there via the ether, there is nothing like doing it face to face. Not only did I need to get really clear about my book and how to present it to a living, breathing audience of teens and 'tweens, but then their energy and enthusiasm sent me home with more enthusiasm and energy of my own. And that is the greatest gift of the traditional book tour.

There's no substitute for doing it LIVE.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

L'Shana Tovah

No High Holy Days services for me this year. I can't sit for long, nor without major squirming, due to continuing problems with my right arm. (More surgery may be in the offing.)

Still, I got into the New Year mood yesterday morning with the Rocky Mountain News, whose editor offered what may have been the first newspaper mention of Rosh Hashana in Colorado, along with a classic example of half-assed reporting. From the Rocky, Sept. 21, 1865 (all spellings are verbatim):
To day is some sort of holliday for the Jewish persuasion, unknown to us gentiles. Business houses kept by that class in town are closed from 'rosy morn 'till dewey eve.'"
Apparently someone of the Jewish persuasion paid a call to Geo. West, author of the above--or maybe to his boss, who I hope chewed him out for his laziness--because the next day this item ran in the Rocky (again verbatim):
Yesterday was the opening of the Jewish year 5626, and consequently was a gal-aday with our Jewish residents. Ten days thereafter comes the day of atonement, which is kept by fasting. This will account for the closing of the business houses of this class yesterday. We hope none of our readers will understand that any disrespect was meant toward our Israelite friends in our local of last evening.
In the afternoon I pondered things Jewish by finishing THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER, nicely warmed by Max who cuddled up with his head under my chin. Here's another quote for the ages:
He didn't know much about Judaism, but neither did most of the Jews in Hollywood, and half of them were married to Christians or called themselves Buddhist. He couldn't understand how the Jews could control Hollywood and know so little about themselves. He couldn't understand how the Jews could dominate entertainment when their sacred text told such incomplete stories. Homer made sense as a movie guy. Shakespeare made sense as a movie guy. Moses didn't make sense as a movie guy, because the Jewish stories didn't follow the plot arcs that make money.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Around & About

Your humble correspondent, Loveland Pass, Labor Day
As a New York newspaper reporter, Colorado native Damon Runyon (patron muse of the Denver Press Club) used to fill out expense receipts with the wonderfully vague phrase "around and about." I'm appropriating it to share random views of and musings on (mostly) my newly adopted home state.

Seen in South Park: the Dinky Dairy & Grill
Yes, South Park really does exist. However, it is nowhere near as picturesque as in the cartoon. In fact, from the road it is totally devoid of any picturesqueness at all, and appears to have been built on a gravel midden, with the center of town--or what passes for it--occupied by a giant gravel works.

Best strip mall
On Colorado Blvd. in Glendale, just south of Denver, there's a cluster of businesses: Damascus Syrian Restaurant (the best falafel, dolmas, hummos & baba ghanouj I've had anywhere), a Moroccan cafe, a Persian-Lebanese restaurant (grilled halloumi, yum!), a Middle Eastern market, a kebab joint, maybe another similar restaurant, and in the middle...Curl Up and Dye hair salon.

Darling Husband, the Boy Wonder and I nearly curled up and died laughing when we spied that. I told a group of DH's colleagues about it at a party last week, and one said that "Curl Up and Dye" was the name of a salon in the movie "Earth Girls Are Easy." And that he'd come up with that name and suggested it to the screenwriter (but no screen credit, alas). What a small world.

Hard knocks
Today's Denver Post has a feature about concussions, "NFL's Big-Bang Reality," which DH--who knows I don't read the sports section--considerately left at my place at the dining table before he went off to work. As I emailed him, this is good news! According to the article, many football players suffer concussions in the double digits. I've only had three--or is it four?-- so I have plenty more left in me. Of course, there's the little matter of remembering words (a necessary skill for writing, not to mention living), names, recent events and where I put stuff--like the camera that went missing for 3 months. Oh yeah, and there's the dizziness and horrible headache too. And I forgot about the sleepiness and depression till the article reminded me. OK, so maybe a poke in the eye with a sharp stick would be a better option now.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Coming Soon: More Drunkelogues (ZZZZ...)

Seems there's now a 13th Step. After hitting bottom, you hit the keyboard--if you're a white boy with glitterati cred, that is.

