Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Convention News for the Unconventional

(NOTE: The following is a memoir and as such is told using lies, misinformation, faulty geography, and plain BS. Dialog has been invented for a number of reasons, none suitable to repeat in mixed company. The moral compass is pointed north where the good people of the Mendocino Coast lead pure, chaste lives while making books. Am I a bestseller yet?)

Do laundry, get a haircut, pack the bag, and rush to the airport and stand in line at the Richard Reid Memorial Shoe Check. Ever since 2002, when the dippy Mr. Reid tried to sneak plastic explosive and triacetone triperoxide in his suede high-tops on a Paris to Miami flight, the air travel experience includes presenting officers of the Transportation Security Administration with your footwear. The added time to an already tedious check-in procedure is used for worry. Who cares about my book? Why should they seek me out for an unreadable signature? What am I doing?

I am going to Washington, DC, where I attended my first American Booksellers Association convention in 1989 as a publishing shill. Now the show is called BookExpo America and I am a writer with a book. The hour-long stopover in Phoenix is spent outside the airport to chain-smoke in the Bone Yard, a dog walk of rocks, pebbles, and dust surrounded by wrought iron fencing. Another take-off and landing later is the baggage carousel at Dulles International, and meeting Donna, a novelist, and Steve, a nonfiction writer. We ride to Potomac, Maryland, where Steve’s sister, Wendy, has generously offered lodging. Donna has done the show before with her agent, Nancy Ellis, and knows what to expect. Wish I did.

Friday morning begins warm and bright. Inside the convention center, hundreds of publishers have booths ready to attract buyers for bookstores. Catalogs are handed out by smiling and vaguely hungover sales staff, deals are made in the International Rights Center, and Google distributes iced cookies from carts placed where conventioneers’ blood sugar is lowest. There are 22,366 attendees and 7,324 of them official book buyers. BookExpo is not a literary Ozzfest, except for John Updike giving props to independent booksellers instead of touting his new book, TERRORIST, at the Saturday morning “Book and Author Breakfast.” A light step around the booths of major publishers like Random House and Penguin shows tired retreads, celebrity goofs like Tracey Ullman’s knitting book, and novels destined for the remainder shelves at Barnes & Nobel. The independent publishers give hope, MacAdam and Cage relentless in publishing new fiction by new writers and Coffee House Press with Gilbert Sorrentino’s A STRANGE COMMONPLACE.

(Sorrentino passed away on Saturday from lung cancer after a lifetime of chasing the book. He had been an editor at Grove Press, taught at Stanford University, and wrote a stack of brilliant novels like MULLIGAN STEW, CRYSTAL VISION, BLUE PASTORAL, and ABERRATION OF STARLIGHT. He was a writer’s writer who happily goofed with structure and composed sentences washed in energetic humanity. If you do not know this man’s work, get to for the out-of-print, and for Sorrentino’s later work, LUNAR FOLLIES, THE MOON IN ITS FLIGHT, and LITTLE CASINO. Screw the rent and buy the books.)

In the green room on Saturday afternoon, there is one bottle of lukewarm diet Coke to share among the writers, and a video crew filming interviews. One cup of coffee is what I want, along with a chaser of Valium and Xanax. A spectral black figure in wide-brimmed hat sits at a table, Joyce Carol Oates in her funereal finery. Knopf published a collection of her stories in the spring and another book is on the way, AFTER THE WRECK, I PICKED MYSELF UP, SPREAD MY WINGS, AND FLEW AWAY.

I’ve attended signings where the writer sat with pen poised and embarrassment at no one showing. Please let this not be me. Going against Oates is ridiculous. If I wasn’t scheduled to sign, I’d be in her line. Cynthia and I leave to paw at the boxes of prepublication copies. DOG WALKED looks sharp in laminated cover and the print-on-demand is not bad. The final book will look even better. We carry the boxes from behind the curtain and dump them at table 19. My favorite Lamy steel-nib fountain pen leaked on the plane. Cynthia shoves a Bic rollerball in my hand and walks the empty aisle to find someone who might like to have a copy of our bastard child.

The world’s cheapest plastic chain holds back the takers for DOG WALKED. As the chain is released, booksellers and neophyte writers fill the aisle leading to table 19. Cynthia Frank had set the Cypress House publicist to sending out two hundred invitations for the signing. We were cooler than cool. I wrote inscriptions and scribbled my name, effusive for a King County librarian on account of spending much of my childhood in Seattle libraries and flirtatious for a bookseller from Wisconsin. The worries, grunts, and groans since sending Cynthia the manuscript dissipate into the thick air of the convention center. Mr. Detroit is there, George Young who hired me years ago as an editorial assistant, and Duke with a jug of spiked lemonade. I am kicked from the table at 4:30 after scrawling across the title page in sixty books. Being a writer is fun.

NEXT: Goin’ to the Press and We’re Gonna to be Printed


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, this is brilliant. I know how humble you are, but here goes a compliment:

These posts are not only entertaining but educational. Subtlety, Subtlety, Subtlety.

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I, Kenneth Burgess was the anonymous person who forgot to put in his name.

8:51 AM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

Fucking perfect. Great story and you deserve every bit of praise and more. DOG WALKED is the only book on writing that made me pee a little bit in my pants and isn't that what everyone wants?

I choose you over JCO any day x infinity.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Sal Glynn said...

Golly, girl. Incontinence is the highest praise any writer could hope for.

2:16 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

and THAT'S no lie.

9:54 AM  

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