Southern Scribe
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  Porch Tale    

 

Not Your Average Author Appearance

by Nicki Leone

 

 
 

One of my favorite parts of running a small bookstore is that I get to set up readings for authors who have new books.  Mostly, these are regional writers or local authors—because big New York publishers touring nationally known authors like John Grisham have only the vaguest notion of geography.  They see the country as a series of major airport hubs between “the city” and LA, like a string of asphalt pearls.

Wilmington, of course, is NOT a major airport hub city.  To get here, you pretty much have to be coming here.  So, it was with some surprise that I answered the phone about a month earlier and heard a bubbly voice on the other end say “Hi!  I’m Susan Powter’s publicist and we’d like to have her do a talk at your store.”  Susan Powter, is a ex-stripper single mother who was all over the talk show circuit because she lost 150 pounds through sheer will power and has kept it off.  She turned her secret to weight loss success into an entire in-your-face-lifestyle that she talks about in her bestselling books such as “Stop the Insanity”. And sure, it was all the rage several years ago, but even now she qualified in my sphere as a “big time author”.  “OK” I told the publicist.  “When?”

The lady on the phone asked if I could handle crowds of over 100 people. “Absolutely”, I told her, with more optimism than accuracy.  I would have to shove most of the store fixtures into the back office, but we could fit that many people, maybe.  We settled on a date.

The next few weeks saw a flurry of phone calls to various suppliers looking for copies of Susan Powter’s new book “The Politics of Stupid”, which turned out to be self-published.  The publicist, who knew lots about setting up interviews but almost nothing about the book industry, fed me a stream of misinformation about where to get it, amid periodic calls asking for updates on what I was doing to promote Susan’s upcoming appearance. I felt so harassed I came within a hair’s breadth of canceling the whole thing, when, at the last minute the books showed up from a place that had been out of stock.  “Hallelujah!” I thought when someone on the staff called me-on my day off-to tell me they had arrived.  “Wait until you see them” the staff said. 

That sounded ominous, and sure enough when I came in I found the entire shipment hidden out of sight behind our counter, because no one could bring themselves to put the book out. I could hardly blame them- it was a hot pink and leopard print cover with a picture of the author, NAKED on the front.  “Oh man!” I thought.  “What can I do with that?”  It was another week before I could bring myself to put the thing out where people could see it. 

In the meantime, the fact that Susan Powter was coming to town was trumpeted all over the city by media people who normally could less about author appearances at our store.  There were articles in the paper and interviews on morning television shows and several explosive appearances on talk radio that degenerated into shouting matches.  We fielded dozens of calls. I ordered extra books, but once again all the suppliers seemed to be completely clueless.  I started to lose sleep at night. 

Susan Powter day finally arrived- it was, of course, Friday the 13th. I had nightmares of crowds of angry talk-show listeners showing up to hurl pieces of Bowflex machines through the windows.   The extra order of books never came.  My god, I thought, I’m going to run out. (this is a personal nightmare for every bookseller). 

Five minutes before Susan was supposed to come on, the phone rang.  It was she, calling from the parking lot, waiting for the right time to make a dramatic entrance.  “I’ll just come in and start right in on them” she said.  “You don’t need an introduction?” I asked her- ready to weep with relief.  “Oh, no, honey.  I’ll just hit them like a bomb.”  I looked at the clock.  “Lord get me through the next two hours” I thought. 

Susan Powter did come in like a whirlwind; high-heels, pink hair, tattoos and all.  But I missed the full effect of her appearance on the audience because right behind her was another woman in shaggy leather pants holding the hand of a quiet and beautiful five-year-old boy. “This is Susan’s son Gabriel,” she said.  I need you to have someone sit with him and read to him while she is talking.  I blinked.  Everyone I had on staff right was needed at the sales counter.  The woman looked at me like I was an idiot for not having a ready-made babysitter.  I looked at Gabriel.  “Hi!” I said.  “Hello m’am” he said back, and looked at the glass chess sets we had on display.  “Do you know how to play chess?” I asked.  He nodded.  So while Susan Powter stalked up and down the isles haranguing the crowd for buying into the patriarchal system, I sat near the back and played chess with Gabriel.  He was actually quite good.  I was a little distracted as I tried to keep track of everything that was going on, and one time I almost lost my queen. 

I only heard snippets of the talk… “Never eat food that glows in the dark” she said, which sounded like good, if self-evident advice.  “When I die I’m going to be buried in my favorite leopard skin bra” -- she lifted her shirt to show us the bra---“and my favorite thong underwear”.  She did not, thankfully, drop her pants to show us that.  It was the bra comment that almost cost me my queen in the chess game. 

Normally, an author reading or talk will last about an hour- ten to fifteen minutes of reading or lecture, another 20 minutes of questions, another half hour or so of signing books and general hubbub. After an hour, Susan was still going strong.  After two hours she had left the concept of fitness and was now discussing how refined sugar was a patriarchal plot.  She was rude about Christians and a few people left in a huff.  She was rude about rich white men and people laughed.  2.5 hours.  Gabriel was now reading comic books and the rest of the staff looked ready to mutiny.  Three hours.  She stalked up to a man in the front row and pushed her tattooed bellybutton in his face and said “my lawyer wants to have sex with me”. 

By this time I had practically forgotten her original theme, which is that if you want to lose weight you have to eat right and exercise, so deal with it, sister.  It was nearly three and a half hours later that she finally started signing books. 

Only, she also brought her own stuff—CDs and a cookbook and passes to an exercise class—so lots of people bought those instead of the books I had ordered.  The girl in the shaggy leather seemed to be in charge of merchandise, and asked me to make change for some of her sales. 

It was, all in all, a successful event.  It brought lots of people into our store who had probably never heard of us before.  She sold a lot of stuff.  She signed a lot of books. I didn’t run out of “the Politics of Stupid”.   But It was also the most exhausting experience I have ever had.  By the end of the night I just wanted to scream, "Stop! Stop! Stop the Insanity!"


Nicki Leone is Book Buyer for Bristol Books of Wilmington, NC < www.bristolbooks.com >. 
She is moderator of the SEBA Listserve for the Southeastern Booksellers Association.

 

© 2003, Nicki Leone, All Rights Reserved