Monday, October 19, 2009

Baton Rouge

The audience at a book signing is typically a diverse assemblage of people with different reasons for being there. There are people who are clearly interested in the topic of the book; people who are merely curious to hear what an author has to say about his work and who, in some cases, will drop by a signing to hear almost anyone; people who’ve perhaps been compelled to come along; people who’ve already read and embraced the book or are otherwise a fan of your work; and people who are there, from all appearances, to challenge you as an author, to cast everything into useful doubt, most of whom fall into the opposing categories of sleepers and skeptics.

Contrary to what you might think, the person who nods off and the person who uses your platform to exhibit his own superior knowledge of some arcane aspect of the story are both useful to the author’s enterprise, if in an adverse way. Perhaps more than the more genially engaged audience members, they help you triangulate the interest of your readers and potential readers. The sleeper reminds you that no one’s interest is assured, that you must keep the action moving, maintain the necessary suspense and offer the promise of revelation, knowing that many people (including me) are prone to dozing when required to sit quietly for too long. The skeptic is another story; he keeps you on your toes, often forces you to explore in greater detail some component of the story that you might have glossed over in the past, and, if you’re ready for him, gives you a chance to prove yourself under fire in full public view.

They were all there in Senate Committee Room F of the oddly storied Louisiana State Capitol on Saturday, where I spoke about Sultana as part of the festivities of the ambitiously staged Louisiana Book Festival. I was among perhaps 50 authors who participated, including Kevin Wilson, author of the wonderful short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, whose parallel book tour has frequently placed us in close proximity, including when we shared the stage on “Thacker Mountain Radio” at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. Wilson’s event, which included an engaging discussion of his funny and thoughtful stories and his reading of an essay and a passage from his upcoming novel, was the only one I attended other than my own. I had skipped the author’s party the night before because I was busy working on the proposal for my own next book, and so drove down from Bolton to Baton Rouge the morning of.

The Louisiana capitol is a departure from the American norm in that it does not symbolize, architecturally, the bicameral democratic process it facilitates. The bifurcation of house and senate is less obvious, and there is no lofty dome representing the hopeful coming together of the political system. Instead the capitol building is a high-rise. It is a monolithic and, aside from a vaguely deco tilt, prosaic structure. Otherwise, the most interesting aspect is the bullet hole in the wall that marks the spot where Huey Long was assassinated.

After weeks of incessant downpours, the festival benefitted from a welcome break in the weather, with blue skies and a brisk north wind. The plaza before the capitol was filled with vendors’ tents and resounded with the music of a jazz band. The turnout was large, though with so much to choose from, the audiences at most of the events ranged from a dozen to perhaps 30 people. Wilson and I were both pretty far down the playbill, at the dozen-member audience end. I was introduced by Greg Langley, the book editor of the Baton Rouge Advocate, who noted that among the legions of authors of books focusing on the Civil War, I had come up with what (to my ears, anyway) sounded a little like a new gimmick – viewing the legendary historical episode through the prism of what we know today about the physiology of fear. And he was right, that is precisely what I did in Sultana, though not because I was searching for a new way in but because that was my own interest in the story, which I saw not as a history per se but as an experiment in human survival that unfolded against the backdrop of the war. Either way, it was a thoughtful introduction.

So that was the theme I ran with. I never know precisely what I’m going to say, choosing instead to come up with an opening anecdote that is related to the current venue (in this case, the Sultana passed through Baton Rouge on its way to and from Vicksburg, and one of the protagonists was stationed nearby), and then taking my cues from the audience. Among those cues are nods of recognition, the occasional smile or laugh, the nodding off, or the look of consternation on the face of someone, usually a guy near the back, who will offer some sort of challenge during the Q&A.

This crowd was, on the whole, lethargic. I looked forward, hopefully, to the Q&A, when I might be able to draw them out. There are usually a small number of people who like asking questions, and their questions are always invigorating. The person with challenge in mind typically waits through a few interrogatories before offering his own. That was the case with this guy, who, when called upon, professed to be knowledgeable about steam engines, and had a few very pointed questions about the one that blew up and doomed the Sultana. He seemed almost intent on disproving the theory that it could have blown up on its own, though he never raised the specter of possible sabotage – a favorite among audience skeptics, I’ve noticed. Instead he simply used the opportunity to showcase his personal knowledge of steam engines and to test mine. I know only what I’ve read, but I wrote this particular book, so fortunately I had a fair grasp of the facts. His numerous follow-up questions enlivened the discussion and brought to mind a few issues I had not previously considered, such as whether the men operating the boilers had pulled out the stops, more of less, to push the machinery past its safe capacity. Remarkably, I had never heard that possibility raised, though it seems logical considering the boat was overloaded and straining against a huge river at flood.

In any event, the skeptic seemed to be grudgingly satisfied with my answers, and after a few softball questions from others in the audience, the discussion coasted to a stop. So ended the penultimate scheduled event of the Sultana book tour. Last on the list is an upcoming talk at the University of Evansville, in Indiana, in November. I hope there will be a skeptic there, as well, because (as is the case with the chronic dozer) I am also one.

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