According to Choire Sicha in the NY Observer, this fall there are no less than four (count 'em: 4!) rehab memoirs hitting the bookshelves, all from youngish men with somewhat famous last names and/or connections. All that and the film of RUNNING WITH SCISSORS too.

I can hardly wait...NOT!

Tolstoy famously noted, "All happy families are alike." Here's what I discovered: So are all recovery stories. I came of age--and beyond--surrounded by drunks and drug addicts. Even married one, once upon a time. So I've been to countless Al-Anon meetings and a few AA meetings as well. And every wretched tale I've heard or read goes like this:
  1. Drunk falls into downward spiral of alcoholic excess, often losing home/job/friends/love of significant other(s).
  2. Drunk bottoms out, sometimes in a spectacular fashion, almost always in a sordid one.
  3. Drunk goes through painful drying-out process.
  4. Drunk rejoins society a new and better, if rather shaky, person.
  5. End of story, except for those poor souls who lather, rinse & repeat; sometimes more than once.
I wonder what these new authors bring to the table that we haven't seen before. Not much, I expect. None of them seems to have done anything particularly remarkable other than become sober--a grueling feat, but certainly not an unusual one. None of them has lived long enough to look back on their recovery through the perspective of aged wisdom; or even humility, as Sicha adroitly points out. These guys are only in their thirties. One of them says that he wrote his book because he has twins to put through college. Maybe he's off the sauce now, but he must be smoking something to think that he'll earn enough from this one book to pay for two kids' higher education (and you know he's thinking Ivy League, not Moo U), especially with three more like it coming out this season.

And another thing: Why are these recovery books all by men?

Way back when AA started, it was thought that women couldn't be alcoholics. We know better now. Are women on the crash-and-burn party circuit not writing tales of speedy redemption? I would hope they'd have the sense not to, but I suspect that for some reason (sexism?), more likely their stories are just not getting picked up for publication. Not that there's anything wrong with that: what goes on in those rooms should stay in those rooms, if only because it's so nauseatingly repetitious. I wish the boys felt the same way, or at least would wait till they had a complete 4th act--or even a 5th or 6th--to share with the world.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Quote for the Day

From THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER by Michael Tolkin (Grove Press):
What impelled life originally to hide the codes of life in flesh, and then divide that flesh into men and women, and then call them together for sex, and then drown them in car pools?

Being an Intellectual is Hard!

Marcel Proust would so get blasted on Miss Snark's Crapometer. She gave writers hell for opening their novels with back story and having nothing exciting happen in the first 500 words. I'm 60 pages into SWANN'S WAY, nothing has happened other than dinnertime conversation and the nameless narrator is still whingeing about getting a proper bedtime kiss from his overly beloved maman. I hope to dog there's going to be a plot soon, but I'm not holding my breath. There's something very meta-PoMo about my lying in bed every night, reading about some mamma's boy lying in bed every night.

My special challenges are to:
  1. manage to read over and around Max, who takes my picking up a book as a signal to park his 13-pound self on my chest;
  2. wade through Proust's endless, semi-colon and dash bespattered sentences without immediately falling asleep;
  3. stay so interested in the book that I won't forsake it for others.
And guess what? I've failed miserably at #2 and #3. In fact, so miserably that I was easily sidetracked by two newcomers that were given me, respectively, by their agent and publicist: RUMBLE ON THE BAYOU by Jana DeLeon, a (gasp!) mass market original; and THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER by Michael Tolkin.

Guess what else? I gobbled up RUMBLE in a day and a half and am now roaring through RETURN. Neither one has put me to sleep, even with Max's soporific purring on my chest. In fact, each has kept me awake--most happily, I might add.

So, to those who prefer to savor every soggy morsel of their tea-soaked madeleines, I wish you bonne chance. For now, I'm sticking to Cheez Doodles and California rolls.

P.S. Watched "Match Point" the other night, which I loved, but was struck by how similar it is to "The Player" (the movie anyway; I haven't read the book). So similar, in fact, that I guessed what the ending would be. I hate when that happens--and it didn't with RUMBLE ON THE BAYOU.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Monday Philosophy Club

Sometimes there's a payoff to doing nothing. In April I bought a packet of morning glory seeds, but never got to plant them because of my smash-up. All summer I lamented my barren, sun-blasted backyard, where much of the grass died from not being watered. Back in VA, our grass died from too much shade. I don't think I have an aptitude for turf.

