An Evening in the Life of a Debut Novelist
This is going to be a great bookstore visit. I know this because they set me up with a local newspaper interview the same week, to help promote the event. And they sent me detailed instructions about where to park my car. With that sort of planning, this is going to be just the sort of place to beat the odds, right? They'll have a bunch of readers who show up for an author they've never heard of. They'll reach out to a secret stash of people who have nothing better to do on a Thursday night, and 15 spare dollars, and an interest in comedy, motherhood and organic food.
I find the parking garage with no trouble. That's an omen! And parking is free after 5pm. I love this town. The bookstore looks cute. There's a big EAT. SLEEP. READ. poster in the front window.
6:44 P.M. + 1 second
Because I am a debut novelist at the tail end of her regional book tour, by the time I push open the door, I have already counted the number of people in the store. There are two, a man and a woman. He is behind the counter. She is replacing a book on the shelf. And because I am a vulnerable debut novelist who does this often, I can tell just from the incline of her head that she too works in the store.
I am the only person here who is not on the payroll. My event is scheduled for 16 minutes from now. There is an armchair at the front of the store, and twenty or so perfectly empty folding chairs set up in front of it.
I keep my cool, though. He comes out from behind the counter and we exchange warm pleasantries. "We have you set up in the front," he says.
"Great!" I say, as though I hadn't spotted that little ghost town already. We continue the charade, including the part where he brings me a bottle of water to soothe my throat as I address the crowd, and I thank him.
The bell on the door tinkles, and a young woman walks in. Too young, probably. My eyes go back to the New Fiction table. I'm not going to stare at her. Sure enough, while I'm pondering cover art as if I'd driven seventy miles to do exactly that, I hear her ask about a book. She's taking a course on Science Fiction, and there is a title she can't find in the library.
As the minutes tick by, they chat about the Martian Chronicles.
I'm doing a pantomime entitled Uninterested Shopper. There are authors who might reach for a copy of their own novel, stop the young lady, and engage her in conversation. But I am not one of those people. So she slips by me, toward the cookbooks.
And then... she drops her jacket onto one of the empty folding chairs.
When I have run out of New Fiction to examine, I walk over to the comfy armchair that this bookstore has provided in lieu of a podium. And when she tires of cookery, I ask her what else she's reading for the Sci-Fic course. And it turns out that we both like William Gibson! No way!
And just like that I relax. She sits on her chair and I'm in mine, and we're talking about an author we've both read. I've stopped panicking, so I don't notice right away that a couple has entered the store. They sit down too. And then another couple, and then a woman about my age. And then a few more.
There is a small audience of ten. And what an audience! They are all interested in the topic of my book, and surprisingly not a single one is A) a blood relative B) someone I have ever met before or C) expecting to discuss Julia Child. (Catchy titles have their perils. Trust me here.)
I give my stump speech, and read a very short passage, and loop a quirky news story from last week into my presentation. Everyone in the small group nods along with me about the peculiarities of food advertising. Actually, there's one woman that doesn't make good eye contact at all, and I entertain the thought that she's wandered into the wrong event by accident, but is too shy to leave. But overall, it's a great discussion. One of the men has only eaten organic his whole life, and then he tells us he's over 80, and it's kind of a shock. We all stare admiringly. I should hire this guy to promote my book.
And during the Q&A, someone even asks me to talk about my cookbook. And when it's over, two of the women find the cookbook on the shelves and buy it, as well as buying the novel. I fight off the urge to hug them.
I sign books, I thank people for coming. That silent woman? When the others leave, she comes to sit on a chair in the little front row. In a low voice, she very carefully asks me some questions about how long it took me to write the book, and about my process. She isn't in the wrong place at all--she's just too shy to ask her questions in front of others.
They've gone now. The population of the store is down to two again, just the bookseller and me. There are two big piles of books left over, and he puts half of them down in front of me to sign. We both pretend that we don't know the other half will go into a box and go back to the publisher within weeks if not days.
"I always tell authors about the time Dan Brown came here."
"Oh?" I ask, signing another copy with my lucky green pen.
"We only got one customer."
I hand back the last signed copy. "Really? Why?"
"This was before Da Vinci Code." He winks. "See, you had ten times his audience."