Last spring, Publishers Weekly published a story of mine about the dramatic lengths I was prepared to go to for the launch of my novel Cobalt Blue. I mentioned actual dancing, but hadn't seriously contemplated that that would be part of my strategic plan.
Then I receive in the email today from my photographer friend Karen Tam a video. She has magically transformed Carrie Knowles (the novelist I've been book touring with these months) and me into dancing elves, with the help of Office Max. (And now that I think about it a Christmas elf costume did a lot to kick off the career of David Sedaris.)
Tap-Dancing Authors, Anyone?
by Peggy Payne Where does one go to acquire the skills that the successful author now seems to need: ragtime piano, snake handling, banjo picking, or Indian classical dance? This is a serious question for writers, because such abilities seem ever more important for promoting “the product.” With my third novel, Cobalt Blue, now out, I need to know.
Our schools have not prepared us to stand out at a book store or book fair. The famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop? I studied their website in vain: not even a weekend workshop on juggling or talking in funny voices. I did no better at Columbia or Bennington. Writing, writing, writing: that’s what they have to 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: an entertaining bit of theater that can be presented before an audience, that can draw happy crowds into a bookstore.
I was mid-career before I realized my limitations. I have no other talent. Well, I can draw/paint a little, or at least I think I could learn how. 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. Imagine the audience’s excitement.
So many talented writers. Just in my part of North Carolina, authors have won hearts with songs, snakes, guitars and banjos, baked goods, and acting out their prose while changing from hat to hat.
An entire talent show was once organized in the nearby town of Cary, consisting of writers doing tricks other than writing. I longed to take part. In my capacity as a freelance editor, I was working at that time with a musician who was writing a memoir. I asked her, “Do you think I could learn to play ‘Telstar’ on the drums in six weeks?” I’d never played drums. She gave me a long penetrating gaze, this nearly-ninety-year-old, and said, “Are you a very relaxed person?” There ended my dream of playing the great 60s hit by the Tornados.
My office partner at the time, another tediously single-minded writer, said, “Why don’t you do some Indian classical dance?” Her logic: my most recent novel then was titled Sister India and set in the very home town of Ravi Shankar. The fact that the book had been chosen a New York Times Notable Book of the Year did not relieve me of show biz responsibilities.
“I don’t know how,” I said in shocked tones.
“Nobody will know,” she said. I continued to stare at her as she went back to work. The following day she admitted to a pattern of egging people on to do daring things and then when they set off to do them saying in genuine horror, “You’re not!”
I attended the talent show. It was splendid. One of the highlights was a singing trio made up of Maya Angelou, Jessica Mitford, and Shana Alexander. They were especially memorable on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” I believe it was a cane that Ms. Mitford used for rapping the floor in time to the lyrics, “Bang bang.” You can hear her singing this Beatles’ song solo on Youtube in something like a rusty nasal bass. So standards aren’t so terribly high. Maybe I could have faked the Indian classical dance after all.
I did take clogging lessons once at the Y. Two of the steps stuck with me. But the proper literary moment never arose. One middle-aged flatlander woman clogging alone in a bookstore would be a spectacle, a laughingstock.
I was raised to be a well-rounded person, took tap dancing and then five months of piano. Learned one song on the ukulele: “Tom Dooley,” notable line: “hang down your head and cry.” As a teenager, I sold clothes in my parents’ store. I can swim, do crunches and minor household repairs. I can give little talks: once when one of my brothers was running for statewide office, I was all set to go speak on his behalf at what I thought was a county Democratic meeting. At nearly the last minute, I learned that the group gathering was the 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 is handing out home-made cookies at readings because a character in her novel bakes. Cookies and attractive souvenir recipes. I don’t cook at all. (Once I had the discouraging task of following a writer who’d given a cooking demonstration.)
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 …(that) 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 reading.
But I have a new novel out and no time to cultivate such arts. The strategy I have settled on is a dress. Since the title of my new book is Cobalt Blue, I have found the most cobalt-blue dress in the continental U.S. I discovered it in a thrift shop in San Diego: a very brief side-slit one-shouldered body stocking entirely covered in blue sequins. Never mind that I’m 64 years old; the Beatles had a song for that too. From China, I ordered 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 ourselves the Crazy Ladies Book Tour. I’m wearing the dress; she’s bringing the cookies. And at one stop, I put out a bowl of cobalt blue punch, looked like toilet bowl cleaner but tasted surprisingly good. Maybe I’ll become the bartending novelist, or the party-planning novelist. Whatever it takes for a little literary attention. We all need to make the most of our talents.