Where does one acquire the skills the successful author now needs: ragtime piano, snake handling, banjo picking, or Indian classical dance? This is a serious question for writers in an age when self-promotion has become all-important.
Our schools don’t prepare us to shine at a book fair. The famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop? I studied its Web site in vain: not even a weekend workshop on bagpiping. Ditto for Columbia and Bennington. Writing, writing, writing: that’s what they offer.
Learning to write is, of course, important for the would-be writer. But those who want to go the distance need more. They need an extra talent; a splash of theater to draw happy crowds into a bookstore.
I was midcareer before realizing that I have no other talent. Well, I can draw and paint a little. But what good is that? Would I stand before the assembled and hold up my latest still life? My most recent “work” is a fairly creditable watermelon.
In my part of North Carolina, authors have won hearts with songs, snakes, guitars, banjos, baked goods, and acting out their prose while changing from hat to hat. An entire talent show was once organized in nearby Cary, consisting of writers doing tricks other than writing. I longed to take part and asked a retired musician, “Do you think I could learn to play ‘Telstar’ on the drums in six weeks?” I’d never played drums. This nearly 90-year-old woman gave me a long, penetrating gaze and said, “Are you a very relaxed person?” There ended my dream of playing the great ’60s hit.
My office partner at the time said, “Why don’t you do some Indian classical dance?” Her logic: my most recent novel was Sister India. The fact that the book had been a New York Times Notable Book of the Year did not relieve me of show biz chores. “I don’t know how,” I said. “Nobody will know,” she said. I stared aghast as she went back to work.
I attended the talent show. It was splendid: the highlight was a singing trio consisting of Maya Angelou, Jessica Mitford, and Shana Alexander who were unforgettable on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Ms. Mitford rapped her cane on the floor to mark the lyrics, “Bang, Bang.” You can hear her sing this Beatles song solo on YouTube in a rusty nasal bass. So standards aren’t so terribly high. Maybe I could have faked the Indian classical dance. I did take clogging lessons at the Y. But a middle-aged woman clogging alone in a bookstore would be a spectacle.
I was raised to be a well-rounded person; I took tap dancing and then five months of piano. I learned one song on the ukulele: “Tom Dooley.” The notable line is “hang down your head and cry.” As a teenager, I sold clothes in my parents’ store. I can swim, do crunches, and perform minor household repairs. I can give little talks: once when one of my brothers was running for office, I was to speak on his behalf at what I thought was a county Democratic party meeting. At nearly the last minute, I learned the gathering was for North Carolina poultry producers. I came up with a bad chicken joke in no time flat. But among writers, talking doesn’t count; it wouldn’t make one stand out.
My current office partner, Carrie Knowles, will hand out homemade cookies at readings because a character in her new novel bakes. Cookies and attractive souvenir recipes. I don’t cook at all.
As I write this, my husband arrives, tosses me a fresh copy of the local alternative weekly. My horoscope is pertinent: “Don’t assume you already know how to captivate the imagination.... Be willing to think thoughts... you have rarely if ever entertained.”
Perhaps I could learn to read stars, tell fortunes, or deliver to audience members messages from spirits who conveniently are also attending my readings. But I have a new novel out and no time to cultivate such arts. The strategy I’ve settled on involves a dress. Since the title of my book is Cobalt Blue, I’ve found the most cobalt-blue dress in the continental U.S. A short, side-slit, one-shouldered body stocking, it’s entirely covered in blue sequins. Never mind that I’m 64 years old; the Beatles had a song for that too. I’m keeping an eye out for a floor-length hooded cobalt-blue cloak.
Carrie, the baking novelist, and I have teamed up to do some readings together. We each have written a novel in which a woman goes off the rails and stays there for most of the story. We’re calling the readings the Crazy Ladies Book Tour. I’m wearing the dress; she’s bringing the cookies. And I’m to come up with a bowl of cobalt-blue punch. Maybe I’ll become the bartending novelist, or the party-planning novelist. Whatever it takes for a little literary attention.