Darling Husband has been too busy to attend to the back 40 (feet, not acres). Surprisingly, it's lush and green now--though with weeds and rampant ailanthus, which latter we had cut to the ground in spring. Where there was lawn, now are coarse, tallish plants topped with graceless seedheads. I was all for having them whacked till the other day I saw sparrows and finches perched on them, nibbling the seeds. Best of all, there are morning glories everywhere. Bright pink ones.

Just call me Chance the gardener.*

*I just moved "Being There" up my Netflix queue; loved the book too.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Road to Hell

Yesterday GalleyCat mentioned that MAKING COMICS author Scott McCloud is "taking his wife and two daughters along on a promotional junket that, spread out over the course of twelve months, will hit all fifty states and the United Kingdom to boot."

I love Darling Husband and the Boy Wonder to distraction, but I couldn't bear 12 days in a car with them; forget about 12 months. The feeling is mutual, they assured me. (DH noted that I wouldn't want to spend an entire year traveling, period. He may be right, but that's beside the point.) After just a few days of 24/7 family coziness at the beach, I'm craving some time alone.

I sent the McCloud info to an author friend who's a loving partner and devoted dad. He immediately shot back:
A YEAR-LONG driving book tour with wife & 2 daughters? Oh, dear God! Was he hoping to gather material for a true-crime book?
My sentiments exactly.

Similarly, the thought of home schooling gives me the heebie jeebies. I have friends who do it, one of them with four kids. I don't understand how they not only can bear it, but even enjoy it. Me, I'd be like the friend who was stuck home with the kids while her husband travelled on business for weeks on end. She mentally composed a newspaper headline: "Mother of 3 kills children, self." (She and husband are now retired and the kids all lived into adulthood.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Lost in the Stars

"September Song" always comes to my mind at this time of year. But with the anniversary of the WTC and Pentagon attacks two days ago and that of my beloved aunt's death today, along with all the carnage in the Middle East, Sudan and elsewhere, the above-captioned song resonates more with me.

I first heard it a few years ago on a "Saturday Night Live" show compilation, in an achingly beautiful performance by Madeline Kahn from 1976. Elvis Costello did a serviceable, though far less poignant, rendition in the documentary "September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill" that played on PBS some 10 years ago. I tore the house apart last night looking for the VHS tape I'd made off the air, but it's nowhere to be found. The soundtrack is now on CD (the Boy Wonder downloaded it from a secret location) and features performers ranging from Teresa Stratas to the Persuasions to Lou Reed--normally a favorite of mine, but he massacres Weill's haunting melody for "September Song" in an overlong solo.

Lost in the Stars

lyrics by Maxwell Anderson & Alan Paton
music by Kurt Weill

Before Lord God made the sea and the land
He held all the stars in the palm of his hand
And they ran through his fingers like grains of sand
And one little star fell alone

Then the Lord God hunted through the wild night air
For the little dark star in the wind down there
And he stated and promised he'd take special care
So it wouldn't get lost again

Now, man don't mind if the stars grow dim
And the clouds blow over and darken him
So long as the Lord God's watching over him
Keeping track how it all goes on

But I've been walking through the night and the day
Till my eyes get weary and my hair turns grey
And sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away
Forgetting the promise that we heard him say

And we're lost out here in the stars
Little stars, big stars
Blowing through the night

And we're lost out here in the stars
Little stars, big stars
Blowing through the night

And we're lost out here in the stars

Monday, September 11, 2006

Landmark Memories

My first and last glimpses of the World Trade Center towers were on television. While they were being built, we cursed them because they interfered with our reception. All through high school, I could see their uneven shadows growing up the TV screen in my parents' Westchester living room.

I always thought the towers ugly--two Saltine boxes grotesquely out of scale and style with the Gothic spires of lower Manhattan. But they were a landmark, twin beacons that slowly flashed on and off, on and off, all night. Standing on the fire escape of my tenement apartment in Little Italy, where I lived from 1978 to 1988, the towers were 45 degrees to the left; the Empire State 90 degrees right. They were the only compass I needed. One or the other--sometimes both--was usually visible during my frequent nighttime outings.

