Saturday, November 20, 2010

on causing a reader to storm out of chapters and call me arrogant

the daily news once organized a boat ride in the halifax harbour for winners of a contest. there were a few extra tickets and so some of us journalists got to tag along for the ride. it was awkwardness afloat – the readers huddled at one end of the silva and the journalists at the other.

we both knew each other so well in principle, but not at all in practice. we had read each other's articles and columns, or we had read each other's letters to the editor and online comments. we had loved each other, celebrated each other, fought with each other, hated each other  - yet never met each other.

so we drank on our distant ends, huddled into a bow or a stern, and stared at the sunny waters.

i sailed on that ship again saturday at a book signing at the halifax shopping centre and then the bayers lake chapters. sitting at the little table strewn with books, one can either smile and do one’s best impersonation of a salesman (though it hurts to treat one’s books as commodities), one can read or – my choice – one can break out the laptop and write.

that’s what i was doing at chapters saturday afternoon when a woman and her adult daughter walked up to the table and started to tell me about africville. it was terrible, she said, and she was their biggest supporter, but if only they had organized better and fought harder, it wouldn’t have happened. i said i didn’t think that was the case – it’s hard to fight a bulldozer destroying your house while you visit your sister. she argued they had been 'seduced' by the money and took it for a better life in public housing. i disagreed again.

this went back and forth a few times before she left. she came back a few minutes later and said she was just making her point. which she did again. and i told her again i thought she was wrong.

she and her daughter called me arrogant and then stormed out of the door. my friend jon p happened by moments later and cheered me up by taking my picture.

sadly, this all happened too late to be included in my article on how to improve reader-writer interactions in the current edition of atlantic books today.

i’ll paste it below. and then read it. i think I need some help.

Reading writers

When my first novel came out in 2009, I couldn't wait for my book-signing debut. Wired with a terrified exhilaration, I took my seat in front of the shopping mall bookstore in Halifax and smiled when, minutes later, the first reader approached. The elderly woman picked up the book and asked what it was about.

I excitedly gave her my spiel about Black Snow (Pottersfield Press) being a novel set in the Halifax Explosion. I got most of the way through before she tossed the book at me. It skidded across the table and into my shocked silence. She walked away, muttering, "Won't you people ever leave it alone?"

Things have improved since then, but I can't help but thinking there is a better way to handle reader-writer interactions.

Mike Parker, who’s been at it for twenty years, says the process of writing and publishing a book can leave authors several volumes short of an encyclopedia. Sitting alone in a mall for two hours while people avoid eye contact does not increase feelings of sanity.

"I still face book signings with mixed emotions that run the gamut from apprehension to confidence and pessimism to optimism," he admits. "With the vast majority of authors, there is no long line of avid readers anxiously awaiting their arrival.”

Lowlights include the time a reader asked him for an eloquent inscription. The prolific writer suddenly got writer’s block.

"Fumbling and mumbling something about not performing on demand, I signed my standard line, which did not impress the patron. They said something about me being an author and as such should be able to write," Parker recalls.

Parker, who most recently released Buried in the Woods (Pottersfield Press), finds interactions improve at book events like Word on the Street, where there is time for mingling. But he says even one good chat with a reader can make a book signing worthwhile.

"All that is required is one equally talkative soul to make the better part of two hours fly by,” he says.

Pamela Davison has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of reader-writer interactions from her post as the manager of Coles New Minas.

She says the first step is for the writer to overcome her writerly shyness and make eye contact with customers. The store needs to work, too. Davison dresses up the signing table and often sends a staff member chat with the author. Once one person is talking with the writer, others join in.

The third critical element is the reader. Davison points out writers only make a couple of dollar per book and only sell a few books per signing, meaning the teenager at the till is generally earning more than the writer. Writers aren’t there to make money, but to meet readers.

"The whole time anybody's here, I worry. I know how difficult it would be to sit out there," Davison says. "That's your creation and if people are walking buy not expressing any interest in it … it must be hard."

She urges readers to say they like the cover, ask the writer about the book or tell them about another book. "Just go out there and say 'Hi.' Don't make them sit all by themselves," she says.

Lifelong book lover Sandra Sackett has been to her share of signings and readings, but finds them too crowded and formal. She prefers the Halifax Club’s Literary Lunches, where the downtown venue invites authors to join about 30 readers. The authors introduce and read from their books and then sit down for conversation as everyone eats.

That means Sackett gets to sit next to some of her favourite writers, including Silver Donald Cameron, Lesley Choyce and Donna Morrissey. “Everyone is relaxed and you can have conversations,” Sackett says. It usually starts with the book, but topics roam wide.

“Everyone’s there for one reason: they like to read,” Sackett says. “It works. [Writers] are approachable – they’re not demigods.”

The bottom line is writers are readers too, so the next time you see an author holding a lonely vigil at the bookstore, go up and say hello. Just don’t throw anything at them.

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