A guy walks into a bookstore…
To quote somebody far more incisive than me, “Once your book comes out, the weirdness begins…”
Being of a certain age, of course, adds a whole other level of splendor to the experience. The oldest person ever to attend was an elderly homeless fellow in New York who came into a Barnes and Noble to get out of the rain and get down to some serious lice-removal. What follows are a few random observations from the kick-off of my own sub-big league book release.
When reading first person novels, some people wonder if the main character, or any of the characters, are thinly veiled portrayals of the author himself. What’s the deal?
Was it Moe Howard who, when confronted with criticism, would respond, “I resemble that remark?” Was it Fitzgerald who quipped, when asked about writing novels, “You kind of empty your head into a tin pan then open up a can of plot and mix that with a fifth of ‘Now what?’
ORIANA FALLACI LIVES
Right out of the gate, Becky Fritter, the Lansing-based interviewer for Palahniuk.com, wondered, “Why are all the women in this book oversexed?” (I’m paraphrasing, the interviewer was more eloquent.) To which, after a brief, defensive blurt about “the deviance of unreliable narrators” who “have their own point of view, which is not the author’s,” I can’t remember if I said “Jesus Christ, you’re right!” out loud or if I just thought it. Orianna Fallaci lives!
One of my favorite writers, Bruce Jay Friedman, once told me in an interview, “When you write a sentence that makes you squirm…keep going.” The same applies to interviews. The great ones are the ones that make you squirm. (Emails, by contrast, should not make you squirm. If there’s even a hint that you’re sending something that’s going to have you eating your arms the next day—hold off! Do not make demands at three in the morning. Even if they’re reasonable. You’ll look insane. Whoever comes up with a pill for Cyber-Turrette’s and sells it Glaxco will be set for life. But I was talking about something else.)
THE HEARTBREAK OF MDS
There is something about this process that recalls earlier bouts of MDS, Memoir Disease Syndrome, which kicks in the year or two immediately after publishing a memoir, when you think that, because you have published a book about yourself, your thoughts are automatically interesting. Something like this could go a long way toward proving that they’re not.
A BRIEF WORD ABOUT SELF-EXPOSURE
I am not one of those people who was born to blog.
While I can—and have—slapped all manner of personal and professional weirdness between the covers of books, I have not been the most prodigious of blog-meisters. Sometimes, in the wee hours, I bolt upright in a tide of sweat and beat my head off the bedstand and wonder out loud, WHY CAN’T I BLOG?WHY DO I FIND IT INCOMPREHENSIBLE THAT COMPLETE STRANGERS WOULD FIND THE MUNDANE DETAILS OF MY EXISTENCE—OR MY EVERY PITHY OBSERVATION—EVEN REMOTELY INTERESTING? Why can I not believe that this won’t come out boring, self-indulgent, or lame-ass? What the fuck is wrong with me?
Well, these are the eternal questions.
There was a young fellow with Down Syndrome in the audience at a recent reading. We chatted, and he seemed like a lovely guy. Which—I’m not going to lie to you—made it a bit of a squirm-fest when I came to a passage from my book where Joseph Mengele, who plays a central role in the story, launches into a sidebar about the special uses to which certain members of the mentally-challenged community can make to his personal causes. “America’s enemy, al-Qaeda,” he says, “sends Down Syndrome victims into the market with remote-controlled bombs on their backs. This is genius! Why kill the unfit when you could use them as weapons! That is true ecology!”
My thinking, as I’m standing there is ‘you wrote it, you own it.” But still… I felt a damp little moment of trepidation. Even if, in a book, what you are doing is repeating the insane and offensive and indefensible rants of a real person, does just repeating them, by default, represent the novelistic equivalent of borderline personality disorder? Maybe not. Joseph Mengele and his ilk (many of whom were American) did say such these things. Many people in America agreed with them. And to not say the unsayably offensive, now, means censoring—out of good taste or fear—actual examples of things people were saying—and believing, then. If that makes any sense.
Just to put the icing on the cake, so to speak, my new friend passed gas loudly and—by the expression of those book fans in his immediate vicinity—pungently in the middle of the reading. Which, you know, happens. (I may have been told, by an eminent historian who left it out of his book, that Teddy Roosevelt was a huge fan of Frenchman Joseph Pugol—akak le Petomane, the legendary “fartiste”—the highest paid performer on the Euro stage of his era.)
Sadly, Emily Post has no entry on the subject of bookstore flatulence. Which left me with a kind of curdled smile on my face, nodding along when the young fellow showed his approval of my literary efforts with an impromptu pants-recital. The truth is, I’ve had worse reactions.
When things really go south, a reading can start to sound like a call-in radio show, at four in the morning, in a county where there’s just been a toxic train derailment.
I do not know if there is an Author’s Clearinghouse to which writers can turn when confronted with unanticipated queries or extra-intriguing audience behavior. But maybe there should be.
Last Saturday, at a book party, I was cornered by a lady whose Web site was called either “Smarm” or “Snarf,” or maybe “Smarmalicious,” I could never quite tell. The point is, she was nice enough to whip out her tape recorder and Radio Shack an on-the-spot Q&A. Prob was, whatever book she’d read was clearly not mine, and when she asked the first question—“So how prevalent is bestiality in the Bureau of Land Management?”—I wasn’t sure whether to correct her or roll with it, so I rolled.