Even great writers get nervous at readings. Once at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, Ernest Hemingway dragged a friend along to read to the crowd first. When it was Papa’s turn, he stumbled and mumbled until he had a few swigs from the hidden whiskey bottle under the table.
Well, I happen to know the solution to handling any book event, and it’s not alcohol. It’s the realization that, no matter how badly you screw up, someone has probably done worse. I listen to this one NPR broadcast I taped where the writer tripped over almost every answer in the segment. This brings me great comfort, I’m willing to admit. Certainly I could string together more than two words coherently, I reason.
But the writer was not thrown out of publishing because of his performance. Did it even hurt book sales? Not likely. Quite frankly, listening to disastrous interviews lightens my mood and loosens me up for my own interviews. I ignore articles on helpful tips to a better book event. All I need to do is to hear some stories of disastrous ones; these provide me with more than enough confidence to deal with my own.
Need some examples? I’ve been associated with some book events worthy of being considered debacles. Maybe they weren’t the worst, but they could not be mistaken for successful. (I’ll kindly leave out writer and bookstore names, but the Olivier Stone story that follows is really an Oliver Stone story.)
A friend drove three hours into New York City to participate in an event. His entourage included his spouse, agent, and editor. He arrived to find an audience of two people: me and Olivier Stone. There was some discussion as to whether or not to proceed, but everyone forged ahead with a panel that easily outnumbered the audience. Not long after it began, Mr. Stone rose from his chair; put on his scarf, coat, and hat; and departed, leaving the event with an audience of one. I had no choice but to sit through the rest of the discussion about Marxism and its role in classical music, including a q&a, on my own!
At least my friend’s life was not in danger, as mine was during my own book event in Maine. It was canceled, and the whole town closed because of a blizzard, while I was on the highway with another writer. My car slid down a deep embankment; other cars were abandoned in whiteout conditions. My mind played out the scenario in which no one rescued us and we were forced to eat each other to survive. It was a very scary 24 hours, and, although I made it through, zero copies were sold (movie rights to this story are available upon request).
One of my favorite stories, though, is about my buddy, keynote speaker at one of the world’s largest book fairs. Capacity room, large guy. As he walked up the steps to the stage, he stumbled and instinctively reached out to break his fall, which in this case, was a fake backdrop. A fabric screen and aluminum poles will not support a falling large person. After destroying the stage’s background, he did, however, make it over to the podium to deliver his presentation minus any quips about the disaster.
Days later, I appeared at the ABA and told the ballroom that my publicist had warned me, “Could be 30 or 40 people, but don’t be nervous.” Considering that my friend had made a spectacle of himself, I felt just making it on stage upright put me ahead of the game. I felt so confident I shot my publicist a selfie from the stage, asking the crowd on the count of three to look interested.
So do you really expect to do worse than being snowbound in the wilderness, or toppling over your speaking venue, or boring the bejeebers out of an Oscar-winning director? If you’re nervous before an event, remind yourself that you will go home to those who will still love you no matter how much you bomb. Just have fun.
Bob Eckstein is a writer and New Yorker cartoonist. His book, Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores, was published by Clarkson Potter in 2016.