I worked in the towers several times as an office temp. The elevators went so high and so fast I had to keep yawning to make my ears pop. Once I took my stepbrother to the observation area. He was a daredevil skier and surfer, but so afraid of heights that he stayed a good two feet back from the windows. And once, I and the man I thought I'd love forever had drinks at Windows on the World while Manhattan twinkled below us in the velvet dark.

I started writing about my experiences on that bright and awful day five years ago, the last time I saw the towers standing in real time on TV. But I can't continue. The emotions are still too raw; the words to express them seem trite and banal.

Many people have made the pilgrimage to Ground Zero. I can't, though I've often stayed with a friend who lives just blocks away. She heard the first and saw the second plane crash. An air purifier runs constantly in her loft, filtering out toxins released in the wreckage. Nevertheless, she has developed a chronic cough.

I used to feel so free in New York. Twenty years ago, you could go everywhere, walk through the lobby of any office building. And there were plenty of lobbies worth seeing--elevator doors too--as I discovered during my temping days.

I took my son to the city two years ago, just before the Republican convention. We went down to Wall Street. I wanted to show him the fabulous Art Deco lobby of the Irving Trust building. No dice; only open to employees with ID badges. I thought it would be cool for him to see the Stock Exchange, where 25+ years ago I'd watched the frenzy on the trading floor in incredulous fascination. (And that had been a slow day, a trader told me.) There was a labyrinth of police barricades on the street in front of the Exchange, which was also open only to employees; the visitors' gallery had been closed for years. I stood there in the bright August sunshine, fighting back tears, my son watching me in befuddlement, a policeman with mild disdain. (I could almost hear him thinking, "Frickin' hayseed! Everyone knows you can't visit the Stock Exchange.")

I was crying for what we had lost on that day in 2001: our precious freedom, never to be regained.

Friday, September 08, 2006

My Life & Times

In case you can't get enough of me me me (and honestly, who can?), check out my interview at Bloggasm, in which I divulge my shocking lack of Proper Education* and the sordid origins of my writing career.

*though not my self-improvement course via Nabokov's Lectures on Literature

Homework Is a Bitch (and so am I)

There's a tang of fall in the air, school's back in session and...what's this? Teachers are assigning books to read and reports to write about them. What to do?

Ooh, I know! Google the book's title, and when your first click leads you to a book reviewer's web site, send said reviewer an email asking her to do your homework for you.

Only guess what? Some reviewers (e.g., yours truly) not only send a scathing reply but post the email exchange on a Blackboard of Shame. Read it and snigger...or cringe.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Must-See TV

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, the first known
man who was killed because of lousy ratings.

Two nights ago, Darling Husband, the Boy Wonder and I watched "Network." I hadn't seen it in at least 20 years, ditto DH; BW never. And you know what? It still holds up. In fact, it may be even more timely now than when it was first released 30 years ago. The main theme is eerily prescient: an upstart network's entertainment division takes over the money-losing news division, and an ambitious, amoral exec (Faye Dunaway) starts producing cheap, sensationalistic reality shows.

BW declared it one of the best films he's ever seen. I'm with him: "Network" really says something, thanks to the incomparable Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay. Yeah, it veers into preachiness towards the end, but so what.

Dunaway looks as though she stepped put of the pages of a current fashion magazine: stick-thin with shoulder-length hair, dressed in gorgeously draped silk blouses and pencil-slim skirts (though Today's Woman would wear a bra--or at least a camisole). The two male leads, Peter Finch and William Holden, look timeless too. The film only shows its age with the cars, shlumpy hairstyles and clothes of the secondary characters, and of course the quaint sounds of real telephone bells and clickety-clacking typewriters and teletypes.

The film is most famous for crackpot newscaster Howard Beale (Finch) raving, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore." (BW liked the line so much that he's using it in a project for his American Lit class.) But the most killingly funny scenes, which I'd entirely forgotten, were the ones in which a radical black communist--obviously modeled on Angela Davis--gets into a spit-flying rage over subsidiary rights and profit points with Dunaway and the dorky network suits. Money, as always, is the great corrupter.

In another prescient scene, Ned Beatty as the CEO of a shadowy conglomerate gives a tour-de-force speech on how in the future there will be no more USA or Germany or Japan, just companies like IBM and Exxon, which are going to fulfill all our needs and make everyone happy. We just have to give in and go along with them. BRRR!