My new novel, Late One Night, has been out now for nearly three weeks, and I’ve been doing a few readings, and have some more to come. It’s got me thinking about this thing we writers do in order to drum up interest in our books, this selling, if you will. We sell online, we sell in person, we sell in blogs like this. Normally, it isn’t our natural inclination to sell, but sell we must. We do whatever we can to get someone to pay attention to us and our books, and in that way we become needy children, waving our hands in the air, jumping up and down, shouting, “Me, me, look at me.” The whole enterprise of selling myself and a book I spent countless hours alone in a room writing is often distasteful—a necessary evil.
Don’t get me wrong; I love to give readings. I love to talk to readers. I love to see old friends. I love to meet new ones. Still, over the years there have been a number of painful moments from appearances, moments that have reminded me how oddly a writer’s efforts at self-promotion fit into the larger world. These moments were never funny at the time, but in retrospect all I can do is laugh and take them for what they were: good correctives for the writer’s ego.
When my first book came out, I sat at a table in a book store in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the only person who stopped to talk to me was a boy who was probably around ten years old.
“Did you write this book?” he asked.
“I did,” I said.
“What’s it about?”
This is the question that always pulls me up short. Even though this young boy didn’t realize it, the subtext of the question always challenges the existence of said book: Why should I pay attention to it? What does it do? Why is it important?
“It’s a book of stories,” I said, “about fathers and sons.”
The boy took pity on me. “How much are they? I’ll get some money from my mother.”
He went away, and I continued to sit at my table alone. When he came back, he said, “My mother wouldn’t give me the money.”
He said it with sadness, and I told him that was all right. I said I was glad to have had a chance to talk to him. I thanked him. All these years later, I still remember how badly that boy had wanted to help me by buying a copy of my book.
Then there was the time an older gentleman fell asleep during one of my readings and began to snore. A woman sitting behind him swatted him on the shoulder to wake him up. Talk about a stark a reminder that sometimes what we write has no hold on a person. I didn’t blame the man. The sun coming through the windows, the wine, the comfortable chairs, the late afternoon hour. Wasn’t I really participating in a form of entrapment?
And the time at a book festival when a woman threw her coat over my stack of books while she talked to the writer sitting next to me. And another book festival when a young woman was looking at my book, and her mother snatched it out of her hand and said, pointing at another table, “Look, there’s your favorite author!”
But then there was the moment recently when a young man approached me at an event and said, “My grandma said she went to school with you.” I asked him who she was, and, yes, I knew her. He said, “She told me I was to come here and get you to sign a copy of your book.”
I was about to read, so I asked him to wait until afterwards when I’d be glad to sign a copy. A number of people wanted to talk to me after the reading—this was an event that drew a good audience—and the young man had to wait. I’d forgotten him when he finally found me again.
“I’m sorry you had to wait around,” I said.
“No, that’s okay,” he said. “I really liked it.”
I could tell he was sincere. Later, I wrote his grandmother to tell her what an impressive young man he was. She told me it was the first time he’d gone to a reading, and he really enjoyed it.
I’m glad of that. I know he came anticipating a short visit, just long enough to snag a book and an inscription before he went back to his life. But he had to stay, and as he listened to me read, he got interested. I’m glad to know that sometimes we can touch someone who never planned on being touched. Moments like these are enough to make up for the humiliation that’s unavoidable when practicing the art of self-promotion. So we go where we’re invited. We keep putting ourselves and our work on the line. Sometimes we face the stark reality of how little our writing matters to most of the people in the world, but at other times we meet someone like this young man, and it’s everything to us.
So I’ll be out there on the road as long as there are venues that want to host an event. If our paths cross, and you like what you hear, I hope you’ll say as much. You may have no idea how many humiliations I’ve faced to be with you. So much of our general culture tells us over and over that what we do doesn’t matter. You may not know how much comfort I take when a reader tells me, “Well done.”