Friday, August 28, 2009

Chattanooga: No pictures, please

Monday, April 27, 2009  

In a piece for the New Yorker about the idiosyncrasies of book tours, David Sedaris wrote that after getting tired of standing up over and over to be photographed with people who’d lined up to have their books signed, he eventually had stores post a notice saying photos were not allowed.

Sedaris being a famous writer, his signings can run very long. A lot of people want him to sign their books, and the photo opps tended to drag things out. But once, he wrote, when he was doing a signing at a big-box retail store, he found himself unexpectedly alone. No one apparently knew who he was, and no one approached him as he sat at his table, which made the sign prohibiting photos seem pathetic and absurd. Sedaris imagined people eyeing him as he sat alone at his table and thinking, “Nothing would make me happier than to not have my picture made with you.”

It is an author’s persistent fear, particularly starting out: To do a reading or a signing and to have no one show up. Kevin Wilson, author of Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, whose book tour has at times run in tandem with mine, said it happened to him at Lemuria bookstore in Jackson, Miss., when the only people who showed up were a family member and two close friends and their baby. The bookstore staff asked if he still wanted to read, and Kevin said he guessed not. But his friends insisted that he read to them, so he did.

I winced, hearing Kevin’s story. I remember doing a signing at the mall in Jackson for my first book, Ten Point, at which I sold maybe three books. I sat at my little table and smiled at people who walked by, and tried not to make eye contact with the embarrassed store staff, but surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad. In a way it was kind of a relief. It seemed inevitable that something like this would happen eventually, and now, it had happened. I no longer had to live in dread of it. It would have been different if it had kept happening again and again.

So, on Saturday, it happened again at Rock Point Books in Chattanooga. I’m not sure why, but I’d had a hunch that it might. Maybe it was the lack of publicity, because my publisher did very little to promote the book in Chattanooga, though the nearby Chickamauga battlefield is a crucial venue in the Sultana saga. Considering the lack of publicity, I could only hope that people would find out on their own. Rock Point may have tried to get media attention, but there was nothing in the local newspaper, and I couldn’t help noticing that the bookstore misspelled my name in the promo at the front of the store.

Anyway, if the general public heard about it, they apparently were more interested in drinking at outdoor cafes on what was turned out to be an absolutely perfect spring evening, or were headed to the prom (based on the bizarre formal costumes we saw on high school students strolling the downtown streets) or opted to attend something called the Cornbread Festival. In any event, the people of Chattanooga were clearly not inclined toward attending a book signing at Rock Point Books on this particular Saturday evening, even though you have to assume that there are a lot of Civil War buffs in town (and only Ohio lost more soldiers on the Sultana than Tennessee’s 365).

There were a total of seven people at the signing, and that included the store manager and assistant manager, yet for some reason the lack of a big crowd didn’t bother me at all. I was really more concerned about my friends Les and Corinne Hegwood, who were putting me up in Chattanooga and were excited about the event. Two of the other authentic customers in the audience, Fielding and Jennifer Atchley, had come at the Hegwoods’ behest, meaning that only the third came on his own -- a guy named Charles Moran, who, I later found, was a friend of my pal John McLeod, who lives in Chattanooga but had a conflict and couldn’t come.

Ultimately the point is to sell books, and in that sense the Rock Point event fell short, but at this stage of the tour I don’t crave a lot of attention, and the eight of us had a very pleasant, intimate conversation about the book that in some ways was more fun than a larger, more formal event. Everyone talked freely and there was no pretense. Our conversation focused primarily on the Sultana but was agreeably spontaneous, perhaps because an informal conversation had not exactly been the original plan. I know it probably sounds like I’m rationalizing here – “Really, seriously, I didn’t WANT there to be a lot of people!” – but the truth is, a huge crowd isn’t a prerequisite for having a good time and this was a singular event that brought its own rewards. Les and Corinne are two of my closest friends, and anything that involves them is fun, in my book. All I needed to know was that they were happy, too, and they were. The people at Rock Point later had me sign a big stack of books, so perhaps local readers will see the special “author-signed copies” display and buy Sultana, and the word will get around.

It was nice, too, to just be in Chattanooga, which offered not only Les and Corinne but another bonus spring. I have traveled back and forth through different stages of spring during the book tour, as if roaming through a glorious time-warp in which flowering dogwoods light up, fade, then light up again, and the area around Chattanooga is stunningly beautiful right now. The mountains are a verdant tapestry of trees in every shade of spring green, and the city itself, situated in a broad bend of the Tennessee River, is scenic and interesting. There’s a diverse community of outdoor-interested people – hikers, trail-runners, bicyclists, kayakers and climbers, and there’s a thriving arts community. Among my friends in town, John McLeod is a climber, an artist and a musician (a music gig prevented him from attending the reading); Les teaches English, coaches baseball and track, and writes fiction; and Corinne is a speech therapist who is also carrying her and Les’s first child.

The morning after the signing Les and I went for a long up-and-down run on some beautiful and challenging trails on Lookout Mountain, passing hikers and climbers along the way. Les turned me on to trail-running a few years back, when he and Corinne lived in Bolton, and normally he's a stronger runner than me, plus he's competitive, so I took advantage of the fact that he's still recovering from surgery to seriously spank him on this run. My punishment was that I got lost as a result of being so far ahead and unfamiliar with the trails, which added three miles to a very steep four-mile mountain run. It was worth it. I envy him being able to run those trails regularly; they're scenic and, particularly along the occasional precipitous ledge segments, thrilling.

After our run we picked up Corinne for lunch, then headed out to a house on a remote bend of the Tennessee owned by Mary Lillian Smith, a friend of Les’s parents. The Atchleys, who are likewise friends of Les’s parents, also showed up, along with their son Trevor and his wife Melanie; Fielding had made it to chapter three of Sultana since the night before and said he was enjoying it very much. The sky was clear and blue and we whiled away the hours sitting by the water, watching the boats pass and the loons diving beneath the surface, and drinking a few beers. Les cooked hamburgers on the grill. The night before we had snapped a few photos at the signing, and we took some more at the river that afternoon, but the most important recorded image I saw over the weekend was the likeness of the smallest Hegwood, curled up inside Corinne, on the sonogram photo affixed to their refrigerator door. He or she appears to be about the size of a squirrel.

Today I plan to go climbing with my friend John McLeod, and on Wednesday I’ll head to Nashville for a signing at Barnes & Noble. Because I’ve played my “intimate gathering” card, I’m hoping for a more typical public showing there, but either way, I’m sure it’ll be interesting. If no one shows up I’ll take my cue from David Sedaris, and make up my own sign that says, “No photos, please.”

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