As far as I can tell every writer has a book reading war story or two, wherein one travels 10 hours through blizzards or cross-country on a full-fare plane ticket in order to read to a snoozing hobo and a handful of bookstore employees. Perhaps this is what my publishers had in mind when I asked about giving readings in support of my first novel and they responded, “Eh, we don’t really do that so much.” For nobodies like me, is what they meant. I happen to know that in the weeks before my book came out my publicist was absolutely slammed with managing Pat Buchanan’s book tour. What does Pat Buchanan have that I don’t? This is not the first time I’ve asked myself this question.
Nonetheless, as someone who enjoys going to readings, it seemed an important part of having a book out. I think I wanted to feel like something was happening. A wise woman I know once described the time before one’s book comes out as “the calm before the calm.” This is very accurate. While it is abstractly incredibly exciting, not much changes in your day-to-day life once the book has made its earth-shattering debut into the previously placid waters of the literary community, other than a marked increase in self-googling. Anticipating this, I decided to set up a few readings for myself anyway.
And most of them have been wonderful. A book-launch reading at a charming Brooklyn bookstore was packed with friends, coworkers, former coworkers, neighbors, and perhaps even a stranger or two. Readings in Chicago brought out family, long-lost friends, and high school English teachers. A recent mini-tour in the Midwest included generous and kind audiences in Iowa City and Minneapolis. I’ll admit it — I was riding high. And then I went to Des Moines.
Now, I had never really thought Des Moines would be a big winner. I don’t even know anyone there other than my sweet in-laws. But the local Barnes and Noble was excited to have me, and I had no real reason to say no.
Which is how I became the loneliest writer in The Shoppes at Three Fountains.
I should have known something was up when we (me, my husband, and his parents) parked in the shopping center’s spacious lot and strolled into the cavernous, largely empty store. Directly to the right of the entryway was a long folding table, stacked high with more copies of my book than I’ve ever seen in one place. We greeted each other nervously, the books and I, like cousins at a family reunion. And that was it. No microphone. No chairs. “I’m so sorry but I have to run in a minute,” said the events manager I’d set everything up with. “Our people don’t really seem to be into readings, so we just set up a signing.”
“Oh,” I said, enjoying my free bottle of water. And who says the writer’s life isn’t glamorous! “Okay.”
Reading to the void would have been one thing. I mean, at least I could have entertained my husband’s family and a curious passerby or two. But a signing! A signing indicates commitment, as the wary customers seemed to realize. A signing means someone buying a $25 hardcover novel by some girl they’ve never heard of in the midst of an economic downturn. I settled down into my chair, dwarfed by towers of book on either side, and tried to look approachable.
A man in a suit stopped near the table. “Oh, hello!” I trilled.
He nodded towards the events manager. “I’m just waiting for my wife.”
I watched people saunter by, often speeding up when moving past my table. A large couple squeezed into dress clothes canoodled on the escalator up to the magazines section. An excessively blonde family of four tumbled in the door, making a beeline to the café. Once my husband tried adding a few boxes of magic tricks (which were shelved nearby) to my table, but the good people of Des Moines wouldn’t bite. Not a one of them. Not even the bookstore employees, who seemed on the whole to be a bit agoraphobic.
Okay, to be fair, I did sell two books — to my in-laws’ neighbors, with whom I now feel a strong kinship, not unlike how when someone saves your life you are bound together for all time. I can only hope that the Weavers are prepared for my everlasting devotion. I am planning to serve as their future grandchildrens’ godmother, whether or not I am asked.
A half-hour later, now giggling a bit maniacally, I signed an inappropriate percentage of the copious stock (rendering them unreturnable) before making a beeline for my father-in-law’s gleaming Honda.
And then I wrote this song.