Writing recently about attending Aimee Bender’s reading made me reflect on my own readings and how I approach them. Before I started teaching, I was deathly afraid of public speaking. In grad school, when I’d have to give a presentation to my class of just eight people—people I liked and could easily chat with while sitting—I’d freeze if I had to stand at a podium in front of them. I could feel my legs sway and hear my voice crack. There was no logic to it. I felt a helpless captive.
I don’t know what I was thinking ten years later when I convinced a dean at CalArts to let me teach a creative writing class. He gave it to me, and suddenly I had twenty sets of eyes staring at me with “What do we do?” Watch what you wish for: you might get it.
For the first two years, I had to psyche myself to open the door to start each class. Once I walked in, I thought of myself as an actor playing the role of professor. It helped get me through. Nowadays, I don’t play a professor. I am one, and I enjoy teaching. If I can move from fear of public speaking to delight, anyone can.
With three books of fiction out there, I’ve given readings or signings many times, most recently twice in a weekend in Minnesota. I’d heard from other authors who’d been on the road how they could show up at a bookstore and only one or two people would be there, and they’d felt so crushed that they had a hard time talking with these people. That’s because they were keeping track of how many books they sold at each reading, and anything under ten felt a failure.
One time, I had a reading with fellow author Marisha Chamberlain at an art studio in Minneapolis, and only one person showed up. Two authors, one audience member. At the time, reading in a friend’s art studio sounded cutting edge and fun. However, he hadn’t had the time to invite his loyal art patrons, the studio was off any beaten path, and all the people I knew came to the well-attended reading the night before at the Bookcase in Wayzata.
Marisha told me something before we showed up. She said she doesn’t ever give herself sales goals for a reading, nor expects a large audience every time. After all, outside of her own city, few people know her. Rather, people take a chance going to a reading, particularly if it’s someone they don’t know. Marisha hopes to have a least one good chat with a person per reading, and she wants to be in tune for each audience, no matter the size. If it’s a small audience, she asks them questions. That night, the one audience member was a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in twenty years. He was fun, asked questions, and we had dinner together.
Marisha, by the way, has written down several truths about what to do on a book tour, which you can read by clicking here. She’s also created, separately, ten tips for the literary author giving a reading, which you can read by clicking here.
I took her advice with me last month when I signed at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Roseville, Minnesota, and the next day at a Borders bookstore in Minnetonka. Both stores had me sit at a desk near the front, and people who came into each shop would see me and the display. The manager of the B&N event had explained to me that this method was far more effective for up-and-coming writers than simply to announce a reading in the newspaper and then having an author sit by a bunch of empty chairs in the back of the store. In other words, my book and I, if we appeared appealing, would draw people.
It worked. In both stores, I was in great spots with a steady stream of customers, so I ended up talking with a number of people and sold and signed books. One man in his thirties was a little odd but friendly. He left the store and came back three times, as if he was shopping for a new car, checking out the floor mats and accessories. "So a critic compared you to Charles Dickens," he said to me. "And John Irving. That's impressive.” I told him I agreed.
The next time he came back, he said, "Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations, right?" I said yes. "So do you think the critic was comparing your book to Great Expectations?" I said I didn't know. The critic probably meant that I covered a lot of years of a character the way Dickens and Irving do.
The next time he came back, he looked at The Brightest Moon of the Century more, staring at the outstretched hands on the cover, and said it looks really good--that it's the kind of book he likes. I offered to autograph a copy for him, but he said he had to think about it. I didn't see him again, yet this is how sales works. Some people don’t buy things right away.
At the Borders store, my wife and four family members came at the start, and because they were there, another five people in the store came over. The manager of the event, seeing this, offered and brought over chairs. A father with two sons around eight years old, seeing this, told his sons. “This is an author. He wrote this book. Would you like to hear him?" The boys nodded, so they sat, and I hastily gave a reading.
Inspired by the young boys and sure of a question that always comes up—“How autobiographical is your work?”—I hurried over to the fiction section of the store and grabbed a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and read a passage from it to introduce my book. In the passage, O’Brien comments on the balance of “the real” and the fiction within his stories, saying that while he often makes things up, they are designed to get at the truth of things he felt—that it’s a truer and deeper way of getting to the heart of the matter than writing so-called nonfiction. “Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth," he writes.
I then read a section of the book that takes place in a trailer park in Alabama. I did, in fact, live in a trailer park in Alabama most of one year with a friend, and we ran a mini-mart there. Teenage women did hang out at the store, certain they could be our wives, so it was a time to be careful. It was a time that clarified what I really wanted to do, which was to write. The events in the book are often different from what we experienced, but all the characters, fun and funny, came from people we met there.
My style of reading has changed over time, altered by one event in particular. It happened at the publication party for my second book, my short story collection Months and Seasons. An actress named Sally Shore and three actors that she directed each read one my stories for an audience at an auditorium in the Beverly Hills Public Library. In “reading,” they gestured, they emoted, they performed. Each story become a solo show. They were my words, yet the actors gave them particular life. A part of one of my stories, “Dracula Slinks Into the Night,” is on YouTube, recorded from the evening, performed by Rod Maxwell. You can see it by clicking here.
I was so impressed that before my next reading, I had one of the actors, C.C. Pulitzer, who was also in a video for my book, teach me how she did it—how she marked up the story to look for actions that could be mimed and to practice the different voices of each of the characters. I love it. It’s fascinating “to be” more than to just merely read. Sally, by the way, has the longest running series of short fiction presentations in Los Angeles, and you can see what’s coming up next by going to www.newshortfictionseries.com or call 866-811-4111.
As for my Minnesota readings, because I wasn’t concerned about how many books I would sell—I simply was at each spot to meet interesting people—I enjoyed myself. Once I returned to Los Angeles, the manager of the Barnes and Noble invited me back with my next book. The manager of the Borders said if I return to Minnesota in a couple months as I’d mentioned, she’d love to have me back then with the same book.
Being willing to market your book and give readings is part of being a writer. It can be a great part if you don’t see it as a burden. As with Aimee Bender’s reading, people come to be part of an event. Make it so.
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