Been putting this off, and I still don’t know if I have a handle on what has happened to me.
It was a dark and stormy night, no kidding. We left Lafayette Thursday evening and drove east on I-10 towards New Orleans into a howling storm. I-10 is about 130 miles of low, slippery bridge over swamps, and as you approach the metro area, you’re driving along the edge of Lake Ponchartrain. The rain was pounding down, hitting the windshield of our compact rental with that chrysanthemum effect while it seemed like everyone else on that bridge was zooming past in ghost-white pick up trucks. We’d forgotten what Louisiana rain was like. And we remembered why, in the 3 years we’d lived there, we never owned an umbrella. No point to it.
The next day was the last formal event of the book tour: a panel at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. The normal promotional life of a new book is about three months I’m told, but my events scattered over nearly six months. While being invited to the Fest was a dream come true (thanks to Paul J. Willis, and I’m sure to the loving influence of Darrell Bourque and Dorothy Allison, both of whom have supported me for years), by the time it rolled around we were fatigued and stressed and dreading more travel. As my husband observed, Death Wishing is set in New Orleans, I received my book contract in NO, and I started the tour there, so it made sense to think of this trip as a natural end.
The panel I was on was called “Singular Women, Singular Worlds,” moderated by the amazing Bev Marshall. The other panelists were Lucy Ferriss, Ellen Baker, and Jessica Marie Tucelli. Each of these women are publishing with big presses, and I was the only indie gal up there. It is probably worth noting that of the books we were discussing mine was 1) the only one set in NO, and 2) the only one that was funny. The rest were fascinating but on the grim side. Here we are, speaking to a crowd of more than fifty attendees:
So this is what happened and I don’t know why it happened. Bev asked great questions of us all, but every time I opened my mouth–even when I was giving a serious answer–the crowd laughed their butts off. I guess they were in a mood, my kind of mood. We started by describing our book concepts, and when I talked about weight loss programs and the way men are often singled out for special attention, I saw a lot of nodding. There was one quasi-aggressive question from someone in the crowd on the topic of cultural appropriation and respect, and I had a ready answer, but apparently the questioner was a legendary fest agitator, so we were segued onto a new topic quickly. Other than that slight hiccup it went well, and I admit to trotting out a little of the Dean & Laura Show (We were all asked who read our first drafts, and the other panelists talked about their book groups. I pointed out Dean and said he liked poetry and science and hated fiction, so he was my go to guy). Later a woman said, “You two make each other laugh all the time don’t you?”
Anyway, before we finished I saw a group of women get up and leave. I assumed they’d had enough, but directly after the panel ended Dean ran up to me and said they were off to buy my book before anyone else could get to the book fair. And another woman said to him, “You are a lucky man.” A couple of people talked to me after the panel, so Dean went off to check the book fair. He came back to tell me there was a line and that everyone had a copy of Death Wishing on their stack. I should point out here that when we arrived Death Wishing was stacked in a hard to reach corner. By the time we left, they’d moved the remaining copies (only two!) up to the front of the register.
I was stopped several times in the hotel. I was stopped on the street. I was stopped in a coffee house blocks away. One woman said she hoped the book was just like me. At the author’s cocktail party that evening I was speaking with two Louisiana Poets Laureate, and a couple interrupted to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed listening to me. The next day we attended a presentation by American Routes’ host Nick Spitzer, and people recognized me at that event as well.
It was great and it was weird and it just like my dreams.
Okay, so this was a cool thing to happen, but what does it mean? Learning to write and being a writer are two different points on a continuum. I’ve been writing since before I could read (true–ask mom), but I think I learned to be a writer in Louisiana twenty years ago when I found a voice that was strong enough to share with strangers. Now I can tell you that I finally feel like a novelist. (Mark it: March 23, 2012.) This novelist identity is a definitely different, and it took more than just publishing a novel to convince me. I suppose I should be worried about how much I need readers, but I’m not. I’m just going to try to ride this ride again.