In spite of the fact that I just had a little whinge about doing my own PR, and in spite of the fact that I’m convinced I’m no good at it, every so often I decide to make a stab at it, and on Saturday I read two chapters of Trees in the Pavement and one chapter of Favored One aloud at a Local Coffee Shop. I had been invited to do this some time ago, but the proprietor and I got our signals crossed a couple of times, and finally I was actually scheduled to read at an actual time, but he wasn’t going to be there. Maybe that was intentional on his part, but I think he probably usually isn’t there on Saturday afternoons.
Before I read, said proprietor sent me a “heads up” email disclaiming thus:
Typical reading, on a Saturday afternoon: Cafe could be about 1/2 full. You will be in the front of the house w your back against the wall so that you can engage the audience as needed. We will equip you with a mic and a cafe table and a stool or chair. You bring the entertainment. Very important: the cafe crowd is a very tough crowd, if and only if you desire or otherwise expect an attentive audience. You should bring at least one or two people with you to, if nothing else, feign interest and model good listening skills. Most folks come to talk, not to listen. Therefore, it is advisable to have no or at least low expectations of the audience to increase the possibility that you will be pleasantly surprised by the level of interest and appreciation. Consider: Possibly not a single person who doesn’t know you already will come with the express purpose of appreciating your reading; possibly not a single person will care that you are reading; some persons engaged in conversations may even secretly wish you weren’t reading. All that is, I think, typical and yet shouldn’t stop you from enjoying sharing your book with the people who are lucky enough to be there at the right time and place.
That is pretty much exactly what it was like. The people I “brought along” were my Paul, Mom and Dad, and long-time friend and fellow-writer, the Item. They were very good about modeling listening skills. Nobody bought a book though–since all of them already have one. Here is the part the Proprietor’s email didn’t predict–how it felt during the hour in which I sat in the hot seat:
1. Hot. As soon as we got there, my adrenaline, which had been on low simmer all morning anyway, shot up to high boil and I pretty much blushed for the entire reading.
2. Awkward. Because I was at “the front of the house,” I was right next to the registers, that is, the place where transactions are transacted. Innocent passers-by popped in for a cup of coffee, found the place moderately full but deathly quiet apart from some random middle-aged chick rattling off a bunch of foreign names over a microphone. They tiptoed to the counter, ordered their drinks in whispers, and skedaddled as quickly as possible. Of the people in there when I started reading, some stayed, but it was clear conversation wasn’t really happening. It was nice of them to stay, since they weren’t talking, but I felt like I was imposing.
3. More awkward. There’s this place in Trees where the protagonist, at age 4, encounters the man who will be smuggling her family most of the way from Kosovo to England, and her first impression of the man is that he is bald and fat. The story is told from her point of view, so of course this detail is described without mincing terms. At all. As I began reading this, I realised the man directly in front of me along the wall was of a, um, larger build, and bald as a cue ball. (My Paul later told me he had earbuds in and wasn’t listening to a word I was saying, which was a relief, but I didn’t know that at the time.)
4. Still more awkward. After the main character of Trees grows up a little bit, she starts school in a very ethnically diverse section of London. She has some racist tendencies. She calls people of South Asian origin the British Asian equivalent to nigger: Paki. Although even the first time she does this in chapter 2, my narration cites this as “her rude word for them,” it’s hard to know, when you’re reading aloud in a room where half the people are strangers, if the fact that you don’t condone such attitudes is really all that clear. Especially when three of the people in the cafe are South Asian. And they don’t stay for the whole reading.
5. Unprepared. I’ve read sections of Trees aloud many times. Saturday was the first time I ever read any of Favored One aloud at all. The first novel’s got multiethnic names in it, but I’ve actually known people named those things, and I could always pronounce the place names. (Even Leicester, British friends, thank you very much. We’ve got one of those here, too. But not in the book.) However, I discovered as I stumbled over it once or twice on Saturday, I’ve never pronounced Yerushalayim before. I probably should have checked with Sister-in-Lu or TheBro, who have lived there, before I tried inflicting that on anyone.
6. Futile. It’s hard to compete with an open door on Main Street, with buses, motorcycles and ambulance sirens whizzing past.
7. Like I just passed an exam. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable about at all, but I did it, and my family and friends were still talking to me afterwards, and the barista who is always friendly to my Paul and me when we go in there now knows who I am and can talk my stories up to her literary friends. Right? I mean, that’s what’s supposed to happen after one of these things, isn’t it?
I still think doing one’s own PR is excruciating for writers like me. I mean, you’re asking a bunch of people who are usually by nature pretty self-effacing to start outlining themselves with Sharpie, in effect. But in the end, self-effacing or not, it turns out I still think I write a good story.
P.S. Speaking of that, I guess someone else thinks I write a good story, too. Antler is publishing a guest post of mine on Thursday. I’ll remind you. But just so you know, the website is here.